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Ready for 6G? How AI will shape the network of the future

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/613338/ready-for-6g-how-ai-will-shape-the-network-of-the-future/

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Mobile-phone technology has changed the way humans understand and interact with the world and with each other. It’s hard to think of a technology that has more strongly shaped 21st-century living.

The latest technology—the fifth generation of mobile standards, or 5G—is currently being deployed in select locations around the world. And that raises an obvious question. What factors will drive the development of the sixth generation of mobile technology? How will 6G differ from 5G, and what kinds of interactions and activity will it allow that won’t be possible with 5G?

Today, we get an answer of sorts, thanks to the work of Razvan-Andrei Stoica and Giuseppe Abreu at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany. These guys have mapped out the limitations of 5G and the factors they think will drive the development of 6G. Their conclusion is that artificial intelligence will be the main driver of mobile technology and that 6G will be the enabling force behind an entirely new generation of applications for machine intelligence.

First some background. By any criteria, 5G is a significant advance on the previous 4G standards. The first 5G networks already offer download speeds of up to 600 megabits per second and have the potential to get significantly faster. By contrast, 4G generally operates at up to 28 Mbits/s—and most mobile-phone users will have experienced that rate grinding to zero from time to time, for reasons that aren’t always clear.

5G is obviously better in this respect and could even replace many landline connections.

But the most significant benefits go beyond these headline figures. 5G base stations, for example, are designed to handle up to a million connections, versus the 4,000 that 4G base stations can cope with. That should make a difference to communication at major gatherings such as sporting events, demonstrations, and so on, and it could enable all kinds of applications for the internet of things.

Then there is latency—the time it takes for signals to travel across the network. 5G is designed to have a latency of just a single millisecond, compared with 50 milliseconds or more on 4G. Any gamer will tell you how important that is, because it makes the remote control of gaming characters more responsive. But various telecoms operators have demonstrated how the same advantage makes it possible to control drones more accurately, and even to perform telesurgery using a mobile connection.

All this should be possible with lower power requirements to boot, and current claims suggest that 5G devices should have 10 times the battery lives of 4G devices.

So how can 6G better that? 6G will, of course, offer even faster download speeds—the current thinking is that they could approach 1 terabit per second.

But what kind of transformative improvements could it offer? The answer, according to Stoica and Abreu, is that it will enable rapidly changing collaborations on vast scales between intelligent agents solving intricate challenges on the fly and negotiating solutions to complex problems.

Take the problem of coordinating self-driving vehicles through a major city. That’s a significant challenge, given that some 2.7 million vehicles enter a city like New York every day.

The self-driving vehicles of the future will need to be aware of their location, their environment and how it is changing, and other road users such as cyclists, pedestrians, and other self-driving vehicles. They will need to negotiate passage through junctions and optimize their route in a way that minimizes journey times.

That’s a significant computational challenge. It will require cars to rapidly create on-the-fly networks, for example, as they approach a specific junction—and then abandon them almost instantly. At the same time, they will be part of broader networks calculating routes and journey times and so on. “Interactions will therefore be necessary in vast amounts, to solve large distributed problems where massive connectivity, large data volumes and ultra low-latency beyond those to be offered by 5G networks will be essential,” say Stoica and Abreu.

Of course, this is just one example of the kind of collaboration that 6G will make possible.  Stoica and Abreu envision a wide range of other distributed challenges that become tractable with this kind of approach.

These will be based on the real-time generation and collaborative processing of large amounts of data. One obvious application is in network optimization, but others include financial-market monitoring and planning, health-care optimization, and “nowcasting”—that is, the ability to predict and react to events as they happen—on a previously unimaginable scale.  

Artificially intelligent agents are clearly destined to play an important role in our future. “To harness the true power of such agents, collaborative AI is the key,” say Stoica and Abreu. “And by nature of the mobile society of the 21st century, it is clear that this collaboration can only be achieved via wireless communications.”

That’s an interesting vision of the future. There is much negotiating and horse-trading to be done before a set of 6G standards can even be outlined, let alone finalized. But if Stoica and Abreu are correct, artificial intelligence will be the driving force that shapes the communications networks of the future.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1904.03413 : 6G: the Wireless Communications Network for Collaborative and AI Applications

 

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion. This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would…

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.

This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.

Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.

Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.

As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom. Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition. To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and…

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.

Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.

To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.

Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.

African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.

But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.

Jumia vs. Konga

The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.

Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.

Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.

That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.

While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.

E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.

So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.

In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.

Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.

Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between. It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in…

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in this coming year’s technology exit market. Expect the NYSE and Nasdaq to compete for the listing, bankers to queue to take part, and endless media coverage.

Given that that’s ahead, we’re going to take periodic looks at Airbnb as we tick closer to its eventual public market debut. And that means that this morning we’re looking back through time to see how fast the company has grown by using a quirky data point.

Airbnb releases a regular tally of its expected “guest stays” for New Year’s Eve each year, including 2019. We can therefore look back in time, tracking how quickly (or not) Airbnb’s New Year Eve guest tally has risen. This exercise will provide a loose, but fun proxy for the company’s growth as a whole.

The numbers

Before we look into the figures themselves, keep in mind that we are looking at a guest figure which is at best a proxy for revenue. We don’t know the revenue mix of the guest stays, for example, meaning that Airbnb could have seen a 10% drop in per-guest revenue this New Year’s Eve — even with more guest stays — and we’d have no idea.

So, the cliche about grains of salt and taking, please.

But as more guests tends to mean more rentals which points towards more revenue, the New Year’s Eve figures are useful as we work to understand how quickly Airbnb is growing now compared to how fast it grew in the past. The faster the company is expanding today, the more it’s worth. And given recent news that the company has ditched profitability in favor of boosting its sales and marketing spend (leading to sharp, regular deficits in its quarterly results), how fast Airbnb can grow through higher spend is a key question for the highly-backed, San Francisco-based private company.

Here’s the tally of guest stays in Airbnb’s during New Years Eve (data via CNBC, Jon Erlichman, Airbnb), and their resulting year-over-year growth rates:

  • 2009: 1,400
  • 2010: 6,000 (+329%)
  • 2011: 3,1000 (+417%)
  • 2012: 108,000 (248%)
  • 2013: 250,000 (+131%)
  • 2014: 540,000 (+116%)
  • 2015: 1,100,000 (+104%)
  • 2016: 2,000,000 (+82%)
  • 2017: 3,000,000 (+50%)
  • 2018: 3,700,000 (+23%)
  • 2019: 4,500,000 (+22%)

In chart form, that looks like this:

Let’s talk about a few things that stand out. First is that the company’s growth rate managed to stay over 100% for as long as it did. In case you’re a SaaS fan, what Airbnb pulled off in its early years (again, using this fun proxy for revenue growth) was far better than a triple-triple-double-double-double.

Next, the company’s growth rate in percentage terms has slowed dramatically, including in 2019. At the same time the firm managed to re-accelerate its gross guest growth in 2019. In numerical terms, Airbnb added 1,000,000 New Year’s Eve guest stays in 2017, 700,000 in 2018, and 800,000 in 2019. So 2019’s gross adds was not a record, but it was a better result than its year-ago tally.

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