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When start-up culture fails – the problem of Theranos



Elizabeth Holmes is on trial in California for allegedly defrauding investors, but Silicon Valley’s “fake it till you make it” culture is also under the microscope.

Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos at the age of 19. A Stanford University drop-out, Holmes committed the early years of her life to building her company from the ground up.

She dazzled investors and colleagues with the revolutionary idea that Theranos technology could quickly detect a multitude of ailments and diseases, all from the blood of a simple finger-prick.

By 2014, the firm had rocketed to a valuation of US$9 billion after securing large investments from high-profile figures like media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and former U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Holmes was championed as a star of Silicon Valley – a young woman with an unfaltering belief that Theranos could change the world.

That dream however, was based on fantasy.

In 2015, Holmes was exposed as a fraud. The technology she touted did not work at all, and three years later, Theranos collapsed.

Holmes, now 37, is on trial in California – facing up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the 12 charges of fraud brought against her.

She has pleaded not guilty.

The court case and her meteoric rise and fall has attracted global interest, with many divided over the question of whether Elizabeth Holmes is merely a businesswoman who failed, or a fraudster who intended to cheat her way to the top.

Spectacular collapse

Over the decade from its foundation in 2003, Holmes built a team of 800 employees and set up in a research park in Palo Alto, once home to Tesla and Facebook.

It was there the company went to work on its flagship technology – the Edison – a small, black automated box intended to run lighting fast methods of drawing blood, testing blood, and interpreting patient data.

A series of Wall Street Journal exposes in 2015 revealed the results produced by Theranos tech were unreliable, and that the firm had been operating commercially available machines made by other manufacturers for years.

Theranos’ already unstable foundations quickly crumbled.

Lawsuits from defrauded investors piled up, ties were cut, and by 2018, the company dissolved.

In March that same year, Holmes settled civil charges from financial regulators that she fraudulently raised more than US$700m from investors.

But three months later, she was arrested on charges of criminal fraud. Also arrested was Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, Holmes’ ex-boyfriend and business partner, who will face the same charges.

Ex-Theranos CEO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani was romantically involved with Elizabeth Holmes, and faces the same charges.

In a twist, it has emerged over the course of court proceedings that Holmes and her lawyers are expected to argue that Balwani, who served as Theranos’ CEO, sexually and emotionally abused her during the time the crimes were committed – claims that Balwani vehemently denies.

Prosecutors claim Holmes and Balwani engaged in a “multi-million-dollar scheme to defraud investors, doctors and patients.”

It’s alleged they used advertisements and solicitations to encourage doctors and patients to “buy-in” to Theranos’ blood-testing services, despite knowledge that their services were simply not capable of doing what they said they could.

Court hears of company’s failures and lies

Holmes’ court case began in September, and is expected to last for the coming months.

Theranos gained financial traction through investments from several high-profile figures, who also made up the company’s 12-person board, but lacked necessary medical experience.

It was heard that former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who sat on the board, was given false information before investing US$100m into the firm, her representative told the court.

DeVos is but one of several notable people allegedly duped by the firm.

Betsy DeVos was Education Secretary under former president Donald Trump.

Wade Miquelon, the former chief financial officer of pharmacy chain Walgreens, testified that the company was impressed by due diligence reports from big pharma firms Pfizer and Schering-Plough that Holmes had allegedly faked, and went on to partner with Theranos and invest US$140m.

The culture of secrecy and deceit was endemic at Theranos, from the board to its employees – who have told the court of poor work conditions and fears of legal repercussions if they spoke out.

Sunil Dhawan, who served as Theranos’ lab director in 2014-2015, testified that he had only been to the firm’s labs a handful of times, and rarely interacted with its technicians.

Erika Cheung, the former employee who made the initial report to regulators in 2015, took the stand recently to tell jurors she was “starstruck” by Holmes, but quickly grew uncomfortable with the company’s practices.

Questions arose about the accuracy of test results, after a test performed on Cheung’s own blood samples wrongly determined she had a vitamin D deficiency she knew she did not have.

Theranos’ story emblematic of a larger problem in Silicon Valley

Many see Holmes’ downfall the result of an environment in which faulty ideas are allowed to flourish, and where failure is seen as a necessary obstacle on the path to success.

“This is what happens when you work to change things,” Holmes told CNBC in 2015.

“First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world.”

People with a close eye on the trial say it is remarkable how tightly Holmes has clung to her version of events.

Her lawyers have told courts she has been grossly misrepresented, and that Holmes is a hard working, honest businesswoman, who never had any intention to commit fraud.

Nevertheless, Theranos’ monumental failure speaks volumes of a warped value system in Silicon Valley.

Phrases like Mark Zuckerberg’s famous motto “move fast and break things” and “fake it till you make it”, express the idea that in order to achieve success, you must “disrupt” the normal or traditional ways of doing things,

“Problems in the product are easy in Silicon Valley, a working technology demo is always several agile sprints away using iterative prototyping; at least that is what many of us have been brainwashed to think,” a former Theranos employee told the Washington Post.

“At Theranos this was the philosophy.”

More than 200 potential witnesses have been identified during the court proceedings; the case grows more complex by the day, with several jurors excused for financial hardship, legal fears, and in one bizarre instance: playing sudoku in court.

This risks the possibility of Holmes’ trial ever reaching a verdict: one which the world is anxiously waiting for.

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Facial recognition has been used a million times by U.S. police



Controversial facial recognition has been used a million times by police to help track criminals

As facial recognition becomes more prominent, the founder of tech firm Clearview says his company has run nearly a million searches for U.S. police.

It’s also been revealed the company has scraped 30 billion images from platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, taken without users’ permissions.

The company has been fined numerous times in Europe and countries like Australia for breaches of privacy laws.

In the U.S., critics say the use of Clearview by authorities puts everyone into a “police line-up”.

The company’s high-tech system allows law enforcement to upload a photo of a face and find matches in a database comprising of billions of images it has collected.

It then provides links to where matching images appear online.

The tool is considered to be one of the world’s most powerful and accurate.

While the company is banned from selling its services to most U.S. companies, there is an exemption for police. #trending #featured

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Baidu shows off A.I.-powered chatbot Ernie



The event was meant to be livestreamed, but there was strong demand from companies to test the bot

Chinese search engine Baidu has shared pre-recorded videos of its A.I.-powered chatbot Ernie.

Revealing the bot performing more advanced tasks than at its launch two weeks ago.

While the videos were shown during a closed-door meeting, images shared by a Baidu spokesperson appeared to show significant developments.

This included summarising financial statements and producing powerpoint presentations, as well as producing travel itineraries.

The videos were shown to the first batch of companies that are testing an industry-focused version of the chatbot.

Ernie is considered China’s closest equivalent to U.S.-developed ChatGPT.

The meeting was originally meant to be a livestreamed product launch open to the media and public.

But the format was changed to prioritise what Baidu said was the “strong demand” from over 120,000 companies that had applied to test the bot.

More companies will be able to sign up to test the industry-focused version of the Ernie bot starting on March 31.

Tests conducted show that the regular version has a good command of the Chinese language.

However, it produces factual errors and avoids answering political questions.

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Another nation bans Huawei from 5G network



Germany has joined Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States to stop the tech company

China has blasted Germany over the nation’s reported plan to ban Huawei from the country’s 5G network.

In Berlin, the Chinese embassy said it is “very puzzled” and “strongly dissatisfied” by the move.

Diplomats believe the decision has been made by Germany’s government without any factual basis.

Adding, the move violates German economic laws and the principles of fair competition.

The reported ban follows similar moves made by Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Hugh Odom from Vertical Consultants gave us the details.

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