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Descript raises $30M to build the next generation of video and audio editing tools

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The popularity of podcasting and online video shows no signs of slowing down, and so we continue to see a wave of creators publishing a profusion of audio and video content to fill out the airwaves. Today, a company building a platform to make that work easier and more interesting to execute is announcing a round of growth funding to double down on the opportunity.

Descript, which builds tools that let creators edit audio and video files by using, for example, natural language processing to link the content to the editing of text files, has picked up $30 million in a Series B round of funding.

Andrew Mason, the CEO and founder of the company, said in an interview that the plan will be to use the money to continue building out tools not just for mass-market and individual professional and amateur creators, but also, increasingly, organizations that might be using the tools for their own in-house video and audio needs, a use case that has definitely grown during the last year of global remote working.

“We see ourselves… as an all encompassing platform for all media needs,” Mason said.

The company had early wins by signing on customers like NPR, Pushkin Industries, VICE, The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as smaller and more modest media outfits.

Mason said that it’s also now seeing startups and bigger businesses using video for communication also adopting Descript tools, especially in cases where it makes more sense to visualize the answers, but the content could still use the ability to be edited.

“Whether it’s externally or internally, for things like bug reporting or personalized introductions or helpdesk videos, we’re seeing people using Descript for company video,” he added, “sometimes in place of something like an email.”

Spark Capital, and specifically Nabeel Hyatt (who in a past life co-founded a music games specialist, Conduit Labs, acquired by Zynga), led the round, with Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint Ventures also participating (both backed Descript in its $15 million Series A in 2019).

A number of individuals — some investors, and some investors also famous for their own video, podcasting and publishing work — also participated this Series B, among them Devdatta Akhawe, Alex Blumberg, Jack Conte, Justine Ezarik, Todd Goldberg, Jean-Denis Greze, John Lilly, Tobi Lutke, Bharat Mediratta, Shishir Mehrotra, Casey Neistat, Brian Pokorny, Raghavendra Prabhu, Lenny Rachitsky, Naval Ravikant, Jay Simons, Jake Shapiro, Rahul Vohra, and Ev Williams.

The news comes on the heels of an eventful several months for the company. In October, Descript released its first major update to its editing suite by expanding from audio editing tools to cover video as well.

In an interview last week, Mason said that the feedback so far has been “excellent” for the technology, although he is declined to say how many users or usage Descript has had for this or its older audio technology.

Descript’s move expanding into the newer medium, in any case, makes a lot of sense, when you consider how closely aligned a lot of audio-based podcasting content has been with corresponding videos — with many of the most popular podcasters often posting videos of their recordings on YouTube and other platforms, for those who prefer to watch as well as listen to recordings.

It helps, too, that video is highly monetizable. Podcasting is on track to make more than $1 billion in ad revenues in the U.S. in 2021, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. Meanwhile, even in a year that was considered a downturn, digital video pulled in more than $22 billion.

That double-platform approach, however, has largely been executed on auto pilot up to now, as Mason points out, describing a lot of the video as “window dressing.”

“We watch a lot of video and podcasts and think about how we can create a tool that makes it fun and easy to craft great content,” Mason said. “One thing we’ve observed is that a remarkable amount of video is just audio with window dressing. You don’t notice it until you start looking through that lens. A ton of video is about what is happening with the audio, and so a lot of that video is just filler.”

A lot of the editing is no more than a series of jump cuts, he said, and notwithstanding other challenges like bad equipment, it’s just not a very exciting experience.

That lays the groundwork for Descript not just to create tools to make it easier to edit but in the future to conceive of how to do so in a way that creates a better and potentially more original product at the end of the process, too.

Mason’s turn to audio-based services for his two past startups — prior to Descript, he founded and eventually sold (to Bose) an audio-based city guide service called Detour — has been something of a left turn for a man probably still better known as the quirky co-founder of the once wildly popular sales platform Groupon.

However, Mason studied music at university and it is more than obvious that audio and sound-based experiences — not just music but the impact that aural experiences can have — are really where his passion lies.

Mason is long gone from Groupon, but he remains a bit of a wag. He is quick to quip that his ability to raise money for completely different concepts that are a world away from e-commerce are in no smart part due to his having already won the “startup lottery”.

And yes, like many jokes, it’s a telling and often true term, in my experience and observation. But in this case, I’d say it undersells some of the really interesting innovations that Descript has built and is building.

More generally audio technology is not only proving to be in demand with customers, but (as it happens) it is also being sought out larger tech companies, including (most recently) Amazon, Spotify, Apple, Google and Facebook, which are picking up a lot of smaller audio startups in their own efforts to build out their bigger media business.

And this at the heart of why Descript has attracted this latest round of investment.

“We’ve been convinced of machine learning’s power to be used as a creative tool for some time,” Hyatt at Spark noted to me. “Descript is perhaps the best example of that in a startup today. The company takes some very complicated technology, but presents it in a way that’s actually easier to use than the status quo products. It’s very rare that you come across a company that uses technology to both empower a creative professional to work ten times faster, and simultaneously makes the creative process ten times easier for an amateur, growing the addressable market. Anyone editing audio or video, which is most of us nowadays, can see the benefits.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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