Post-hype profits

The Financial Times has this week weighed in on the topic of dried-up funding for start-ups that are not able to prove their path to profitability.

This has been recurring theme throughout 2023, particularly in the iGaming space, as investors and VC firms take a more cautious approach to investing in growth companies.

The FT points out that once upon a time, start-ups were encouraged to remain lossmaking in order to grow revenues and gain market share.

The wider economic environment had turned that situation on its head, and now investors are demanding to see evidence of sustainable profits.

FT journalist Daniel Thomas wrote: “The new mantra is two years runway, according to one leading tech executive: in other words, enough money to see a business through to 2025, when capital markets and global economies are expected to have stabilised.”

Firms that are unlikely to turn a profit by 2025 will have difficult decisions to make between now and then, including cost cutting and switching strategies.

One VC CEO was quoted in the broadsheet as saying we are now in a “post-hype” landscape, which has brought about the “end of easy money”.

The FT backed this up with data from CB Insights. Total venture funding for 2022 dropped by more than a third, to $415.1bn, although deal volume fell by only 4%.

Europe suffered a 17% drop in funding to $81bn, comparatively better than the US. Between 2021 and 2022, the count of new “unicorn” companies more than halved to 258.

AI has left the starting Gates

Bill Gates is excited, and he’s not the only one as we have all witnessed the rapid advances in AI since the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT at the end of last year.

When the Microsoft co-founder speaks, the business world listens. This week, Gates shared some thoughts on his personal blog GatesNotes.

Declaring that the “age of AI has begun”, Gates described AI as the most revolutionary technology he has seen in decades.

“The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone,” he wrote.

“It will change the way people work, learn, travel, get health care, and communicate with each other. Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it,” he added.

Gates described meeting with OpenAI since 2016 and being impressed by their steady progress.

In September, he witnessed the company’s AI model answer 59 out of 60 questions correctly on an AP Biology exam correctly, which left him in awe.

“The rise of AI will free people up to do things that software never will – teaching, caring for patients, and supporting the elderly, for example,” he wrote.

He said he believed AI could also help scientists to develop vaccines, teach students math and replace jobs in task-oriented fields like sales and accounting.

He suggested that one day, AI could go through a person’s email inbox and schedule their meetings, and we will all have “personal agents”.

Gates briefly acknowledged AI’s shortcomings, but said that it’s important to keep in mind that we’re only at the beginning of what the software can accomplish.

“Whatever limitations it has today will be gone before we know it,” he concluded.

Gates is no stranger to the transformative power of technology.

Celebs cough up cash for crypto charges

The New York Times was one of several outlets to report on charges filed against crypto entrepreneur Justin Sun and his celebrity marketing entourage this week.

The SEC charged Sun – who apparently refers to himself as His Excellency on social media – with securities law violations linked to his management of three crypto companies.

The SEC also charged eight celebrities who agreed to pay a combined total of $400,000, including Lindsay Lohan and social media influencer/boxer/Betr co-founder Jake Paul.

The enforcement is the latest in a series of federal charges targeting the crypto industry following the meltdown of the FTX exchange founded by Sam Bankman-Fried.

In 2023 to date, the SEC has levied fines and penalties against crypto lending firms and settled a case with Kraken, one of the largest US crypto exchanges.

Coinbase could be next, after the company warned the SEC was planning on bringing an enforcement action against the company.

“We are confident in the legality of our assets and services, and if needed, we welcome a legal process to provide the clarity we have been advocating for,” said Coinbase.

Crypto is proving to be as expensive as it was once lucrative.

ChatGPT? Not for me

“Chatbots are bullshit engines built to say things with incontrovertible certainty and a complete lack of expertise,” argued Business Insider senior correspondent Adam Rogers this week.

It was refreshing to hear the other side of the story after months of chatter around how AI-based programmes like ChatGPT are going to revolutionise our lives, whether we like it or not.

And there is no lack of recent, high-profile examples to back up Rogers’ hypothesis.

With OpenAI’s ChatGPT storming ahead as the most popular chatbot on the scene, industry giants like Google and Microsoft are getting keener to throw their hats into the ring.

While both businesses certainly have the technological chops to launch AI-based programmes to the public, it has previously been reported that they are reluctant to do so while the technology is still so prone to making mistakes.

And indeed, their fears have in many ways been realised, just as Rogers points out.

An ad last week for Google’s chatbot, Bard, showed it getting an answer to a question wrong. After the mistake was picked up by the public, Google owner Alphabet’s share price took a 9% hammering, wiping billions of dollars in value off the company’s market cap.

Microsoft-owned Bing’s chatbot, Sydney, also gave less-than-accurate information during its open demonstration recently.

The reason for that is that large language models do not possess true intelligence, but are able to predict the likelihood of something being correct. If its accuracy is likely enough, information will be used in response to queries and presented as the truth.

“Google’s own AI researchers had warned the company that chatbots would be ‘stochastic parrots’ (likely to squawk things that are wrong, stupid, or offensive) and ‘prone to hallucinating’ (liable to just make stuff up),” according to Rogers.

Naturally, all this brings about new dangers in the realm of disinformation.

In a tale with many twists and turns, meandering through scientific experiments, psychology, philosophy, and quite a lot of swearing, Rogers goes on to explain why people are likely to become increasingly inclined to believe what the bots tell them – whether they’re right or wrong.

NY ad ban bill spreads fear among gambling investors

The Times shone some light on the impact of a new legislative bill introduced in New York last week after congressman Paul Tonko put forward a potential ban on all sports betting advertising in the state and across the US.

The Betting on our Future Act is modelled on the Federal Cigarette Labelling and Advertising Act, the piece explained, and was revealed just as the US sports betting industry was gearing up for the biggest event on its calendar, the Super Bowl.

The bill – whether it is passed in New York or not – should serve as “something as a warning sign to the industry,” according to Goodbody gaming and leisure analyst David Brohan.

While a total ban on TV, radio and internet advertising would be “damaging to market growth in the still nascent US market,” Brohan conceded that big operators with established brands would be insulated against its worst effects.

Indeed, it doesn’t take an especially vivid imagination to envisage a situation where such a ban would make it utterly impossible for smaller brands to have a hope at challenging market leaders like FanDuel, DraftKings, Caesars and BetMGM.

Following the news, the piece pointed out that FanDuel owner Flutter Entertainment’s shares slid by 2.8%, while Entain fell by 2.7% – though that was in part due to MGM’s recent assertion that it would not make another attempt to acquire the London-listed gambling giant.

Making for particularly interesting reading was the comments section of the article.

Commenter Ian Wylie pondered: “MGM could just be trying to lower Entain’s share price ready to swoop,” while Sean Thornton took a more antagonistic approach, suggesting the gambling firms should: “Cry me a river.”

Times user cbailey pragmatically suggested we should “Bring in this law in the UK and tax gambling profits at 95%,” while Philip Levy, ever the optimist, dusted off his crystal ball to suggest: “I bet the share prices bounce back.”

And they say that nuance is dead.

TikTok trials gambling ads as Sportsbet targets Rihanna super fans

The Guardian revealed that Flutter-owned online gambling brand Sportsbet is using TikTok to target young women with advertising in an attempt to broaden its predominantly male client base.

The operator has been allowed to target Australian users on the social media platform – which currently bans all gambling promotions – as part of a strictly controlled trial, revealed the newspaper.

And shortly before the Super Bowl took place last week, Sportsbet took advantage of its new permissions, publishing a video ad drawing attention to “novelty bet” markets on Rihanna’s half-time performance.

Bets on such thrilling outcomes as what outfit Rihanna would wear during her performance, what props she would use and how long she would sing for were all included in Sportsbet’s showcase.

In another boon for sports bettors everywhere, users were also encouraged to wager on what colour liquid would be poured on the winning coach after the match. 

NB: Why stop there? Why can’t we bet on what colour laces a particular sportsperson will use to tie their boots, or whether the team captain will appear bearded or clean shaven? Anyone fancy a punt on how many players will mess up the words to the national anthem?

According to the article, Sportsbet has published other videos featuring Sydney-based influencer Luisa Dal Din. One video used the caption: “Me pretending I know horse racing to impress my crush.”

Ah, gambling companies. When will you learn? Is the best way to increase female participation in horse racing betting really to suggest that women don’t understand it, and that they would only bother trying in order to secure the approval of a man?

Advertising expert and swearing enthusiast Toby Ralph said Sportsbet was “finding new markets. [Young women] who couldn’t give a shit about the merits of the Chiefs or the Eagles can be induced to pony up cash by connecting to a bet on Rihanna, and suggesting that the tribe they want to join is crazy for it,” he said.

As for the million dollar question, he answered that too: “Does this lead to ethical concerns? No. From an advertising perspective, if it’s legal, they will go all in.”

Perhaps nuance is dead, after all…

“When times are good, you just throw headcount at it,” says one big name gambling CEO when asked what the hell is going on.

Why is everyone being laid off?

Gambling companies are often hot on the heels of leading tech companies when it comes to following the latest trends and developments. Only this time, the trend is a negative one.

Amazon is intending to lay off 18,000 workers. Twitter, Microsoft, Google and every Silicon Valley darling you can think of have also cut staff over the last six months. Flutter Entertainment, Hero Gaming, PressEnter and Genesis Global are just a handful of gambling firms to have followed suit.

This “trimming of the fat” is primarily because digital companies exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic and had to significantly increase headcount to meet customer demand.

Now that demand has dried up because people have gone back out into the real world. At the same time, the economy is putting a squeeze on everything and the light at the end of the tunnel looks likely to be a train.

During the depths of the pandemic, iGaming NEXT has learned that some gambling companies would hoard developers. Talented tech staff are few and far between, so if one became available, they would get snapped up for a rainy day, even if they were surplus to requirements at the time.

Such a frivolous approach has become harder to justify. With that said, leading online betting and gaming recruitment agency Pentasia insists recent high-profile tech layoffs have not affected the global demand for tech talent.

Is demand up or down?

Intensity and competition have actually increased, if anything: “As the fear of missing out on talent grips the market, we see clients adopting a more streamlined approach to hiring,” said Pentasia in a January Talent Market Update.

“Gone are the days of four to five stages. We’re now seeing jobs offered after just one interview. While this is still uncommon, two or three interviews is the sweet spot for securing a role.”

Tech roles are likely to be the most secure, then, but almost all others are under careful consideration because for once, gambling firms are feeling the strain. Once considered recession proof – and then recession resilient – their online gaming armour appears weaker by the day.

For public companies, investors take a magnifying glass to every penny spent and demand an explanation. For private companies, shedding staff is sometimes required simply to stay afloat.

Former Bally’s CEO Lee Fenton was the first iGaming executive to say the quiet part out loud.

When the Bally Bet operator slashed 15% of its US digital division workforce amid mounting losses, Fenton said: “The pandemic boosted our business and we continued to hire at full pelt. I now can see that we may have over hired in some areas, and I take full responsibility for that.”

While job losses undoubtedly come at a great human cost, investors often look favourably upon them. It shows that companies are taking their spring cleaning seriously as they look to get the balance sheet in order before results day. We are currently in the depths of Q4 season, don’t forget.

The best example of this recently was DraftKings. The US operator – which is second for market share in the US behind FanDuel having lost more than $3.5bn on OSB to date – sacked 140 employees in January. Its share price duly soared by 10%.

There is no room for sympathy on the stock market.

Ben Fried, head of betting and gaming at global executive search firm SRI, has been following this trend for a while. “A lot of these companies ramped up because demand through the pandemic had gone up as they were adapting to new market realities,” Fried tells iGaming NEXT. His favoured example is one outside of gaming, with online car retailer Cazoo.

Cazoo was convinced it had conquered the market by promising to deliver new cars direct to customer doorsteps. But then the dealerships reopened, and it became clear that people wanted to drive a car before buying one. Who knew?

The cost of consolidation

Over hiring is not the only factor that has caused these gambling companies to swell. Consolidation is a constant in our industry. Every time a deal completes, there is a risk that two people are employed for one job. Something has to give, although that hasn’t always been the case, according to Fried.

When Flutter Entertainment set out to become the biggest corporate bookmaker in the UK by swallowing up the likes of Sky Bet and Paddy Power Betfair, each brand had its own CEO and continued to operate almost as separate entities.

Fried – a former Betfair manager himself – thinks back to that time: “I said aren’t you going to synergise the business? I was told there was no immediate need as they were growing and making money, so there was no need to create these cost synergies.

“I think the problem is that has now changed,” he adds.

And it has changed quite significantly. Flutter was arguably ahead of the curve on this topic. As exclusively reported by iGaming NEXT last summer, the operator committed to making sizeable redundancies across its UK & Ireland division following an internal review. Was the writing on the wall?

Clear Edge Malta’s Luke Imeson: “There are more candidates available with recent redundancies, but companies are more hesitant to hire.”

The operator said the UK’s operating landscape had changed by such a degree that it was forced to respond to the “more challenging” external environment. “Now they’ve created a more streamlined and efficient structure as far as I understand it,” says Fried.

The recent combination of 888 and William Hill has created similar unrest. The joining of two culturally opposed leadership teams (one online Israel and the other retail UK) means there are not only two people vying for one position, but also two vastly different executional management styles. Potentially a case of too many cooks in the kitchen?

888 made a host of cuts across its Israeli tech office a matter of weeks before CEO Itai Pazner was ousted for very different reasons, while Ulrik Bengtsson, the last permanent CEO of William Hill, departed before the deal was done.

“Those people will look very good on paper,” says Fried, commenting on the casualties. Indeed, the CEO at the top of this piece can attest to that. A leading recruitment specialist told him recently that he has never seen so many C-level CVs on the market.

“Even when we put out roles now, we get super senior CVs sent to us on mass,” says the anonymous chief exec. “It is definitely shifting to become the employer’s market.”

Were gaming companies too trusting?

Another driver behind this “Covid correction” is that it arguably takes far longer for employers to realise their employees are not up to scratch in a remote or hybrid working environment. Was this easier to gauge while working alongside each other in an office? Are companies now paying the price for putting too much trust in some of their staff?

On this point, the majority of newcomers during the pandemic were hired with a specific job to do. What if those jobs have now been completed?

“I think some big companies have realised that a lot of these people they hired, they no longer need,” says Luke Imeson, iGaming business manager and director at Clear Edge Malta. “A lot of these tasks have already been fulfilled, whether it be creating a new product, launching a new brand, or entering new markets. They then have the perfect excuse [to get rid].”

Imeson, a former customer experience manager at William Hill, is more closely aligned with our secret CEO than he is with Pentasia. He says: “We’ve been in a massively candidate driven market over the last year. There have been a lot of jobs open and very few candidates available to choose from.

“Now we are in a situation where there are more candidates available with recent redundancies, but companies are more hesitant to hire,” he adds, before reiterating that iGaming is a highly robust industry.

So in conclusion, iGaming companies are hesitant to hire but trigger happy. This is a dangerous combination for employees, who now find themselves in an unusually precarious position.

As the power shifts back to our employers, we should ask one question. Does my contribution justify my salary?

If the answer to that question is no, then strap in, because 2023 could be a very bumpy ride.

As Microsoft pledges a new, multi-billion dollar investment in OpenAI, iGaming NEXT provides a rundown of some of the most exciting artificial intelligence applications from across the world’s largest tech companies.

Microsoft and OpenAI: Time to scale

Microsoft announced the third phase of its partnership with ChatGPT owner OpenAI yesterday (23 January), confirming it had made a “multi-billion dollar investment” in the firm which has this year taken the tech world by storm.

ChatGPT – first released in November 2022 – is a chatbot built on OpenAI’s proprietary GPT-3 family of large language models.

The product quickly separated itself from a herd of other AI-based chatbots due to its seemingly near-human command of language, allowing it to provide users with highly detailed and often surprisingly articulate answers to their requests.

While its core function is built around the mimicry of human conversation, the application brings a broad range of functionalities, including the ability to write and debug computer code, compose music, write poetry, format film scripts and even play games.

Clash of the Titans: Apple .Microsoft .Amazon and Google Battle Over AI Dominance

— are you talkin’ to me? (@MixedPie) January 24, 2023

Microsoft’s latest investment in the firm follows on from previous investments in 2019 and 2021. The investment is likely to reach $10bn, according to Bloomberg.

In a blog post yesterday, Microsoft CEO and chairman Satya Nadella said: “In this next phase of our partnership, developers and organisations across industries will have access to the best AI infrastructure, models, and toolchain with [Microsoft cloud service] Azure to build and run their applications.”

Indeed, the latest investment round is intended to provide OpenAI with the ability to scale its products’ availability through the development and deployment of specialised supercomputing systems.

Occasionally at present, disappointed users of ChatGPT are being turned away and told that the product is operating at full capacity, as its popularity continues to grow.

Google: Taking it slow

Google parent company Alphabet, meanwhile, is taking a more cautious approach to the use of AI language models.

While the firm has recognised the undeniable buzz around products like ChatGPT, it has been careful not to rush into releasing a rival of its own.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai and head of AI Jeff Dean told staff at a meeting in December that this was due to the dangers of rushing a release of this kind of technology.

Google already has similar capabilities to what ChatGPT can deliver, the pair insisted, but equally, it has a more valuable reputation to protect and uphold than Silicon Valley-based start-up OpenAI.

As reported by CNBC, Dean said during the meeting it was “important to realise these models have certain types of issues,” namely that the accuracy provided by Google’s core search functionality cannot yet be reproduced inside a chatbot.

Indeed, even OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has recognised the limitations of a model like ChatGPT.

It is “incredibly limited,” he said on Twitter in December, “but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness”.

ChatGPT is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness.

it's a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now. it’s a preview of progress; we have lots of work to do on robustness and truthfulness.

— Sam Altman (@sama) December 11, 2022

“It’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now. It’s a preview of progress; we have lots of work to do on robustness and truthfulness,” Altman concluded.

It seems, therefore, that Altman shares at least some of Google’s concerns, namely that while the bot is able to produce impressively eloquent answers to queries, “the danger is that it is confident and wrong a significant fraction of the time.”

Despite the trepidation, do not assume that Google will let the product come to market unchallenged.

The search giant has been working on its own AI-based language model, LaMDA (among other AI applications) and is looking for further products to come over time, according to Dean.

CEO Pichai told staff in December that Google has a lot planned for AI in 2023, before concluding: “This is an area where we need to be bold and responsible, so we have to balance that.”

Meta’s CICERO: At the intersection

Facebook owner Meta, meanwhile, announced in November its new tool CICERO, “an AI agent that negotiates, persuades, and cooperates with people.”

This application exists at the intersection of two core areas of AI research: natural language processing, as used in models like ChatGPT, and strategic reasoning, used in products such as AlphaGo and Pluribus.

In 2019, Pluribus was declared the first AI bot capable of beating human experts in six-player no-limit Texas Hold’em, as it “decisively” took down professional poker players, including two World Series of Poker Main Event winners.

The combination of those two research areas led to the development of CICERO, which Meta announced in November was the first AI to achieve human-level performance in the strategy game Diplomacy.

This set the product apart from other AI models trained to beat humans in games with fixed variables such as chess, go, or any number of video games.

Playing an online version of Diplomacy, CICERO was able to achieve more than double the average score of human players and rank in the top 10% of participants who played more than one game.

Cicero's, @meta 's AI, won a Diplomacy tournament, including this triumph with England (dark blue).

Those of you who played Diplomacy know you need tactical nous, strategic chops and most importantly a silky diplomatic soft touch to win a game, yet alone a tournament. Daunting!

— François Valentin (@Valen10Francois) January 23, 2023

Meta suggested this had long been considered a near-impossible goal for an artificial intelligence to surmount, “because it requires players to master the art of understanding other people’s motivations and perspectives; make complex plans and adjust strategies; and then use natural language to reach agreements with other people, convince them to form partnerships and alliances, and more.”

If an AI cannot recognise when players are bluffing, for example, or cannot predict how players are likely to perceive its own moves, it will fail in a subtle game such as Diplomacy.

Likewise, if it does not convince other players of its humanity, it will not be able to cooperate with them effectively enough to find success.

At present, CICERO is focused solely on playing Diplomacy – perhaps not the most useful application for the technology moving forward.

Underlying this ability, though, is the possibility to create several real world applications for the tech, Meta said.

It will likely be used to improve communication between humans and AI bots, for example by allowing for longer-form conversations during which an AI agent could teach a human a new skill – effectively becoming a near-human teacher for its users.

“We’re excited about the potential for future advances in these areas and seeing how others build on our research,” Meta said. 

Apple: The AI buyer

Apple was an early mover into the AI space but has been relatively quiet in recent years, especially compared to some of its competitors.

AI technology of course underlies the capabilities of its virtual assistant, Siri, which has been active since 2011, and also powers the firm’s FaceID technology, which allows users to securely unlock their devices.

Apple has undeniably adopted a “build and buy” approach to AI in recent years, acquiring 25 separate AI companies between 2016 and 2020 according to Brazilian tech journalist Filipe Espósito. Google, by comparison, acquired 14 over the same period.

The firm is taking a broad approach to AI functionality, acquiring a range of businesses such as home security camera start-up Lighthouse AI, autonomous vehicle firm, and AI Music.

While the firm continues to invest heavily in AI, major announcements have not been forthcoming in recent years.

Apple continues to advertise positions for employees working within AI and machine learning, in order to help build “amazing experiences into every Apple product, allowing millions to do what they never imagined.”

The business is currently advertising roles in machine learning infrastructure, deep learning and reinforcement learning, natural language processing and speech technologies, computer vision and applied research.

Earlier this month, the firm unveiled a suite of AI-voiced audiobooks, with a view to capitalising on the fast-growing medium, which is predicted to become a $35bn market by 2030.

Amazon: Integrating AI across a business

Amazon is undeniably an industry leader in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The firm uses the technologies to help solve a vast array of problems, from optimising processes in its warehouses to interacting with end-users via its Alexa virtual assistant.

The tech giant was an early mover in the space and now offers other businesses the chance to capitalise on its technology through Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Services include anomaly and fraud detection, as well as content personalisation and the reduction of customer churn for retailers, all of which use Amazon’s proprietary machine learning technology.

The company also relies on deep learning – a branch of machine learning that involves layering algorithms in order to better understand data – for use cases such as speech recognition and natural language understanding, image and video classification, and for powering recommendation engines.

1/ 🤖🛍️ Artificial Intelligence has been a trending topic in recent months, and business owners are in the midst of a golden opportunity to take advantage of this technology

But companies like Amazon have been taking advantage of AI for years, here are a few examples:

— Manny Scripts Ⓜ️ (@mannyscripts) January 24, 2023

Those uses all contribute to Amazon’s unparalleled success – with 56.7% of all US online retail purchases taking place via the retailer in 2021, according to Pymnts.

In October last year, the firm held an Innovation Day celebrating 20 years of experience in AI and machine learning (ML).

“The use of ML isn’t slowing down anytime soon, because ML helps Amazon exceed customer expectations for convenience, cost, and delivery speed,” the firm said in a related blog post.

While Jeff Bezos’s business has made AI and machine learning a core component of its success over the last two decades, using the technology to optimise its processes and reduce its costs, thereby delivering ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to its competitors.

The future’s not ours to see

The race to develop useful AI is most certainly heating up in 2023. While leading companies continue to help the technology scale, innovative start-ups like OpenAI are constantly pushing the boundaries.

The way we interact with technology is undergoing a paradigm shift, and it’s fair to say that AI will become an increasingly significant part of both our working and personal lives in the future. 

Earlier this month, iGaming NEXT investigated the gambling industry’s increased investment in AI, a developing trend as companies in the space prioritise profitability.

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for

It has been impossible to ignore the hype surrounding AI technology in 2023, most of which has been driven by the accessibility – and capabilities – of OpenAI’s ChatGPT software.

The rise in prominence of AI has left many of us – rightly or wrongly – absolutely convinced that the robot revolution is coming, and sooner rather than later.

Many fear sizeable job losses for us mere human beings, and many are right to. But this may not occur at the hands of a power-hungry droid army, despite what Hollywood would have you believe.

For example, Microsoft this week became the latest top-tier tech company to lay off thousands of staff – 10,000 to be precise – according to the New York Times.

This is not because Microsoft offered ChatGPT £26,000 a year to do their jobs for them, but because the company has decided to pivot to more pressing priorities, including investing heavily in AI.

The newspaper said Microsoft and its technology peers had responded to surging customer demand in recent years by “essentially hoarding” technical staff. But with inflation now squeezing budgets, lay-offs have become a necessity for most large-scale companies.

“The reality is you can adjust hiring very quickly, and that is what is going on,” Stifel analyst Brad Reback told the New York Times. “I don’t think this is symptomatic of a bigger issue.”

So there we have it. Brad doesn’t see the robots taking over as a big issue, and neither should you – for now at least.

Macau’s gambling king to swap junkets for jail

Macau gambling bigwig Alvin Chau was sentenced to 18 years in prison for more than 100 charges including organised crime and illegal gaming this week.

BBC News was one of many outlets to report on the development, which saw Chau found guilty in a case that focused on illegal bets in excess of HK$823.7bn, or £85.7bn – so not exactly pocket change.

Chau, who was the chairman and founder of operator Suncity Group, had denied the charges. It was Macau’s biggest operator of junkets, which are organised trips for the wealthy to land-based casinos.

The business arranged for big spenders from China to travel to Macau and gamble in the city’s casinos, where it was legal, and even offered loans to them. It also collected debts for casinos and operated VIP rooms.

Prosecutors accused Chau of leading a criminal syndicate that worked as a middle man for undeclared bets, which allegedly lost the government more than HK$8.26bn in tax income.

The court ruled in favour of the prosecutors on most charges, but acquitted Chau of money laundering. As gamblers well know, you win some and you lose some.

Quit horsing around

ITV News this week reported on a new study that is searching for participants to assess the effect of the drug ketamine and its impact on gambling addiction.

University of Exeter researchers are trying to find out whether ketamine’s effect on human memory can be used to break down the positive reinforcement associated with gambling addiction, while also preventing the urge to gamble.

The study will be conducted by a professor of psychopharmacology to examine both the benefits and side effects of recreational drug use on cognition, mental health and neurobiology.

It will be the first study in the world of its kind, although magic mushrooms have often been analysed in similar circumstances to explore their effect on different neuro conditions.

The experiment will assess people’s memory of money and determine whether those memories can be altered by giving a low dose of ketamine.

Ketamine is an anaesthetic drug that blocks a receptor involved in learning and memory. It is a Class B illegal drug in the UK, but has previously been used to treat both pain and depression, and is even more well known for anesthetising horses.

If this sort of thing sounds right up your alley, you must gamble regularly and be at least 18 years old to participate.

Weather alert: Microsoft opens Gates to Blizzard

Microsoft caught our eye and, well, the eyes of the rest of the world this week, as the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the software giant had agreed to buy video game developer Activision Blizzard in a deal worth somewhere in the region of $75bn.

Xbox, Minecraft and Doom creator Microsoft said the all-cash deal would make it the world’s third-largest video gaming company by revenue, behind Riot Games owner Tencent and PlayStation creator Sony.

After adjusting for Activision’s net cash — that is to say, $7bn in debt — Microsoft said the deal is valued at $68.7bn. 

The WSJ reported that Activision’s long-time CEO Bobby Kotick is expected to leave the business after the deal closes, despite Microsoft’s claim that he would continue to serve at the helm of the business.

The deal marks Microsoft’s biggest ever acquisition by some margin, well ahead of the $26.2bn it paid for LinkedIn in 2016, its second biggest purchase, which is followed in the rankings by a $16bn deal for conversational AI specialist Nuance Communications in 2021, and the $8.5bn it paid for Skype back in 2011.

Facebook ain’t fungible: Meta to take a slice of the NFT action

According to the Financial Times, Meta-owned social media giants Facebook and Instagram are exploring plans to allow their users to make, showcase, and sell NFTs on the platforms.

Teams are currently preparing to launch a feature that will allow users to display their NFTs on their social media profiles, according to the report, while working on a prototype add-on to help users mint their own collectible tokens.

Meta has also discussed launching a marketplace to allow users to buy and sell the digital assets, too, according to the insider connections who spoke to the FT.

Apparently, Facebook’s digital currency wallet Novi, which launched as a pilot in the last quarter of last year, is likely to be central to Meta’s NFT objectives, with a lot of its supporting functionality used to power the yet-to-be-seen features.

Twitter threw its hat into the NFT ring this week too, as CoinDesk reported the platform had launched an official verification mechanism for NFT profile pictures.

By linking an Ethereum wallet, users can now have their hard-earned non-fungible profile picture appear in a “nifty new hexagonal border”, rather than the somewhat tired circular format used for old-hat, fungible profile pics.

Anyone attempting to steal your blockchain-registered asset will be easy to spot, then, as their worthless copy of the picture will appear in the classic circular shape. That’ll teach ‘em!

The ugly side of the beautiful game

The Athletic reported this week that the Football Association (FA) had opened an investigation into suspicious betting activity surrounding the award of a yellow card to an Arsenal player during a Premier League match this season.

Apparently, bookies alerted football’s governing body to unusual betting patterns after the match in question, during which a Gunner was given an official warning by the ref. It has not yet been confirmed which offence led to the booking, or for who. 

According to sources, an “unusual” amount of money was placed on the particular player being given a yellow card during the match. Helpfully, the notoriously loose-lipped FA told The Athletic: “The FA is aware of the matter in question and is looking into it.”

While it’s hard to get a word in edgeways around rambling statements like that, previous high-profile cases of so-called ‘spot betting’ have led to top-tier players being banned from professional football in the past.

In 2018, Lincoln City right-back Bradley Wood was banned from playing for six years, after he was found guilty of intentionally receiving yellow cards during the team’s FA Cup run.

This is what Xhaka was booked for on the 86th minute mark against Leeds.

Doesn’t look great…

— now.arsenal (@now_arsenaI) January 19, 2022

According to speculation on Twitter, Swiss-born Granit Xhaka could be the key to solving this mystery, as users took to the social media platform to share videos of his yellow card against Leeds United on 18 December last year.

Xhaka, who is currently serving a suspension for another red card he received against Liverpool at Anfield, was booked in the 88th minute for time-wasting, despite Arsenal leading 4-1 against the West Yorkshire club.