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Shenzhen-based LimX Dynamics shows off one of its humanoid robots.

Limx Dynamics

BEIJING — ChatGPT-like artificial intelligence is speeding up research and bringing humanoid robots closer to reality in China, home to many of the world’s factories.

AI has been around for decades. What’s changed with the emergence of OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot is the ability of AI to better understand and generate content in a human-like way. While the U.S.-based tech is not officially available in China, local companies such as Baidu have released similar chatbots and AI models.

In robotics, the development of generative AI can help machines with understanding and perceiving their environment, said Li Zhang, chief operating officer of Shenzhen-based LimX Dynamics.

About three months after joining the two-year-old startup, Li said he shortened his expectations for how long it would take LimX to produce a humanoid robot capable of not just factory work, but also helping out in a households.

Li originally expected the entire process to take eight to ten years, but now anticipates some use cases will be ready in five to seven years. “After working for a few months, I saw how various tools’ abilities were improved because of AI,” he said in Mandarin, translated by CNBC.

“It has accelerated our entire research and development cycle,” he said.

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Companies are rushing into the opportunity. OpenAI itself is backing humanoid robot startups, while Elon Musk’s Tesla is developing its own, called Optimus.

Electric car giant BYD last year invested in Shanghai-based Agibot just months after its founding, according to PitchBook.

And at a high level, Chinese state media in November published a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping watching a humanoid robot at an exhibition center during his first trip to Shanghai since the pandemic. The robot was developed by Fourier Intelligence.

Before humanoid robots reach households, as LimX ultimately intends, factories can be a lucrative, enclosed scenario in which to deploy them.

China surpassed Japan in 2013 as the world’s largest installer of industrial robots, and now accounts for more than 50% of the global total, according to Stanford’s latest AI Index report.

Electronics, automotive and metal and machinery were the three leading sectors for industrial robot installation in China, the report said.

Impact on human jobs

When it comes fully replacing human workers, however, AI advancements alone aren’t enough.

Even if AI allows a robot to think and make decisions on par with humans, mechanical limitations are a major reason why humanoids can’t yet replace human laborers, LimX’s Li said.

One of LimX’s backers, Future Capital, has also invested in a company called Pan Motor that specializes in motors for humanoids.

Generative AI doesn’t directly help with robotic motion, pointed out Eric Xia, partner at Future Capital, an investor in LimX. But “advances in large language models can help humanoid robots with advanced task planning,” he said in Chinese, translated by CNBC.

LimX’s other investors include Lenovo Capital.

A shift toward factory robots can accelerate, once the cost-per-robot comes down.

Steve Hoffman, chairman of a startup accelerator called Founders Space, said he is working with a Chinese startup called Fastra, which he expects can begin mass robot production in one year. He said he spent time in China this year teaching local businesses how to integrate generative AI.

“We have already received six orders from research institutions,” he said, noting the startup aims to lower the cost per robot to between $50,000 to $100,000 by rollout.

“If we can hit a $50,000 price point, we can sell a lot of robots,” he said, pointing out the robots’ batteries can be charged as they work, 24 hours a day. “Could pay for the robot in a year.”

In pharmaceutical research, generative AI can reduce costs, without cutting into human labor.

“You don’t save costs in our business by having less people. You actually save costs by making fewer experiments that fail,” said Alex Zhavoronkov, chairman of the board, executive director and CEO of Insilico Medicine, which has offices in Hong Kong, New York and other parts of the world.

He noted how large pharmaceutical companies have typically had to spend thousands of dollars to replicate a molecule for testing — and would run a few thousand such tests per program. He claimed that with the help of AI, Insilico only needs to synthesize about 70 molecules per program.

The company published a paper in Nature in March claiming to have reached phase 2 clinical trials for an AI-generated drug.

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Britain expands AI safety institute to San Francisco amid scrutiny over regulatory shortcomings

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Britain expands AI safety institute to San Francisco amid scrutiny over regulatory shortcomings

An aerial view of the city of San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge in California, October 28, 2021.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

LONDON — The British government is expanding its facility for testing “frontier” artificial intelligence models to the United States, in a bid to further its image as a top global player tackling the risks of the tech and to increase cooperation with the U.S. as governments around the world jostle for AI leadership.

The government on Monday announced it would open a U.S. counterpart to its AI safety summit, a state-backed body focused on testing advanced AI systems to ensure they’re safe, in San Francisco this summer.

The U.S. iteration of the AI Safety Institute will aim to recruit a team of technical staff headed up by a research director. In London, the institute currently has a team of 30. It is chaired by Ian Hogarth, a prominent British tech entrepreneur who founded the music concert discovery site Songkick.

In a statement, U.K. Technology Minister Michelle Donelan said the AI Safety Summit’s U.S. rollout “represents British leadership in AI in action.”

“It is a pivotal moment in the U.K.’s ability to study both the risks and potential of AI from a global lens, strengthening our partnership with the U.S. and paving the way for other countries to tap into our expertise as we continue to lead the world on AI safety.”

The expansion “will allow the U.K. to tap into the wealth of tech talent available in the Bay Area, engage with the world’s largest AI labs headquartered in both London and San Francisco, and cement relationships with the United States to advance AI safety for the public interest,” the government said.

San Francisco is the home of OpenAI, the Microsoft-backed company behind viral AI chatbot ChatGPT.

The AI Safety Institute was established in November 2023 during the AI Safety Summit, a global event held in England’s Bletchley Park, the home of World War II code breakers, that sought to boost cross-border cooperation on AI safety.

The expansion of the AI Safety Institute to the U.S. comes on the eve of the AI Seoul Summit in South Korea, which was first proposed at the U.K. summit in Bletchley Park last year. The Seoul summit will take place across Tuesday and Wednesday.

The government said that, since the AI Safety Institute was established in November, it’s made progress in evaluating frontier AI models from some of the industry’s leading players.

It said Monday that several AI models completed cybersecurity challenges but struggle to complete more advanced challenges, while several models demonstrated PhD-level knowledge of chemistry and biology.

Meanwhile, all models tested by the institute remained highly vulnerable to “jailbreaks,” where users trick them into producing responses they’re not permitted to under their content guidelines, while some would produce harmful outputs even without attempts to circumvent safeguards.

Tested models were also unable to complete more complex, time-consuming tasks without humans there to oversee them, according to the government.

It didn’t name the AI models that were tested. The government previously got OpenAI, DeepMind, and Anthropic to agree to opening their coveted AI models up to the government to help inform research into the risks associated with their systems.

The development comes as Britain has faced criticism for not introducing formal regulations for AI, while other jurisdictions, like the European Union, race ahead with AI-tailored laws.

The EU’s landmark AI Act, which is the first major legislation for AI of its kind, is expected to become a blueprint for global AI regulations once it is approved by all EU member states and enters into force.

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$9 billion travel tech firm Navan on track to hit profitability this year and ‘not far’ from IPO, CEO says

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 billion travel tech firm Navan on track to hit profitability this year and 'not far' from IPO, CEO says

TripActions CEO Ariel Cohen

TripActions

The boss of travel and expense management platform Navan told CNBC he’s preparing the company to get its business into shape for an eventual initial public offering this year, in another sign leaders of privately-held startups are getting more optimistic about their prospects in the public markets.

Asked about when Navan would choose to go public, the firm’s CEO and co-founder Ariel Cohen said the company is close to reaching that milestone. “We can see the signals,” he said, adding that Navan has been adjusting its leadership structure and making changes to its board in a signal of maturity.

Last month saw Navan announce the return of Rich Liu, formerly Navan’s chief revenue officer and “an expert on scaling companies from seed to IPO and beyond,” to the business as CEO of Navan Travel, the company’s travel division.

Amy Butte, the former chief financial officer of the New York Stock Exchange who oversaw the U.S. exchange operator’s transition to a public company in 2006, was also appointed to Navan’s board of directors as audit committee chair.

“I don’t want to give a date,” Cohen told CNBC, adding that he’s not even told his own family a date for when he expects Navan to go public — let alone his board and Navan employees. “At the end of the day, there are things that are out of my control.”

“The market can collapse. There are elections in the U.S. There are wars. So I never actually promise things to people if I don’t know that the delivery is in my control,” he added.

While Cohen wouldn’t commit to a date for Navan’s eventual IPO, he said the business was “not far” from being ready for a stock market listing. The company is on track to become cash-flow positive and achieve profitability for the first time this year, he said.

“The timing will need to include several things,” he said. “Today, in this market, to be public, you need to be profitable. We are not far from that, but we are not there. We’re going to be there this year. And it’s not easy to do it while you’re growing fast.”

Cohen said he’s also keeping a wary eye on the market — but added that although, previously, investors would have seen a company like his as dependent on buoyant market sentiment surrounding technology, today he sees the firm as “mature enough” to go public independent of the market backdrop.

Navan CEO Ariel Cohen talks partnering with Citi

Navan is now growing revenues by around 40% on average, according to Cohen, with the company’s fintech business seeing faster growth (100%) than its travel business (30%).

Founded in 2015 as TripActions, Navan began life as a travel management platform for businesses, seeking to provide a smoother experience to travel agents and incumbent players like American Express, BCD Travel, and SAP Concur. The company counts the likes of Unilever and Christie’s as clients.

The firm subsequently expanded into expensing and payments with solutions for automating linking credit cards to a single platform and automating expenses.

Navan is backed by major investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue, Goldman Sachs, and Lightspeed. Navan has raised more than $1.5 billion in venture funding to date and was last valued at $9.2 billion. It competes with Spanish startup TravelPerk, which was most recently valued at $1.4 billion.

Navan introduced a big evolution of that product last year with the arrival of Navan Connect, a new expensing product.

Most corporate card startups, like Brex and Ramp, offer users their own branded corporate smart cards. But Navan’s Connect feature, which it’s rolled out in partnership with Citi, lets businesses offer automated expense management and reconciliation without having to change corporate card provider.

Like other tech firms, Navan has been making a big investment into artificial intelligence. The company rolled out its own AI personal assistant, called Ava, last year. The tool uses generative AI to help travelers, travel admins, and finance managers make travel plans and budget effectively.

Ava — which stands for automated virtual assistant — now processes around 150,000 monthly chats, more than 35% of which are managed to completion as of April 2024, according to Navan.

Cohen said Navan is planning to roll out an even more personalized version of Ava’s AI assistant, which can generate travel plans for someone based on their past behavior, to even greater accuracy in six months’ time.

Navan was named on the 2024 edition of CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list.

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Musk launches SpaceX’s Starlink internet services in Indonesia, says more investments could come

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Musk launches SpaceX’s Starlink internet services in Indonesia, says more investments could come

Tech billionaire Elon Musk (2nd L) speaks next to Indonesia’s Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin (L) during a ceremony held to inaugurate satellite unit Starlink at a community health center in Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali on May 19, 2024. Musk launched on May 19 his Starlink service on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali as the country aims to extend internet to its remote areas. Millions of people in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, are not currently hooked up to reliable internet services. (Photo by SONNY TUMBELAKA / AFP) (Photo by SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP via Getty Images)

Sonny Tumbelaka | Afp | Getty Images

Elon Musk has launched SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet services in Indonesia as the Southeast Asian nation seeks to boost internet connectivity in remote areas.

The inauguration took place at a community health center in Bali on Sunday, with the SpaceX founder telling local media he was “very excited” to bring internet services to areas with limited or no connectivity and that internet connectivity can be “a life-saver to remote medical clinics.”

“It is really important to emphasize the importance of internet connectivity and how much of a life-changer and a life-saver it can be,” Musk told local media on Sunday.

SpaceX, which manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, is also a developer of Starlink satellites which provide internet connectivity to remote locations. Starlink is already available in Southeast Asia in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago with more than 17,000 islands, faces an urban-rural connectivity divide where millions of people living in rural areas have limited or no access to internet services.

Communication and Informatics Minister Budi Arie Setiadi previously said Starlink would help Indonesia extend internet access to regions not covered by local internet providers, according to Indonesian news agency Antara.

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The minister also tried to dispel concerns that Starlink’s entry would hurt local internet providers.

“When you have access to the internet, you can learn anything,” said Musk, who is also the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla. “But if you don’t have internet connectivity, it is very difficult to learn.”

“And if you have goods and services you wish to sell to the world, and even if you are in a remote village, you can now do so with internet connection. So you can bring a lot of prosperity to [remote] communities,” said Musk.

When asked about whether he has plans to invest in Indonesia’s electric vehicle sector as well, Musk said he was focused on Starlink first.

“It’s very likely that my companies will invest in Indonesia,” said Musk.

Indonesia minister Luhut Pandjaitan said Musk is considering to set up an EV battery plant in the country, after the tech leader met with President Joko Widodo on Monday, according to Reuters.

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