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Back to the Future: Truth is stranger than sci-fi
By Mariette LE ROUX
Paris (AFP) Oct 14, 2015


Tech funding surging despite bubble fears: survey
Washington (AFP) Oct 14, 2015 - Investors poured increasing amounts of cash into startups in the third quarter, defying fears of a bubble in the tech sector, a survey showed Wednesday.

A total of 1,799 venture-backed startups around the world pulled in $37.6 billion in funding in the quarter, the highest since 2001, according to the survey by CB Insights and KPMG.

The vast majority of the funding -- 77 percent in the quarter -- went to technology startups, according to the report. The largest other segment was health care, including digital health startups, taking in 12 percent.

Venture funding so far this year has hit $98.4 billion, already eclipsing the 2014 total of $88.7 billion and double the amount of 2013.

But the survey did find some signs of cooling of tech investment fever.

A large share of the funds went to mega-deals of $100 million or more, and the money flowing into early-stage or "seed" funding fell for a fifth consecutive quarter.

Ten of the deals topped $500 million and more than 60 deals drew in excess of $100 million, according to the survey, with large startups such as Uber and Airbnb eschewing initial public offerings.

Only 23 percent of the funding went to early-stage deals, the lowest level in five quarters.

"Today, there are more late stage deals and fewer IPO exits than in years past," the report said. "This may be affecting the availability of cash for seed investment."

- Unicorns proliferating -

The cash flow has led to accelerating growth in the number of billion-dollar startups, which have become known as "unicorns."

A total of 23 unicorns were created in the past quarter -- 17 in the United States -- bring the total to 58 so far this year. According to CB Insights, there are 104 unicorns worldwide with a combined valuation of $503 billion.

The North America region drew the lion's share of venture funding in the quarter at $20.3 billion, while Asian-based startups took in $13.5 billion and European firms $3.6 billion, the report showed.

Some of the big Asian investments went to Chinese transport startup Didi Kuaidi, Shanghai food delivery group Ele.me and India's ecommerce firm Snapdeal. Notable startups in Europe pulling in cash in the past quarter include France's carsharing Blablacar and German food prep group Hellofresh.

By sector, Internet and mobile communications represented the bulk of venture-backed investments, accounting for 67 percent of all deals in the quarter.

Other important sectors including financial technology startups, which drew $3 billion in the past quarter led by online lender Social Finance, and digital health, with $1.46 billion led by China's Guahao and US-based Zocdoc.

When Marty McFly and "Doc" Brown burst into 2015 in a time machine, straight from the year 1985, they encounter a brave new world of garbage-fuelled flying cars, self-tying shoes and robot waiters.

For audiences in 1989, when CDs were the height of hi-tech, science fiction comedy "Back to the Future II" portrayed an exciting world 30 years down the line in which people would flit around on gravity-defying hoverboards, sporting self-drying, auto-adjusting clothes, and dogs are walked by drones.

Disappointingly, many of the gadgets anticipated by script-writers who dropped the movie's oddball pair -- and their hot-rod DeLorean time machine -- into the "future" on October 21, 2015 have failed to materialise.

Yet in many ways, the 2015 of reality is even more radically altered from what filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale could have imagined, say futurists who study and project trends.

What we can do with smartphones now was almost inconceivable then.

"Their capabilities today, including access to all information on the planet, would have absolutely astounded even most futurists of 30 years ago... who didn't imagine a phone would be for anything other than speaking and texting," Sydney-based futurist Ross Dawson told AFP.

"Back when the movie was made, people looking at the reality of today would find it quite mind-boggling."

Technology we would now struggle without -- such as Google and Wikipedia, social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, smartphone GPS, and online shopping, would have been hard to envisage when the movie came out.

- World without email -

In the film, Marty, played by a young Michael J. Fox, receives a dismissal notice at home by fax -- a now-clunky technology that seemed cutting-edge in the 1980s. The Internet revolution was lurking just around the corner, and the world had yet to receive email.

In 1985, only about a quarter of US households had a microwave oven, and videocassette recorders (VCRs) were the must-have viewing technology.

Today you can buy a home 3-D printer on the Internet for a few hundred dollars, which can produce anything from a gun that squirts water to one that shoots bullets.

We can "download" songs and "stream" films -- terms that did not even exist in 1985.

We can edit the human genome to fix disease-causing DNA, we have grown hamburger "meat" from cow muscle cells, and we have placed a robot probe on a comet hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth.

"Humans very quickly get used to innovations and take them for granted," said Dawson, founder of the Future Exploration Network, which offers scenario planning services.

Still, the film did get some things right.

We do have flat screens, live video-calling, tablet computers, and portable up-to-the-minute weather apps.

Though not yet in full swing, we also have biometric technology for paying bills or unlocking doors with a fingerprint, and off-the-shelf smart glasses similar to those worn by Marty's offspring.

- More sci than fi? -

"It was actually quite visionary of them to get so many things right," said Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute, a futurist thinktank.

"They depicted it in kind of a comical, goofy way actually, but I think they did quite a phenomenal job back then of anticipating things that must have seemed fairly ludicrous at the time."

Some predictions were ahead of their time.

Thirty years ago, most futurists would have given flying cars by 2015 "greater than 50-50 odds," independent futurist Jack Uldrich told AFP by telephone from Minneapolis.

"There are some companies that are working on flying cars, but what they don't have is that take-off (vertical) lift," as demonstrated by Doc's DeLorean.

Innovators have drawn inspiration from the movie: California-based firm Hendo is creating a hoverboard which works on magnetic repulsion. Shoemaker Nike is working on sneakers with self-tightening "power laces" like the ones Marty wore.

- What next? -

Sci-fi has influenced scientific advancement through the ages, but the task may become harder as technological development accelerates exponentially.

Will humans be teleporting, travelling in time, or discover the secret to eternal life by 2045? Who knows, the experts say.

"One of the things which we could very easily see in 30 years is... humanoids and other robots just being a complete part of our environment," Dawson said.

Also likely is "people using their thoughts to control the world around them, even to use their thoughts to communicate directly with other people."

Dawson foresees a future not with flying cars per se, but rather self-driving pods -- a cheaper and safer alternative.

One thing that the movie got wildly wrong: lawyers have not been "abolished".

"I think a lot of people wished that had come true," quipped Uldrich -- but then who will settle disputes between humans and robots in the future?

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