Seattle Week in Review: Amazon, AI, and Slipping Earth’s Gravity

Fall began in earnest this week, but the winds and rains that buffeted the Northwest are nothing compared to the fury of Hurricane Matthew. Time to hunker down for a review of the local tech news including: Amazon’s big contribution to UW, plans for a large Bellevue office, and partnership with KITT.AI; advances in the commercial space race from Blue Origin, Stratolaunch Systems, and Tethers Unlimited; and much more.

Amazon buoyed the University of Washington’s effort to expand its computer science department with a $10 million donation. The UW still needs $24 million more to reach its goal of $110 million for the project, which would accommodate twice as many computer science majors as the over-capacity Paul G. Allen Center can now. Backers hope construction can begin early next year.

—Speaking of Amazon, the company is apparently following its new private bus service for workers living in Seattle’s suburbs with a large new office in Bellevue, WA. Details on the 354,000-square-foot lease of the Centre 425 building come from unnamed sources in the commercial real estate business, and an industry report, cited by GeekWire.

The subtext of both of these stories is the seemingly bottomless demand for skilled workers from the region’s tech industry. In addition to providing services and expanding locations to meet the needs of current and potential employees, companies are competing for talent with new perks. Taser, the company that makes the Axon brand police body cameras, said this week that certain new hires will receive a Tesla Model 3, the $35,000 electric car set to go into production next year.

The industry, meanwhile, is rapidly building technologies that will reduce the demand for workers in other fields. Last month, Forrester Research forecast that some 6 percent of U.S. jobs will be lost to robots by 2021. (Coverage in The Guardian.)

Case in point: This week, a San Diego company, Brain Corp., announced an intelligent augmentation to industrial floor cleaning tools that will let them run on their own—after having been trained by the janitors they would replace.

John Black trains self-driving system of floor-scrubbing machine

Brain Corp.’s John Black trains self-driving system of floor-scrubbing machine

KITT.AI, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence spinout company working on natural language recognition and understanding technology, is making its hotword detection engine available to developers working with Amazon Alexa, the voice and intelligence inside Amazon Echo. The technology allows users to activate an Alexa Voice Service-enabled device by saying a single hotword, “Alexa.” Amazon invested in KITT.AI, based in Seattle, through its Alexa Fund.

—Investors in the Seattle area’s touted “unicorn” tech company, OfferUp, were probably not thrilled to see Facebook’s announcement Monday. The social networking giant re-launched its Marketplace application, which allows users to buy and sell things on its service, charging into the local marketplace business that OfferUp hopes to dominate. Bellevue, WA-based OfferUp’s CEO Nick Huzar, speaking at the GeekWire Summit this week, said “Our belief is that we have one purpose and one sole purpose, and that is to create the simplest and most trustworthy local marketplace on earth.” His company recently raised $119 million at a valuation of more than $1 billion.

—Facebook can’t walk your dog. Yet. We covered a $40 million funding round for Seattle-based Rover.com, and the race to control the pet-sitting marketplace.

—Nationally, venture capital investment in the third quarter fell 29 percent versus a year ago to just under $15 billion. This was the first report in which the National Venture Capital Association partnered with Seattle-based PitchBook for the underlying data. Here’s our coverage.

—In space news, two local billionaires advanced their plans for overcoming Earth’s gravity.

On Wednesday, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin successfully demonstrated a safety system that ejects the entire crew capsule from the New Shepard booster rocket, in the event of an emergency during launch. The test was expected to result in a fiery crash of the booster, but it handled itself with grace, adjusting after the capsule blasted off and coming in for its own upright, soft landing.

Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, meanwhile, announced a partnership with Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA). The multi-year deal will see Orbital’s Pegasus XL winged rockets lifted high into the sky by the enormous six-engine Stratolaunch airplane, which is bigger than the Spruce Goose. From there, the rockets, which can each carry a satellite that weighs up to 1,000 pounds, would launch into low Earth orbit.

A rendering of the Stratolaunch airplane carrying Orbital ATK's Pegasus XL rockets. Photo via Stratolaunch Systems

A rendering of the Stratolaunch airplane carrying Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rockets. Photo via Stratolaunch Systems

Someday, we will send robots to space to make satellites using materials mined from near-Earth asteroids.

Bothell, WA-based Tethers Unlimited is one company working toward that goal. It announced a contract with Space Systems Loral to design an automated system for assembling carbon fiber trusses in orbit. Tethers’ Firmamentum division would send the manufacturing hardware—the “Trusselator”—to space as part of SSL’s planned Dragonfly program, which aims to build a communications satellite in space.

—Sunday brings us another presidential debate. Like the Super Bowl, this bout again promises to be must-see-TV. Network executives lust after this kind of appointment television, which has eroded as on-demand services and time-shifting technologies have taken hold.

While we hash out who will be president for the next four years, divert yourself with an in-depth profile of Y Combinator head Sam Altman by Tad Friend in The New Yorker. One nugget embedded in the lengthy piece is the half-joking suggestions of Altman’s younger brothers that he run for president in 2020, at age 35.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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