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Powering finance: Digital transformation of an ‘always on’ industry

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Powering finance: Digital transformation of an ‘always on’ industry


“Technology is now [about] how our clients experience the bank, whether it’s through an app or digital service,” says Mike Dargan, group chief digital and information officer and executive board member at UBS. “As a natural consequence, tech is now an integral part of our business—it has a seat at the table and is part of our firm’s strategy.” 

A cloud-based future

Underpinning the financial services sector’s transition to an “on-demand” data and services industry—where companies pay specialist providers for storage and infrastructure when the need arises—is cloud computing. These specialists are often the cloud service arms of Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. Only such tech companies, with their global networks of giant data centers, have sufficient computing capacity to meet the ever-growing demands of the finance industry.

“If you look at all the new requirements coming from central banks, governments, or even investors, financial services companies don’t have the data storage capacity to meet the needs,” says Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of the Microsoft Cloud + AI Group.

Back when banks embraced technology in the 1970s, they developed their own infrastructure, often installing servers in their data centers. The traditional system worked fine when computing demand was relatively uniform. But in periods of intense market volatility when demand for computing power spiked, banks needed to ensure that spare capacity kept growing, even though it was redundant most of the time. 

“We often talk about the burstable, elastic nature of cloud,” says Dargan, referring to the idea that if a bank’s demand for computing power exceeds its normal level, its cloud partners can provide additional capacity instantaneously and only charge for the time it is used. This not only drives cost savings, but it also reduces carbon emissions because spare capacity is aggregated for the entire industry at the level of the cloud services providers, rather than maintained by each company. Reliability and uptime are also improved, because cloud providers have multiple data centers that can back up each other. Dargan says UBS achieves above 99.999%, or sixth sigma availability across its estate, partly driven by the move to cloud. 

Cloud providers do not just offer storage and infrastructure, but also platforms and tools through which apps and services can be developed. Since Dargan joined UBS in 2016, its tech teams have shifted from using 50 different development tools to just one cloud-based service they launched, called UBS DevCloud. Through this open ecosystem, built on public cloud, UBS software engineers have a seamless experience to develop, test and release code within a single tool, enabling them to launch products quickly and update them often. 

Cloud also allows financial services companies to match best-in-class consumer applications and develop exceptional customer-facing services. “The best-in-class consumer apps that you use every day know exactly what you click on and what you don’t click on, and exactly what their recommendation engines are doing. This means they can improve their features really quickly. Applying the same in our industry can be game-changing for our clients,” says Dargan. Such a desire to improve customer service, often amid competition from startup digital-only competitors, was one of the original drivers in financial services’ embrace of cloud computing, says Guthrie. “Financial services companies wanting to [provide] mobile or online, digital services to consumers was an early source of movement to the cloud.” 

Cultural evolution

For an industry that pioneered the large-scale application of computing through in-house infrastructure, financial services firms’ shift to the cloud is a significant, generational change. That naturally leads to a degree of cautiousness. 

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China is betting big on another gas engine alternative: methanol cars

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China is betting big on another gas engine alternative: methanol cars


Today, the leading company making methanol from carbon dioxide is Carbon Recycling International, an Icelandic company. Geely invested in CRI in 2015, and they have partnered to build the world’s largest CO2-to-fuel factory in China. When it’s running, it could recycle 160,000 tons of CO2 emissions from steel plants every year. 

The potential for clean production is what makes methanol desirable as a fuel. It’s not just a more efficient way to use energy, but also a way to remove existing CO2 from the air. To reach carbon neutrality by 2060, as China has promised, the country can’t put all its eggs in one basket, like EVs. Popularizing the use of methanol fuel and the clean production of methanol may enable China to hit its target sooner.

Can methanol move beyond its dirty roots?

But the future is not all bright and green. Currently, the majority of methanol in China is still made by burning coal. In fact, the ability to power cars with coal instead of oil, which China doesn’t have much of, was a major reason the country pursued methanol in the first place. Today, the Chinese provinces that lead in methanol-car experiments are also the ones that have abundant coal resources.  

But as Bromberg says, unlike gas and diesel, at least methanol has the potential to be green. The production of methanol may still have a high carbon footprint today, just as most EVs in China are still powered by electricity generated from coal. But there is a path to transition from coal-produced methanol to renewables-produced methanol. 

“If that is not an intention—if people are not going to pursue low-carbon methanol—you really don’t want to implement methanol at all,” Bromberg says.

Methanol fuel also has other potential drawbacks. It has a lower energy density than gasoline or diesel, requiring bigger, heavier fuel tanks—or drivers may need to refuel more often. This also effectively prevents methanol from being used as an airplane fuel.

What’s more, methanol is severely toxic when ingested and moderately so when inhaled or when people are exposed to it in large amounts. The potential harm was a big concern during the pilot program, though the researchers concluded that methanol proved no more toxic to participants than gas. 

Beyond China, some other countries, like Germany and Denmark, are also exploring the potential of methanol fuels. China, though, is at least one step ahead of the rest—even if it remains a big question whether it will replicate its success in developing EVs or follow the path of another country with a major auto industry. 

In 1982, California offered subsidies for car manufacturers to make over 900 methanol cars in a pilot program. The Reagan administration even pushed for the Alternative Motor Fuels Act to promote the use of methanol. But a lack of advocacy and the falling price of gasoline prevented further research of methanol fuel, and pilot drivers, while generally satisfied with their cars’ performance, complained about the availability of methanol fuel and the smaller range compared with gas cars. California officially ended the use of methanol cars in 2005, and there’s been no such experimentation in the US since.

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Can we find ways to live beyond 100? Millionaires are betting on it.

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Can we find ways to live beyond 100? Millionaires are betting on it.


But to test the same treatments in people, we’d need to run clinical trials for decades, which would be very difficult and extremely expensive. So the hunt is on for chemical clues in the blood or cells that might reveal how quickly a person is aging. Quite a few “aging clocks,” which purport to give a person’s biological age rather than their chronological age, have been developed. But none are reliable enough to test anti-aging drugs—yet. 

As I leave to head back to my own slightly less posh but still beautiful hotel, I’m handed a gift bag. It’s loaded up with anti-aging supplements, a box with a note saying it contains an AI longevity assistant, and even a regenerative toothpaste. At first glance, I have absolutely no idea if any of them are based on solid science. They might be nothing more than placebos.

Ultimately, of all the supplements, drugs and various treatments being promoted here, the workout is the one that’s most likely to work, judging from the evidence we have so far. It’s obvious, but regular exercise is key to gaining healthy years of life. Workouts designed to strengthen our muscles seem to be particularly beneficial for keeping us healthy, especially in later life. They can even help keep our brains young.
 
I’ll be penning a proper write up of the conference when I’m back home, so if your curiosity has been piqued, keep an eye out for that next week! In the meantime, here’s some related reading:

  • I wrote about what aging clocks can and can’t tell us about our biological age earlier this year.
  • Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid. The idea is that, by rejuvenating the immune system, we might be able to protect vulnerable older people from severe disease.
  • Longevity scientists are working to extend the lifespan of pet dogs. There’ll be benefits for the animals and their owners, but the eventual goal is to extend human lifespan, as I wrote in August.
  • The Saudi royal family could become one of the most significant investors in anti-aging research, according to this piece by my colleague Antonio Regalado. The family’s Hevolution Foundation plans to spend a billion dollars a year on understanding how aging works, and how to extend healthy lifespan.
  • While we’re on the subject of funding, most of the investment in the field has been poured into Altos Labs—a company focusing on ways to tackle aging by reprogramming cells to a more youthful state. The company has received financial backing from some of the wealthiest people in the world, including Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner, Antonio explains.

From around the web

An experimental Alzheimer’s drug appears to slow cognitive decline. It’s huge news, given the decades of failed attempts to treat the disease. But the full details of the study have not yet been published, and it is difficult to know how much of an impact the drug might have on the lives of people with the disease. (STAT)

Bionic pancreases could successfully treat type 1 diabetes, according to the results of a clinical trial. The credit card-sized device, worn on the abdomen, can constantly monitor a person’s blood sugar levels, and deliver insulin when needed. (MIT Technology Review)

We’re headed for a dementia epidemic in US prisons. There’s a growing number of older inmates, and the US penal system doesn’t have the resources to look after them. (Scientific American)

Unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely to develop monkeypox disease than those who receive the Jynneos vaccine are, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the organization doesn’t yet know how the vaccine affects the severity of disease in those who do become unwell, or if there is any difference in protection for people who are given fractional doses. (The New York Times $)

Don’t call them minibrains! In last week’s Checkup, I covered organoids—tiny clumps of cells meant to mimic full-grown organs. They’ve mainly been used for research, but we’ve started to implant them into animals to treat disease, and humans are next. Arguably the best-known organoids are those made from brain cells, which have been referred to as minibrains. A group of leading scientists in the field say this wrongly implies that the cells are capable of complex mental functions, like the ability to think or feel pain. They ask that we use the less-catchy but more accurate term “neural organoid” instead. (Nature)

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading!

—Jess

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The Download: text-to-video AI, and China’s big methanol bet

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This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Meta’s new AI can turn text prompts into videos

What’s happened: Meta has unveiled an AI system that generates short videos based on text prompts. Make-A-Video lets you type in a string of words, like “A dog wearing a superhero outfit with a red cape flying through the sky,” and then generates a five-second clip that, while pretty accurate, has the aesthetics of a trippy old home video.

How it works: Meta combined data from three open-source image and video data sets to train its model. Standard text-image data sets of labeled still images helped the AI learn what objects are called and what they look like. And a database of videos helped it learn how those objects are supposed to move in the world. 

Why it matters: Although the effect is rather crude, the system offers an early glimpse of what’s coming next for generative artificial intelligence, and it is the next obvious step from the text-to-image AI systems that have caused huge excitement this year. But it also raises some big ethical questions. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

China is betting big on another gas engine alternative: methanol cars

As the Chinese government works to reach ambitious carbon goals, the country has become a global leader in the adoption of electric vehicles. But that’s not the only greener car alternative it’s pursuing.

While methanol fuel has been discussed and piloted in China for a decade, its adoption has long lagged. Now the government is trying to accelerate the adoption of methanol cars, along with other state efforts in the last year to draft methanol car standards and support relevant industries, reaffirm its commitment to the alternative fuel. 

This matters because, just like EVs, the technology could become both a commercial success and a political boost to China’s climate-tech ambitions. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

Can we find ways to live beyond 100? Millionaires are betting on it.

Scientists and biotech companies have been networking with uber-wealthy investors at a swanky conference in Switzerland this week, making the case for longevity science and anti-aging strategies. My colleague Jess Hamzelou, our senior biomedicine reporter, joined them, and got a peek at some of the most cutting-edge work in the field. Read about what she discovered.

Jess’s story is from The Checkup, her new weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and tech-related. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Hurricane Ian has left vast swathes of Florida underwater
As it heads towards South Carolina, Biden has warned it could become the deadliest in Florida history. (The Guardian)
+ Coral reefs are an effective natural defense against hurricanes. (Vox)
+ The storm is a potent mix of powerful and unpredictable. (The Atlantic $)
+ It could be on course to join the list of storms as severe as Katrina. (New Yorker $)

2 Iran is ramping up internet blackouts and censorship 
Thus far, it’s not achieving the government’s desired outcome. (Slate $)
+ A niche tech publisher is shining a light on China’s surveillance machine. (The Atlantic $)

3 What makes plastic so useful also makes it a nightmare to recycle
A new method of breaking it down could help. (Economist $)
+ A French company is using enzymes to recycle one of the most common single-use plastics. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Why Russia’s cyber war never really materialized 
The attacks it did land didn’t deliver the intended consequences. (FT $)
+ Here’s how the war in Ukraine could end. (New Yorker $)
+ Russian men are reportedly pretending to have HIV to escape conscription. (Rest of World)

5 Jack Dorsey tried to get Elon Musk a place on Twitter’s board
But the other members saw the appointment as too risky. (CNBC)
+ The former CEO also tried to get Musk and CEO Parag Agrawal off on the right foot. (WSJ $)
+ Musk wanted to search for ‘Trump’ in his hunt for bot data. (Bloomberg $)
+ Musk also toyed with appointing Oprah to Twitter’s board. (The Information $)

6 The Arctic Ocean is rapidly becoming more acidic
Unsurprisingly, climate change is the culprit. (Motherboard)
+ China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, is suffering. (Vox)

7 Reboosting the Hubble Telescope would give it a new lease of life
NASA and SpaceX think they could do just that. (BBC)
+ NASA has taken stunning photos of Jupiter’s moon Europa. (New Scientist $) 

8 Brace yourself for a new wave of at-home tests
They’re not just for covid, either. (Neo.Life)
+ Genome sequencing has never been so cheap, or easy. (Wired $)

9 Why voice notes are so controversial 
Send yours with caution. (WSJ $)
+ Lasers can send a whispered audio message directly to one person’s ear. (MIT Technology Review)

10 AI is creating horrible new Pokémon 
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (WP $)
+ This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“I guess you learn who your real friends are when you can’t get allocation in their seed round ”

—Maia Bittner, an angel investor, jokily tweets about the pitfalls of investing in friends’ startups, Bloomberg reports.

The big story

Meet the wannabe kidfluencers struggling for stardom

December 2019 

On YouTube, children can become millionaires—seemingly overnight, without trying. The highest paid of them, eight-year-old Ryan Kaji, made $22 million in 2018 by playing with toys on his channel Ryan ToysReview (now Ryan’s World). There are now thousands of similarly famous child YouTubers: babies who have been vlogged since the moment of their birth, 10-year-old streamers showing off video-game tricks, teenage girls giving acne advice from their bedrooms.

Why do so many kids want to be YouTubers? Do they only seek fame, or is there more to it: creativity, community, and a future career? How are their parents helping them? And what happens if, after spending thousands of dollars or dropping out of school, it doesn’t work out? Read the full story.

—Amelia Tait

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent chiller Bram Stoker’s Dracula is back in movie theaters this Halloween. Enjoy the opulent 4K trailer here.
+ These scallops can’t get enough of bright lights.
+ Cher’s sprawling home is every bit as lavish as you’d expect.
+ Nope, it’s not a joke, they really are turning The Matrix into a dance show.
+ Controversial take klaxon: are these really the best songs of the 90s?



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