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Self-driving cars will hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a landmark A.I. race



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Next year, a squad of souped-up Dallara race cars will reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour as they zoom around the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway to discover whether a computer could be the next Mario Andretti.

The planned Indy Autonomous Challenge—taking place in October 2021 in Indianapolis—is intended for 31 university computer science and engineering teams to push the limits of current self-driving car technology. There will be no human racers sitting inside the cramped cockpits of the Dallara IL-15 race cars. Instead, onboard computer systems will take their place, outfitted with deep-learning software enabling the vehicles to drive themselves. 

In order to win, a team’s autonomous car must be able to complete 20 laps—which equates to a little less than 50 miles in distance—and cross the finish line first in 25 minutes or less. At stake is a $1 million prize, with second- and third-place winners receiving a $250,000 and $50,000 award, respectively.

As Matt Peak, the managing director of the event’s organizer, Energy Systems Network, explained, the competition will help researchers discover how to create autonomous vehicles that can handle so-called edge cases when driving. Edge cases, or atypical events, can cause deep-learning systems to stumble because they haven’t been trained to take them into account. 

For instance, “fast-moving race cars with obstacles coming at them at lightning-quick speeds,” requiring vehicles to “joust and maneuver” through the track, represent a “quintessential edge-case scenario,” Peak said. 

The self-driving car race is part of a larger legacy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s relationship to technological milestones in the auto industry, Peak explained. For decades, researchers have tested cutting-edge auto technologies by racing vehicles at high speeds on the more than 100-year-old circuit. For instance, one race in 1921 tested the capabilities of four-wheel hydraulic brakes in a race, while another race in 1993 tested crash-data recorders; these technologies have since become standard in conventional automobiles. 

Researchers use racing as a testing ground for auto technologies “because it’s so extreme and binary,” Peak said.

“There are fewer shades of gray when it comes to margins of error,” he said. It’s much easier to steer a car to safety if it loses control at speeds of 15 mph, “but it’s catastrophic if you are racing at full speed,” he said.

Currently, a team of Clemson University researchers is designing the specifications for the modified Dallara race cars that all competitors will use, said Robert Prucka, an associate professor at Clemson’s department of automotive engineering. The competitors are responsible for developing the deep-learning systems that will pilot the cars. 

He said the cars will likely have powerful engines falling in the “375- to 400-horsepower range.” For comparison, the average automobile has a 120-horsepower engine. And instead of one car battery, these race cars will likely have several to supercharge their computerized innards, Prucka said.

These race cars will also have advanced camera systems, radar technology, and lidar technology, which uses lasers to scan the surroundings of a car in order to quickly generate 3D maps, so the vehicle can navigate through roads while avoiding obstacles. While startups and auto companies have typically chosen one particular navigation technology like lidar to power their self-driving cars, these researchers can use all of the latest systems. Prucka said the event’s organizers did this because some universities specialize in one navigation technology over the other, and they wanted to create a level playing field for all participants.

Just because the competitors have access to the latest lidar and related navigation technology doesn’t mean they will have an easy time building capable autonomous systems. As Prucka explained, current lidar systems aren’t designed to scan environments fast enough for extreme speeds, which represents a significant hurdle.

“How do you process this data and make predictions under these kinds of conditions?” Prucka said.

It’s up to participants to decide how much they want their self-driving cars to push the limits when it comes to winning. Human drivers who notice that their cars are close to overheating, for example, may decide to take the risk and finish a race if there are just a few laps left. That’s a scenario that participants have to think about when developing their self-driving cars—the balance between safety and the desire to win. 

Prucka also said that the organizers are taking some safety precautions in case something goes awry. For instance, if a team loses a communication signal to their car for whatever reason, the organizers will perform an “executive shutdown.” 

Later next year at an unspecified date, competitors will test their deep-learning software in a virtual simulation race, said Ajei Gopal, the CEO of ANSYS, which produces simulation software for engineers. While the organizers haven’t finalized what the virtual event will entail, “the intent is that the simulation would look close enough to the actual race.”

“We have never run a simulated race before,” Gopal said of the logistical challenges. 

If participants are able to complete the simulated race, they will proceed to the physical race. This portion of the contest will consist of multiple days of qualifying racing, followed by the big race on Oct. 23.

It’s unclear how the current coronavirus pandemic will alter plans if the deadly virus is still widespread next fall. 

“As of right now, we’re full speed ahead,” Peak said. 

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The Dow has fallen 7% in the past 9 days. Is that a bad sign for Trump?



On the face of it, markets tumbling less than a week before the election doesn’t look like a good thing.

The Dow has fallen over 7% in the past nine trading days, with Nov. 3 just around the corner (the S&P 500 has followed suit, dropping roughly 6%). While spiking coronavirus cases and a lack of a stimulus deal are certainly driving some investor angst, does a pre-Election Day sell-off bode ill for Trump’s re-election?

“All else equal, a weaker stock market could certainly help Biden,” LPL’s Jeff Buchbinder tells Fortune. “On the margin [it’s] a little bit worse for President Trump based on history.”

Though pre-election drops of this magnitude aren’t unheard of, they are rare. The S&P 500 and Dow both fell over 3% on Wednesday, and according to LPL’s Ryan Detrick, “Only twice did the S&P 500 fall 3% or more within 6 trading sessions of the presidential election. 1932 and 2008. The incumbent party lost both times,” he wrote in a tweet Wednesday.

Detrick adds, “before [the] 2016 [election], the Dow fell 9 days in a row and the incumbent party obviously lost, so that time played out poorly for the party in power,” he told Fortune via email.

What perhaps has stronger historical precedent is a slightly longer time horizon: Buchbinder notes that in 20 out of the past 23 elections, it boded well for the incumbent when the S&P 500 was up three months before the election, while stocks trading down tended to favor the challenger. Stocks have traded roughly flat since three months ago, but turned lower on Wednesday: The Dow is down around 0.5% since August 3, while the S&P 500 is trading about 0.7% lower.

“Maybe from that perspective you could call it a mixed bag” for Trump, Buchbinder says, though the now-negative three-month trend would suggest a Biden victory.

Buchbinder points out that “stocks that tend to be favored more by Democrats than Republicans continue to do pretty well on a relative basis, potentially signaling Biden.”

Indeed, according to a recent J.P. Morgan report, stocks in a so-called “Biden basket” (names that would do well under his administration) are outperforming those in a “Trump basket” by around 66% since December 2019. “Recently markets have been saying, ‘Biden’s the favorite,’ but we’ll see where it goes from here,” LPL’s Buchbinder adds.  

Still, some argue that the contest between the two candidates is closer than pollsters and perhaps even markets had anticipated in recent weeks: According to some A.I. analysis, the race is tight, and Buchbinder notes “we could get more volatility if the polls tighten and more people start to worry about a contested outcome—that’s something to watch.”

To be sure, there’s hardly anything typical about this year, and some historical patterns have been broken (as a small example, Oct. 28 is historically the best day of the year for stocks—a trend that certainly hasn’t held up in 2020).

Despite the recent selloff, continued virus worries, and overall investor angst, Buchbinder remains optimistic: “The combination of [future] stimulus, getting the pandemic under control and moving past it, and clarity on the election, we think, can push stocks higher between now and year-end and into 2021.”

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4 key moments from the Senate’s showdown with Big Tech CEOs



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For more than three hours on Wednesday, Democrat and Republican senators took jabs at Facebook, Twitter, and Google, saying that they disseminate misinformation, spark violence, and suppress conservative voices.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation explored whether Section 230, a law that protects Internet companies from being held liable for what users post, gives Big Tech companies too much immunity. Lawmakers from both parties agree that the law should be changed or even revoked, though they differ about why.

Democrats repeatedly criticized the companies for failing to remove harmful information on their services. Meanwhile, Republicans hammered the companies for allegedly suppressing conservative views and influencing elections.

“You think that people don’t trust you,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. “I agree with that. We don’t trust you.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey spent the hearing trying to defend themselves from the attacks. Time and again, they said they’re at war against harmful content, that they are politically neutral, and that they’re working to safeguard the presidential election.

Here are the highlights from the hearing:

Heated exchanges

The hearing was marked by intense exchanges between lawmakers expressing their frustration and executives trying to be as inoffensive as possible.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, took Dorsey to task for allowing Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweets questioning the Holocaust to remain untouched on Twitter while the service routinely flags President Trump’s tweets. 

Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz criticized Twitter for blocking a New York Post article that suggested Biden had ties to corruption in the Ukraine while allowing a New York Times story about Trump’s taxes to remain. One day after the Post article about Biden was published, Twitter reversed its stance on blocking it. But Cruz also asked Dorsey point-blank whether Twitter has the ability to influence elections.

Dorsey responded by saying, “No, we are one part of a spectrum of communication channels people have.” Cruz snapped back, “Mr. Dorsey, I find your opening answers absurd on their face.”

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, from Minnesota, said she was concerned about Google’s “defiant” response to the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against it. She also questioned Zuckerberg about Facebook’s alleged interest in pushing divisive content to users because it provokes them to spend more time on the platform. 

Zuckerberg disagreed with Klobuchar’s characterization, saying Facebook shows users content that it thinks will be meaningful to them like “when your cousin had her baby.” Klobuchar stopped Zuckerberg mid-sentence, saying she’s not talking about cousins and babies but rather the “corrosive” content like conspiracy theories. 

Beyond Section 230

Though the hearing was supposed to focus on Section 230, senators often veered off topic to discuss other issues including data privacy, antitrust, and political ads.

The CEOs of Twitter, Google, and Facebook all said they continue to see foreign and domestic actors trying to interfere with the U.S. election, contrary to President Trump’s minimizing or dismissing the problem. The CEOs added that they have coordinated with the rest of the tech industry and law enforcement to identify and remove such posts. 

“One of the threats the FBI has alerted our companies and the public to was the possibility of a hack-and-leak operation in the days or weeks leading up to this election,” Zuckerberg said. “That if a trove of documents appeared, that we should view that with suspicion that it might be part of a foreign manipulation attempt.” 

Tech troubles

The virtual hearing about the tech industry ended up being marred by tech hiccups. Even the tech CEO had troubles.

Zuckerberg went AWOL from the opening statements because of a technical snafu that ended up delaying the hearing for a few minutes while the CEO tried to fix the problem. After Zuckerberg appeared, and explained he had trouble connecting, Sen. Roger Wicker, the Republican chairman of the committee, joked, “I know the feeling, Mr. Zuckerberg.”

Later, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s audio was muted halfway through a sentence. Wicker alerted Blumenthal to the issue, and the hearing briefly paused until he was unmuted.

Low moments

Some lawmakers used the hearing to go off in odd tangents.

For example, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee asked Pichai if Google still employed software engineer Blake Lemoine. In leaked internal emails, the Google employee likened Blackburn to a “terrorist” and a “violent thug” in her approach to certain political issues. “He has had very unkind things to say about me,” said Blackburn, implying that he should be fired and later suggesting that Internet companies unfairly censor conservative voices.

In another odd moment, Sen. Johnson became frustrated with Dorsey because Twitter did not remove a tweet that contained a lie about Johnson strangling his neighbor’s dog. The author admitted in the tweet that the dog strangling was false, likely to show how misinformation can be spread.

“That could definitely impact my ability to get reelected,” he complained in complete seriousness about the tweet.

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