Fiction Science Club

Supervillain tale takes aim at today’s tech titans

There’s nary a mention of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates in “Starter Villain,” but science-fiction author John Scalzi’s wickedly funny novel finds ways to skewer the tech billionaires who rule our world without dropping names.

Scalzi lays out a scenario in which supervillains are basically the CEOs of companies that do dastardly deeds as a service.

“The point of the supervillainy is not to hide, but to offer products and services that offer value to your clients, who just happen to be, you know, the United States or China, or some major corporation — so that the supervillainy that you do is not seen as outside the pale of standard business practices,” he explains.

If that sounds like today’s billionaire tech disrupters, so be it.

“I will say that the bad behavior of billionaires in 2023 makes this book far more timely than it might otherwise have been,” Scalzi admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I wrote this about 18 months ago, so we had no idea that several of the world’s biggest billionaires would just be like, ‘Mask off, I’m actually a terrible person!'”


Augmented-reality training system aces flight test

Boeing and an augmented-reality company called Red 6 have successfully flown and tested a virtual display system in a TA-4J Skyhawk tactical aircraft, in preparation for putting the system on a T-7 advanced training jet.

The system lets pilots see and interact with virtual aircraft, targets and threats on the ground and in the air, while also experiencing the stresses that come with physically flying their airplane. The idea is to provide pilots with a realistic training environment while minimizing the risks of getting hurt.

“Boeing is the first company to team with Red 6 on this type of advanced training technology,” Donn Yates, executive director of Boeing Air Force Fighters and Trainers Business Development, said today in a news release. “The successful series of ground tests and four flight sorties illustrate our collaborative ability to rapidly integrate, deliver and test new technology with the potential to change fighter pilot training for an entire generation.”


How satellites and AI work together to monitor the planet

Geospatial data analysis promises to revolutionize the way agriculture, urban planning and disaster relief is done — and thanks to a variety of projects that make use of artificial intelligence, Microsoft and Seattle’s Allen Institute for AI are part of that revolution.

The Allen Institute for AI, also known as AI2, recently rolled out Satlas, a new software platform for exploring global geospatial data generated from satellite imagery. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s AI for Good Lab is working with public and private institutions in Colombia on Project Guacamaya, which uses AI tools to monitor and understand conditions in the Amazon Rainforest.


What an electric boat ride feels like (and sounds like)

KIRKLAND, Wash. — Lake Washington in August may be known for its gas-fueled, ear-splitting thunderboats, but this week it played host to an electric-powered lightning boat that was much easier on the ears.

“One thing you’ll note is that we’re able to have a conversation,” pilot Miriam Morris said as she revved up the Arc One electric boat past 40 mph. “This would not be possible on a gas boat.”

Arc brought the 24-foot luxury cruiser up to Kirkland’s Carillon Point dock to give potential buyers in the Seattle area — and at least one landlubber journalist — an up-close look and a quick jaunt around Lake Washington.

The Arc One, designed for lake outings, is the first in what the company hopes will eventually become a full line of electric boats. California-based Arc has already sold out the limited number of boats it’s been building over the past year (in the “low double-digits,” said Ted Herringshaw, the company’s head of product). But it’s planning to raise the production rate for a new model next year, thanks to a $30 million funding round and a bigger factory that’s set to open in Torrance, Calif.

Arc, which was founded in early 2021, is just one of several startups targeting the luxury electric boat market. Another leader in the field is Seattle-based Pure Watercraft, which is partnering with GM on pontoon boats and other products. Candela (which builds electric-powered hydrofoils) and X Shore are in the race as well — although Herringshaw doesn’t regard it as a race.


DARPA summit focuses on reviving U.S. chip industry

Tech executives, researchers and government officials are gathering in Seattle this week to figure out ways to add a new dimension to America’s chip industry — figuratively and literally.

“We’re going to talk about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent domestic microelectronics manufacturing,” Mark Rosker, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Microsystems Technology Office, said today at the opening session of the ERI 2.0 Summit at the Hyatt Regency Seattle.

More than 1,300 attendees signed up for the DARPA event, which follows up on a series of Electronics Resurgence Initiative Summits that were conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main objective of this week’s summit is to work on ways to boost research, development and manufacturing for the chip industry. DARPA is just one of the government agencies involved in such efforts. Representatives of the Commerce Department, the U.S. Department of Energy, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation are also at this week’s summit.


Tech leaders explore new public policy frontiers for AI

ChatGPT and other next-generation strains of artificial intelligence have revolutionized the tech world over the past year, and policymakers are ramping up their efforts to respond.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, says the situation reminds her of the way the G.I. Bill opened up opportunities for veterans returning home from World War II.

“Now, instead of a G.I. Bill, we need an AI education bill,” she said today during a Future of AI Forum conducted in downtown Seattle. “We need a bill that says, how do we educate for the future, given the impacts of AI? How do we offer the training and the skill set so people can adapt now in the workplace?”

Cantwell’s forum provided an opportunity for AI startups in Washington state to show how their ventures could bring fresh innovations to a wide variety of fields — and provided an opportunity for leaders from government, academia, industry and labor to lay out their ideas for supporting and regulating AI.

“We tend to use the phrase ‘It’s Day One’ in the age of internet,” said Swami Sivasubramanian, vice president of database, analytics and machine learning at Amazon Web Services. “But in this phase, I would say it’s Day One, we just woke up and we haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet.”

Cosmic Tech

Air Force picks its builders for a swoopy kind of aircraft

Get ready for another prototype airplane that looks as if it flew straight out of a science-fiction novel.

The Department of the Air Force has selected JetZero’s design for a prototype aircraft that has a swoopy blended wing body, or BWB, rather than the typical tube-and-wing look.

The design has the potential to decrease aerodynamic drag by at least 30% and provide additional lift. This could translate into extended range, more loiter time and increased payload delivery efficiencies for the Air Force.

“Blended wing body aircraft have the potential to significantly reduce fuel demand and increase global reach,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a news release. “Moving forces and cargo quickly, efficiently, and over long distance is a critical capability to enable national security strategy.”

Commercial aviation could benefit as well. “The BWB is the best first step on the path to zero carbon emissions,” JetZero CEO Tom O’Leary said in a news release. “It offers 50% lower fuel burn using today’s engines, and the airframe efficiency needed to support a transition to zero carbon emissions propulsion in the future. No other proposed aircraft comes close in terms of efficiency.”


Tech executive faces tough job as OceanGate’s new CEO

A veteran of Seattle’s startup and investment scene, Gordon Gardiner, has been given the task of leading Oceangate through the aftermath of June’s controversial loss of the Titan submersible and its crew during a dive to the Titanic shipwreck — and eventually to the closure of operations.

Gardiner has been appointed as CEO and director of the privately held Everett-based company, which suspended commercial and exploration operations after Titan’s implosion in the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. OceanGate’s previous CEO and co-founder, Stockton Rush, was among the five crew members who died.

The new CEO’s primary task is to lead OceanGate through the ongoing investigations and closure of the company’s operations, OceanGate said in a statement. The company already has shut down its Facebook page and X / Twitter accounts, and its website has been reduced to a single black-and-white page announcing the suspension of operations.


Space Force provides a boost for Integrate’s software

Seattle-based Integrate says it has raised $3.4 million in funding and secured a $1.25 million contract from the U.S. Space Force to boost its program management software platform into a higher orbit. The year-old startup has also brought Firefly Aerospace on board as a customer.

“It has been a busy and exhilarating month,” John Conafay, CEO and co-founder of Integrate, said today in a news release.

The newly announced seed funding round was led by Hyperplane, with participation from Riot Ventures, Ravelin Capital and John Capodilupo, former chief technology officer and co-founder of Whoop. This follows a pre-seed investment round that brought in $970,000 last year.

Integrate said the fresh funding will go toward expanding the company’s team, which currently consists of eight full-time employees and a handful of contractors.


Olis raises $4M for tech that keeps robots on track

Seattle-based Olis Robotics has raised $4.1 million to explore new markets for tools that make it possible to monitor and control industrial robots remotely and securely.

The funding round was led by PSL Ventures, Olis Robotics said today in a news release. Additional backing came from Tectonic VenturesUbiquity Ventures and several strategic angel investors — including Daniel Theobald, a pioneer in the field who played key roles in founding MassRobotics and Vecna Robotics.

Olis’ flagship product, Olis Connect, helps operators monitor and manage their machines remotely from anywhere via any browser-capable device. If a robot encounters a problem, Olis Connect sends out an alert via a secure connection to the operator’s device without connecting to the cloud — which is an added safeguard in environments where cybersecurity is a concern. Operators can then use the system remotely to execute error recovery actions, such as releasing the robot’s grip on a part, or moving the robot from its error position.

“Robot downtime can cost a large plant over $1 million per hour. When every minute counts, you need to leverage remote tools to react as quickly as possible no matter where you are,” Olis Robotics CEO Fredrik Ryden explained. “Our technology is ingeniously simple to use and intensely practical in terms of its impact.”