Market Analysis

As pandemic drags on, interest in automation surges

Today, the U.S. exceeded three million COVID-19 cases and 132,000 deaths. In several states, new hotspots have rolled back plans to reopen businesses. The novel coronavirus has — and will continue — to profoundly impact the way we live and work.

For the moment, that includes a shift in the employment status of many Americans. More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And while many states have made efforts to reopen businesses and return some sense of normality, these moves have led to a spike in cases and may prolong the pandemic and its ongoing economic impact.

Technology has been a lifeline for many, from food delivery to the 3D printing I highlighted last week, which has worked to address a nation suffering from personal protective equipment shortages. Automation and robotics have also been a constant in conversations around tech’s battle against COVID-19.

Robots don’t get sick, tired or emotionally burnt out, and unlike us, they aren’t walking, talking disease vectors. Automation advocates like to point to the “three Ds” of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that will eventually be replaced by a robotic workforce, but in the age of COVID-19, nearly any essential job qualifies.

The robotic invasion has already begun in earnest. The service, delivery, health care and sanitation industries in particular have all opened a massive gap over the past several months that automation has been more than happy to roll right through. A recent report from The Brookings Institute notes that automation arrives in the workforce in fits and starts — most notably, during times of economic downturn.

“Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” the study found. “At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.”

VCs are cutting checks remotely, but deal volume could be slowing

When COVID-19 began to shutter the United States economy, startups jumped into cost-cutting mode as expectations rose that venture capital was about to get a heck of a lot harder to raise. After all, prior downturns in the broader economy, and tech sector in particular, had taken a bite out of the ability for startups to attract new funds.

PitchBook research shows that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the amount of money venture capitalists invested fell, with early-stage deal and dollar volume enduring the largest cuts. Late-stage valuations during the same period came under steep pressure. The connection between a slipping economy and a rapidly deteriorating venture capital market, therefore, seems strong.

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The historically-grounded feeling from startups in Q2, as the stock market sold off and unemployment rose, was one of concern: VCs were about to cut their deal pace, and the number of dollars that they were willing to put into each deal would likely fall as well. Throw in the fact that investors would need to shake up their process and do deals remotely, was not confidence inspiring.

We don’t have full Q2 VC numbers yet, so it’s too soon to say that Q2 was worse, or better than expectations. But what we can say, thanks to a new survey from OMERS Ventures, is that VCs moved with reasonable speed to get over the technology and cultural hurdle of remote-dealmaking to keep the checks flowing. Indeed, according to OMERS Ventures’ research, 69% of the VCs it surveyed in June were willing to do fully-remote deals; for startups worried that the venture class was simply going to pack up its checkbook and take an extended vacation, it’s good news.

But the news isn’t all rosy — most VC firms from the 150 in North America and Europe that the venture group surveyed have yet to actually execute a remote deal. And, there’s some indication that overall deal volume could be slowing, perhaps due to “dwindling supply of companies formally going to market,” according to OMERS Ventures’ Damien Steel, a managing partner.

This morning let’s examine which VCs have been the most active, and the least, to find out which types of firms are still investing, and where investors are seeing more deal flow, and less.

Remote deals, fewer deals

Most VCs have decided that remote dealmaking is, at minimum, something that they need to become accustomed to. Only 4% of surveyed VCs said that they would not do remote deals, full-stop. Another 23% said that they were find with remote deals, albeit with some ability to meet entrepreneurs in person.

Garry Kasparov on AI: ‘People always called me an optimist’

Garry Kasparov is a political activist who’s written books and articles on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and online privacy, but he’s best known for being the former World Chess Champion who took on the IBM computer known as Big Blue in the mid-1990s.

I spoke to Kasparov before a speaking engagement at the Collision Conference last month where he was participating in his role as Avast Security Ambassador. Our discussion covered a lot of ground, from his role as security ambassador to the role of AI.

TechCrunch: How did you become a security ambassador for Avast?

Garry Kasparov: It started almost by accident. I was invited by one of my friends, who knew the previous Avast CEO (Vince Steckler) to be the guest speaker at the opening of their new headquarters in Prague. I met the team and very quickly we recognized that we could work together very effectively since Avast wanted an ambassador.

I thought that it would be a great combination because it’s about cybersecurity, and it’s also about customers, about individual rights, which is related to human rights, and it also had a little bit of a political element of course. But most importantly, it’s a combination of privacy and security and I felt that with my record of working for human rights, and also writing about individuals and privacy and also having some experience with computers, that it would be a good match.

Now it’s my fourth year and it seems that many of the things we have been discussing at conferences when I have spoken about the role of AI in our lives, and many of the discussions that we thought were theoretical, have become more practical.

What were those discussions like?

One of the favorite topics that was always raised at these conferences is whether AI will be a helping hand or threat. And my view has been that it’s neither because I have always said that AI was neither a magic wand nor a Terminator. It’s a tool. And it’s up to us to find the best way of using it and applying its enormous power to our good.