New York City is a leading hub for technology and innovation — but you wouldn’t guess it by its most-hyped headlines. Ironically, some of the most eye-catching recent news in the tech sector centers around how the city prevented one of the most influential tech titans from setting the foundation for a Big Tech colony in Long Island City.
For the short span of a few months, it seemed as though New York was teetering on the verge of supplanting Silicon Valley as a home base for major tech companies. The city had a plan — and a provisional agreement — to host Amazon’s much-courted HQ2 within its borders that many in the tech industry heralded as the start of a new era of innovation and prosperity. During a press conference shortly after the announcement of the agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated, saying: “This is the largest economic development initiative that has ever been done by the city or the state or the city and the state, together.”
The agreement certainly had some startling numbers to back it; analysts projects that the deal would generate no less than $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years with a 9:1 ratio of revenue to subsidies. HQ2 was expected to create roughly 25,000 jobs in its first decade, in addition to the 1,300 construction jobs and 107,000 direct and indirect jobs the building initiative would require. Amazon further promised to launch a tech startup incubator and a new school on its campus, as well as allocate as much as $5 million to workforce development efforts.
On the surface, the partnership between New York and Amazon was a tech proponent’s dream come true; however, the proposed HQ2 deal faced vehement opposition almost immediately after its announcement. Several protests against the initiative were held in Long Island City in the fall of 2018. By February of 2019, the deal was off.
Now, New York’s highly-publicized divorce from Amazon’s HQ2 plans could be interpreted as a sign that the city wasn’t interested in supplanting Silicon Valley as a home for Big Tech. However, I would argue that the issue the city had with Amazon isn’t based in bias against Big Tech or tech as a whole, but in concern that Amazon’s presence would come at too high a cost to the people of New York. The city courted the tech giant, perhaps to the point of overreach; all told, the public funds and kickbacks given to Amazon would have totaled close to $3 billion, with the city and state paying the e-retailer as much as $48,000 per job. With that cost, opponents argued, were the “benefits” Amazon offered even worth their price?
Rejecting Amazon doesn’t mean that New York City is hostile to the tech sector — quite the opposite. The city wants a tech sector, but it wants it on terms that suit the people who call it home, rather than those who run Big Tech’s boardrooms. It seems to be relatively successful in its pursuit of that goal, too: Startup Genome reports that NYC ranks first globally in funding availability and quality in NYC, and the metro region alone received $13 billion in funding in 2018. In 2018, New York’s tech sector represented 333,000 jobs in 2018 and encompassed a full 10% of the nation’s developers.
Moreover, it seems probable that the city will continue to serve as fertile ground for tech-center development, given that it currently supports over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. Those students are likely to stay and contribute, too; tech firms in New York City have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all U.S. tech ecosystems and offer wages that are, on average, 49% higher than private-sector rates elsewhere.
Amazon’s failed HQ2 deal notwithstanding, even Big Tech is expanding its presence in the city. This past spring, Netflix put down $100 million for a production hub in Williamsburg and promised to create over 100 new jobs in Manhattan. In late 2018 — around the same time that Amazon was fielding controversy over HQ2 — Google committed $1 billion to create a new Lower Manhattan campus and double its local workforce. Facebook wants to open up shop in Hudson Yard; Apple is reportedly looking for more office space in the city.
The signs are clear that, despite what the failed HQ2 deal might indicate, New York City wants tech, big and small alike. The city will continue to keep pace, if not ultimately overtake, the Silicon Valley tech scene. Provided, of course, that the tech investment it facilitates supports — and is in turn supported by — its people.
These days, we’ve become all but desensitized to the miraculous convenience of AI. We’re not surprised when we open Netflix to find feeds immediately and perfectly tailored to our tastes, and we’re not taken aback when Facebook’s facial recognition tech picks our face out of a group-picture lineup. Ten years ago, we might have made a polite excuse and beat a quick retreat if we heard a friend asking an invisible person to dim the lights or report the weather. Now, we barely blink — and perhaps wonder if we should get an Echo Dot, too.
We have become so accustomed to AI quietly incorporating itself into almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives that we’ve stopped having hard walls on our perception of possibility. Rather than address new claims of AI’s capabilities with disbelief, we regard it with interested surprise and think — could I use that?
But what happens when AI doesn’t work as well as we expect? What happens when our near-boundless faith in AI’s usefulness is misplaced, and the high-tech tools we’ve begun to rely on start cracking under the weight of the responsibilities we delegate?
Let’s consider an example.
AI Can’t Cure Cancer — Or Can It? An IBM Case Study
When IBM’s Watson debuted in 2014, it charmed investors, consumers, and tech aficionados alike. Proponents boasted that Watson’s information-gathering capabilities would make it an invaluable resource for doctors who might otherwise not have the time or opportunity to keep up with the constant influx of medical knowledge. During a demo that same year, Watson dazzled industry professionals and investors by analyzing an eclectic collection of symptoms and offering a series of potential diagnoses, each ranked by the system’s confidence and linked to relevant medical literature. The AI’s clear knowledge of rare disease and its ability to provide diagnostic conclusions was both impressive and inspiring.
Watson’s positive impression spurred investment. Encouraged by the AI’s potential, MD Anderson, a cancer center within the University of Texas, signed a multi-million dollar contract with IBM to apply Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities to its fight against cancer. Watson for Oncology was meant to parse enormous quantities of case data and provide novel insights that would help doctors provide better and more effective care to cancer patients.
Unfortunately, the tool didn’t exactly deliver on its marketing pitch.
In 2017, auditors at the University of Texas submitted a caustic report claiming that Watson not only cost MD Anderson over $62 million but also failed to achieve its goals. Doctors lambasted the tool for its propensity to give bad advice; in one memorable case reported by the Verge, the AI suggested that a patient with severe bleeding receive a drug that would worsen their condition. Luckily the patient was hypothetical, and no real people were hurt; however, users were still understandably annoyed by Watson’s apparent ineptitude. As one particularly scathing doctor said in a report for IBM, “This product is a piece of s—. We bought it for marketing and with hopes that you would achieve the vision. We can’t use it for most cases.”
But is the project’s failure to deliver on its hype all Watson’s fault? Not exactly.
Watson’s main flaw was with implementation, not technology. When the project began, doctors entered real patient data as intended. However, Watson’s guidelines changed often enough that updating those cases became a chore; soon, users switched to hypothetical examples. This meant that Watson could only make suggestions based on the treatment preferences and information provided by a few doctors, rather than the actual data from an entire cancer center, thereby skewing the advice it provided.
Moreover, the AI’s ability to discern connections is only useful to a point. It can note a pattern between a patient with a given illness, their condition, and the medications prescribed, but any conclusions drawn from such analysis would be tenuous at best. The AI cannot definitively determine whether a link is correlation, causation, or mere coincidence — and thus risks providing diagnostic conclusions without evidence-based backing.
Given the lack of user support and the shortage of real information, is it any surprise that Watson failed to deliver innovative answers?
What Does Watson’s Failure Teach Us?
Watson’s problem is more human than it is technical. There are three major lessons that we can pull from the AI’s crash:
We Need to Check Our Expectations.
We tend to believe that AI and emerging technology can achieve what its developers say that it can. However, as Watson’s inability to separate correlation and causation demonstrates, the potential we read in marketing copy can be overinflated. As users, we need to have a better understanding and skepticism of emerging technology before we begin relying on it.
Tools Must Be Well-Integrated.
If doctors had been able to use the Watson interface without continually needing to revise their submissions for new guidelines, they might have provided more real patient information and used the tool more often than they did. This, in turn, may have allowed Watson to be more effective in the role it was assigned. Considering the needs of the human user is just as important as considering the technical requirements of the tool (if not more so).
We Must Be Careful
If the scientists at MD Anderson hadn’t been so careful, or if they had followed Watson blindly, real patients could have been at risk. We can never allow our faith in an emerging tool to be so inflated that we lose sight of the people it’s meant to help.
Emerging technology is exciting, yes — but we also need to take the time to address the moral and practical implications of how we bring that seemingly-capable technology into our lives. At the very least, it would seem wise to be a little more skeptical in our faith.
Tourist itineraries in New York City are predictable enough to be b-roll cliche. Tourists are easy enough to spot: they move in flocks through Central Park, take selfies at the Statue of Liberty, stare in awe from their slow-moving tour buses at the Empire State Building, and — of course — purchase “I Heart NYC” t-shirts from overpriced carts. The New York that visitors enjoy is predictable, yes, but also vivid, exciting, and well-packed with familiar landmarks; each new day offers wide-eyed tourists the chance to experience famous sights firsthand.
But what if the tourism experience could span more than a well-walked map of landmarks? What if visitors could peel back the cliches of New York’s touristy exterior and delve into its rich history? Augmented and virtual reality technologies may provide a means to do just that, revolutionizing the way visitors experience both the city and its history.
VR and AR’s entry into the tourism sector isn’t all that surprising, given its growing popularity. Analysts for Goldman Sachs estimate that the market for both will overtake $1.6 billion by 2025. Figures from Statista further indicate that as of 2018, 117 million people worldwide were active VR users — a notable leap from four years before, when only 200,000 actively used the technology. Both AR and VR are well-known for their ability to create immersive digital experiences; they empower consumers to delve into their favorite fantasy gaming worlds, experience movies in near-overwhelming sensory experiences, and even virtually “trial” products before buying them in a brick-and-mortar store. With tourism, virtual- and augmented reality technologies promise to add another layer of immersion to an industry that already centers on creating memorable experiences.
VR Expands Tourism Possibilities
Every pre-planned walk or guided bus tour has its limits. Tourists can’t duck under the metaphorical velvet rope to explore their favorite attractions; they have to stay within set, guide-approved bounds. With VR, those limitations are less constricting, offering virtual access to the tourist without compromising the security of the site itself.
As Dr. Nigel Jones, a senior lecturer in information systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University noted for a recent article for the BBC, VR provides “something that’s more tangible to the [tourist]. They can see where they’re going to go, see what’s happening in that location […] The other advantage is to give people an experience that they can’t do. You could take them to a place that’s off limits — like a dungeon in a castle.”
New York City might be running low on castles, but it certainly has no shortage of historic attractions and digitally-explorable landscapes. Consider Governor’s Island, a popular tourist hotspot that sits just East of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the island encompasses several historical sites and a national park — but centuries ago, it was a seasonal fishing spot for Native Americans and an outpost for English and Dutch settlers. The island’s history is rich — and relatively inaccessible for most tourists. However, recent AR innovations have begun to allow tourists to walk through history as they traverse the island.
Inventing America is one such tourist-centered tool. Made publicly available in 2018, Inventing America uses an AR-powered app to transport visitors into a 17th-century, post-colonial version of Governor’s Island. The app provides users with the opportunity to delve into storylines, characters, and history even as they explore the real-life Governor’s Island on foot. Experiences in the app are inextricably tied to physical exploration, ensuring that the AR game complements and supports, rather than replaces, a tourist’s real-world experience on the island.
Of course, not all VR- and AR innovations are quite so based in game and narrative. Others, like the New York City-based tour provider The RIDE, use VR and AR experiences to provide tourists with more information as they drive past popular city hotspots. The RIDE melds traditional tour bus routes with augmented reality technology; each of its buses sport 40 LCD TVs, surround sound, and LED lights. This structure, the company notes, allows facilitators to provide “deeply researched audio/visual support conveying the history and growth of Manhattan” during their tours, thereby superimposing a tech-powered view of a past New York onto the view tourists see beyond the bus’s windows.
Emerging virtual tools promise to add all-new layers to New York’s tourism experience, sweeping away the tired tropes of tourist cliches — and we will be all the better for it.
The Rise of “Apartment” Stores: How Retailers are Downsizing to Survive
Confronted with the rise of online shopping, experiential retail has gone in multiple directions, each one suited to their product. Think of the Apple store, which performs the dual task of selling the company’s products and constructing a brand around them through conscious design choices. For sellers whose wares aren’t so high-tech, there’s been a conspicuous rise in what are called “apartment stores,” the term a play on the department stores they’ve largely replaced in urban centers and upscale retail zones.
What Is an Apartment Store?
An apartment store is generally much smaller than their department store forebears: set up as a warm, inviting space not unlike a well-designed living room. Their simple design belies a sophistication perfectly and unobtrusively designed for displaying high-end clothing and housewares, minus the fluorescent lighting and cold tile floors. Patrons can come in, sit down, even have an espresso or other gourmet treats while they peruse the wares on hand.
The result is an intimacy that has the potential to generate real, loyalty-based consumer relationships. A store that feels like home has long been a goal for many retailers, so it’s almost a surprise that it’s taken so long for this concept to catch on. Some sources place the origin of the trend at around 2015, and it’s since taken root in major cities like New York and Berlin.
Retailers who can take the time and effort to construct such a space aim to achieve the ultimate goal in the age of Amazon: provide a great reason for shoppers to get off the couch and into their doors. It’s no secret that offering something more than a simple transaction is one of the most reliable weapons in the modern retail arsenal, and apartment stores have become one of NYC’s most popular experiential spaces.
Why New York City is Embracing Apartment Stores?
A city such as New York is home to millions and millions of potential buyers, so standing out from the fray is paramount. This rule is especially reliable for high-end customers: they can afford the best, and will expect it when they’re spending their retail dollar. For luxury retailers, this has traditionally meant providing personal consulting, private shopping sessions, and early access to exclusive wares. As luxury has gone mainstream, apartment stores give that personal touch in a place whose doors are open to all (even if the most expensive products on the shelf are still out of reach).
At the same time, the skyrocketing price of real estate means that even established retailers have needed to downsize. An apartment store makes the most of limited space, giving luxury without extravagance. By bringing the high-end shopping experience into a place that feels more like home, buyers have a whole new reason to make their way to the store.
Everything Old is New Again
While a mostly recent trend, apartment stores are in a way a bit of a throwback. Before department stores took off in the early-mid 20th century, most storefronts were small and intimate spaces where sellers knew their customers by name. Shopping was mainly confined to the neighborhood, and destination-style megastores had not yet come into existence. When bigger retailers came along, offering selection and prices that could rarely be beat by mom and pop shops, something reassuring and familiar was lost in the process. Apartment stores bring a bit of that familiarity back to shopping, while still maintaining the high standards today’s customer expects.
In a retail environment where size is not always an asset, apartment stores offer luxury brands and middle-market ones alike space for their customers to call home. Thanks to a market where customer loyalty is as valuable as ever and the cost of entry is often forbiddingly high, expect more of these stores to take up (limited) space at a shopping district near you.
The encroaching issue of climate change is one that’s far too massive for one group to handle alone. It’s up to multiple corridors of power to enact the changes that will ensure a safe future for our planet–which is precisely why it’s become such a complicated state of affairs. With two-thirds of Earth’s population expected to be clustered into cities by 2050, it looks to be urban planners who hold the keys to our survival. It’s also a matter of accounting for the damage cities have done on their own: as it stands now, urban centers are responsible for two-thirds of greenhouse emissions.
As a citizen of New York City, I was proud when our mayor announced the city would divest money from fossil fuels. This move was part of a larger movement aimed at hitting the largest producers of greenhouse gases where it hurts and is certainly an important part of the prevention process. But failing to design sustainable lifestyles for all city-dwellers will result in certain ecological disaster, a situation which no amount of money can correct. Creating these lifestyles starts with tackling the two most ripe areas for change: our construction and transportation practices. With the right plans and initiatives, these will be the conduits through which our cities lead the country into a cleaner and more assured future.
The largest visible representation of urban life, our tall buildings must use energy sustainably and responsibly if we’re to address the climate crisis adequately. This can take several forms, including efficient design that maximizes sunlight, green roofs and outdoor spaces which support the oxygen cycle, reusing water and recycled construction materials. So-called “green buildings” are more than a trendy movement: they’re the frontlines of the fight against rising temperatures.
Efficiency can even work in supertall buildings: Taipei 101 in Taiwan, built in 2011, boasts LEED Platinum certification, the tallest structure in the world to be given this stamp of sustainability. In the midst of a skyscraper boom, cities like New York must take a leadership position in ensuring that while we build to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, we don’t forget about the ground we’re situated on. Earth-friendly building materials like recycled steel and precast concrete can eliminate much of the energy usage that goes into creating these massive structures in the first place, starting their lives off on a sustainable footing.
While environmentally conscious building practices are pivotal, an even bigger aspect of taking on climate change is the necessary paradigm shift in the way we get around our cities. Even with a majority of us living in these population clusters, our dependence on pollution-causing automobiles has played a major part in bringing this climate crisis into being. Even electric cars won’t completely save us, as CO2 emissions will stay high regardless thanks to large-scale shipping and aviation transport that can’t run on electricity for the foreseeable future.
For maximum efficiency in sustainable travel, robust public transportation is an absolute necessity. Even zero-emissions cars only carry fewer than a half-dozen people at once, requiring more energy to be expended on transporting fewer people on a daily basis. By designing cities where public transport is a more attractive option, we create communities that aren’t only cleaner, but happier places to live.
It’s an unfortunate reality that many forward-thinking projects will require state and federal approval before cities can get them to the implementation stage. In these and many other areas, it’s our nation’s metropolitan centers where the front lines of the battle against climate change will be staged, but by taking control of the narrative, city planners, local leaders and advocates can spearhead the changes that need to happen. Yes, they’ll need political support in due time, but building and transportation plans in the works are the roadmap for a safe, continued existence.
The much-hyped HQ2 sweepstakes has finally come to a close, but many in the winning cities aren’t feeling so triumphant. Two major metros, New York and DC, will play host to the currently-Seattle-based tech behemoth’s newest nerve centers. Here at the upper end of the Northeast Corridor, Amazon’s announced Queens-based plans have come with a great deal of controversy, with local politicos and opinion makers alike voicing real concerns about effects-economic, social, and more-of this new development.
As a New Yorker who follows the tech scene closely, I’ve heard a lot about HQ2 that doesn’t quite sit right with me. In the interest of lending a street-level perspective to the proceedings, here are 3 facts about the deal that are getting lost in the clamor.
Over 12,000 non-tech jobs will be created
Fears of a new Amazon-bolstered NYC tech elite were fed by the reported 25,000 new jobs that the company expects to create with HQ2. In truth, only half of those jobs (still an admittedly large number) will be in tech-influenced positions where salaries can hit the higher six figures. The other half will be in the same support positions you’d find at any large organization: administrative, custodial, and other jobs that can better draw on the diverse talent pool of Queens and the rest of the city. Don’t forget, too, that the city’s minimum wage will be hitting $15/hour by the end of 2018. It seems likely that working New Yorkers of all ages and levels of experience will have a chance to find new professional fulfillment in HQ2.
In a city of 8 million, 25,000 is a drop in the bucket
25,000 open jobs is a big number to see on paper, but in a city as big as New York, 25,000 is a pittance. It’s likely that the vast majority of us who don’t normally pass through LIC will see no changes whatsoever. Even if every single job is taken by someone who currently doesn’t live here, that’s hardly an invasion. The announced number is about the equivalent of the enrollment of the city’s six biggest high schools (there are over 120 in Queens alone). Do we stress every year about new graduates flooding the city? This is New York, not Cedar Rapids. We’ve benefitted from a constant influx of talented and smart people since the 1600s, and HQ2’s changes will amount to just one more round of newcomers.
Long Island City will change, but that’s nothing new
Make no mistake, if the majority of Amazon-inspired arrivals choose to take up residence close to their new place of employment, Long Island City will see the brunt of the cultural changes. But for a neighborhood that was little more than a courthouse and a few commercial strips (and one lonely skyscraper) only a couple decades ago, Amazon’s move is the cherry on top of a long process of evolution. Few neighborhoods have exploded in popularity like LIC in the past decade-plus, and this was underway well before Bezos and company set their sights on the locale. A tech campus is perhaps befitting the scores of new bars, restaurants and other hotspots in this part of town.
Any worries about Amazon affecting culture ought to be assuaged by the fact that this city always has and always will be changing, tech companies or no tech companies. It’s the people, not the corporations, that make New York City what it is, and I know I’m not alone in saying that no company is big enough to change the Big Apple itself.
Bennat Berger is an NYC-based tech writer, investor, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Novel Property Ventures, a company that specializes in finding, acquiring, and managing high-potential multifamily residential units in New York City. Berger is also the founder of Novel Private Equity, a private equity firm that gives tech startups the support they need to thrive in an increasingly competitive business market.