June 28, 2023

Today's Topics

Hello! New Yorkers could be forced to wave goodbye to their perfectly-charred pizza crusts — new rules proposed by the city’s Environmental Protection Department may force many coal- and wood-fired pizzerias to cut their carbon emissions by up to 75%. Today we explore:

  • The digital divide: Access to high-speed internet is far from a given.
  • Duolingo: The language-learning app is pushing the boundaries of AI.
  • Liftoff: SpaceX's valuation just keeps soaring.
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On Monday, President Biden unveiled plans for allocating nearly $42.5 billion to build out high-speed internet networks — pledging that every household in America will have access to high-speed internet by 2030.

Digital divide

Access to fast and stable internet is increasingly seen as a utility — like water and gas — something necessary in order to function in the modern world. Yet, as you read this newsletter and browse the web effortlessly, it's easy to forget that there are still millions of households without access to high-speed internet.

Data from Pew Research Center found that only 77% of US adults reported having a broadband connection at home — with just 64% of the older (65+) generation reporting access, leaving more than one third without home broadband. Interestingly, the next age group least likely to have broadband at home are 18-29 year olds — that age group was found to be reliant on their smartphones, substituting fixed access for their phones.

Access to high-speed internet at home is one thing, but perhaps most shocking of all is that 7% of American adults report no usage of the internet at all (as of 2021).

Influencer app

Time magazine has released its latest list of 100 Most Influential Companies. Many of the usual suspects appear in the rankings — Apple, Chipotle, Disney — but one company in particular caught our eye.

With hundreds of millions of downloads, gamified language-learning app Duolingo was named in the prestigious Leaders section of Time’s list. The app, which has helped millions of users learn languages — and perhaps annoyed just as many with its notoriously persistent push notifications — was praised for its incorporation of AI, having been powered by its own model, Birdbrain, for years. But more recently, the company is incorporating new AI tools into its products, such as GPT-4, allowing users scenario-based ways to practice, like going furniture shopping, asking a friend to go for a hike or ordering coffee at a café in Paris.

It’s all a game

Back in 2009, Guatemalan entrepreneur Luis Von Ahn had just sold his online authentication software reCAPTCHA to Google. Keen to develop a product in the world of education, von Ahn teamed up with computer scientist Severin Hacker and founded Duolingo just 2 years later.

In a competitive space, Duolingo carved out its niche by gamifying the learning experience wherever possible. Leaderboards, experience points, levels, the pressure to keep your “streak” going, and even an in-game currency, have helped the app build habits for users — all communicated through endless notifications on your phone. Annoying? Maybe. Effective? Definitely. Per the latest count, some 20.3 million people use the app everyday.

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SpaceX is reportedly looking to sell insider shares at $80 apiece — a price point that would propel the valuation of the company to an astonishing $150bn, making it the second most valuable startup in the world, second only to TikTok owner Bytedance.

Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, SpaceX was created to revolutionize space transportation, with a longer term goal of one day colonizing Mars. However, the venture — perhaps unsurprisingly — quickly proved to be an expensive undertaking. After initially looking to reuse old Russian rockets, the SpaceX team realized they might be able to make the rockets cheaper themselves. Various failed launch attempts (and flirtation with bankruptcy) ensued before the company started to prove itself. External funding came in waves, and every milestone from reusable rockets to crewed missions saw SpaceX’s credibility, and its valuation, grow.

The wifi frontier

The company has significantly increased the number of satellites and rockets it launches into space, becoming the busiest rocket launcher globally. Such expertise has enabled SpaceX to build out its network of Starlink satellites, which aim to provide global internet access. There are now more than 4,000 satellites in its “Wifi constellation” — and the company has reported having 1.5 million subscribers.

More Data

SnapCalorie, an AI-powered app that estimates the calories of your meal through a photo, just raised $2m in funding.

• A cleaner has reportedly ruined 25 years of research after turning off a freezer containing cultures that were part of a research project on photosynthesis.

Costco is taking a leaf out of the Netflix playbook, cracking down on the sharing of membership cards.

• Online trading platform Robinhood is laying off 7% of its workforce.


• Visualizing the Antarctic sea ice shrinking by an equivalent area 9 times the size of Britain.

• The infamous Misery Index, which adds together the unemployment and inflation rates, is down to 7.8% — and looks to be falling further.

Quick cut: TikTok is giving up on its clone of which app, that we were charting about the demise of in February?

Answer here.

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