Blog2020-03-02T16:28:51+00:00

Autonomous Cars: A Smart Cities Answer to COVID-Proof Transit?

Of all the circumstances that we might have imagined kickstarting America’s smart city aspirations, a pandemic surely wasn’t on our list. And yet, our anxieties over disease transmission might just be the fuel that propels us towards a future in which autonomous cars become the urban norm.

A huge setback for public transit

For the last several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled us to change our perspectives to suit a newly disease-aware world. We’ve adapted our day-to-day routine to suit social distancing recommendations and become leery of crowded, high-traffic areas. Our faith in public transit, in particular, has been shaken so profoundly that it very nearly demands an innovative fix. Time magazine recently described COVID-19’s impact on public transit as “apocalyptic.”

“[Buses] that once carried anywhere from about 50 to 100 passengers have been limited to between 12 and 18 to prevent overcrowding in response to coronavirus […] Seattle transit riders have described budgeting as much as an extra hour per trip to account for the reduced capacity, eating into their time at work, school or with family,” Time’s Alejandro de la Garza wrote in July.

Sometimes, riders’ anxieties compel them to leave the bus before their stop; one woman who de la Garza interviewed described exiting several stops early with her seven-year-old son after the driver allowed a crowd of people to board at once.

“It’s very trying,” the source, Brittany Williams, shared. “I’ll put it in those terms.”

How can we keep public transit viable?

The obvious answer to the overcrowding and slow-transit problems would be to add more buses — but such a move doesn’t seem economically feasible with the current decline in public transit use. In July, the Transit App reported a 58 percent year-over-year reduction in travelers within Williams’ home city of Seattle.

Numbers are a little worse in Washington D.C., with a 66 percent decline in Metrobus use and a 90 percent drop in Metrorail traffic. The losses experienced in New York City are among the worst, with the Transit App noting a 95 percent loss in the spring and a still-alarming reduction rate of 84 percent in late summer.

Pandemic fears have limited traveling, which in turn has limited fares to a trickle and all but eliminated cities’ abilities to add to their public transit fleets. According to a recent McKinsey report, 52 percent of American respondents travel less than they did before COVID-19. Many who do travel opt for a private vehicle over bus or train trips. A full third of surveyed consumers say that they “value constant access to a private vehicle more than before COVID-19.”

To risk stating the obvious: not everyone can buy or store a public car, nor should they even if they could. The environmental impact of replacing public transit with individual vehicles would be environmentally disastrous and dramatically exacerbate existing traffic and parking problems. Moreover, reports indicate that purchasing intent has dropped with the economic downturn; people don’t want to buy new cars when their incomes are uncertain.

An opening for autonomous cars

But I would argue that city-dwellers don’t necessarily need private cars — they just need a mode of transport that offers the isolated, sterilized feel of personal vehicles with the cost-efficiency and dependability that characterizes good public transit. Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have set the groundwork for this, but aren’t a perfect fit. They’re expensive, focused on one person at a time, and naturally pose a virus-spread risk to passengers and drivers alike. But what if there were no drivers, only a limited number of masked and isolated passengers traveling pre-defined, regular routes?

Years ago, architect Peter Calthorpe painted a vision of California cities with autonomous cars that was very nearly this, writing: “Down the center of El Camino, on dedicated, tree-lined lanes, [would be] autonomous shuttle vans. They’d arrive every few minutes, pass each other at will, and rarely stop, because an app would group passengers by destination.”

There’s a window of opportunity to reshape consumer perception of autonomous cars within a public-transit perception. Instead of anxiously fleeing buses inundated with close-seated crowds, mothers like Brittany Williams could order an autonomous ride and sit, as per a COVID-optimized version of Calthorpe’s vision, either alone or with one or two distanced others. Between routes, these cars could be sanitized and sent off to support new passengers. Such an approach would establish self-driving vehicles not as a one-person luxury, but a new and COVID-thoughtful form of public transportation.

The sustainability and convenience benefits of adding a self-driving shuttle service to public transit are countless. These include lessening the need for private cars, mitigating traffic deadlock, and improving passenger convenience. Autonomous shuttles could shoulder at least some of the burden carried by other public transit services and lessen the need for additional (if half-filled) buses and trains.

While it is true that Uber and Lyft have been talking about developing autonomous cars and next-gen taxi services for years to no avail, we are now closer than ever before to achieving viable autonomous driving technology. Earlier this year, the GM-backed driverless car startup Cruise received a permit from the California DMV that would allow the company to test driverless cars without safety drivers, albeit only on specific roads.

This represents a significant step forward in the deployment of autonomous cars and, if successful, could lead to the first fully-autonomous vehicles. It is worth noting that despite delays, Cruise hopes to launch a self-driving taxi service soon; its fourth-generation autonomous cars features automatic doors, rear-seat airbags, and, notably, no steering wheel.

If Cruise can manage to accomplish this, it stands to reason that autonomous shuttles are not all that far away. If anything, cities might have more opportunities to partner with self-driving startups and incorporate autonomous shuttles into municipal transit. Given that pandemic-prompted anxieties will likely persist until (if not well beyond) the emergence of a mass-produced vaccine, it seems likely that the window of opportunity for piquing consumer interest in socially-distanced autonomous transit could extend out over years.

Of course, there are few clear speed bumps in the way.

For one, there is still a pervasive stigma around the perceived safety of autonomous cars. Uber memorably halted its experiments in 2018, when one of its experimental vehicles struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona.

At the time, there were rumors that the company planned to divest itself of its self-driving interests entirely; however, the company has begun to restart its efforts on a significantly smaller scale in recent months. Cruise — and any other autonomous car startup that takes on the challenge — will need to assure the public of its products’ safety before it can achieve widespread acceptance.

Another major issue will be cost.

With public transit in such dire straits, obtaining the funds for a partnership between self-driving car startups and municipal transit may prove difficult in the short term unless the local government is convinced of the public’s need for autonomous shuttles and the revenue that such an approach could attract as a result of said need. Proponents will need to launch a media campaign to raise public awareness and bolster backing for adding autonomous shuttles to municipal transit.

If we can get beyond some of these initial hurdles, we can kickstart a smart, sustainable and COVID-aware urban transit system. As with the early days of online shopping, consumer perceptions of autonomous driving will quickly shift from it being a laughable luxury to a must-have public service, especially under pandemic conditions.

Originally published on TriplePundit.com

By |November 13th, 2020|Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

Amazon Proves That a Competitive Culture Beats an Anti-Competitive Policy, Every Time

Once more, titans of industry have fallen under censure for perceived monopolization and the abuse of their considerable power. But this time, their names aren’t Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Vanderbilt, but Bezos, Zuckerberg, Pichai, and Cook.

In recent weeks, all four have faced hard questions about perceived corporate misbehavior. The concerns directed towards each corporate icon may differ according to the specifics of their company’s actions, but all ask the same essential question: Can massive tech companies keep themselves from intimidating or using the small businesses that increasingly rely on their platforms to survive?

In late July, the House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing to address the matter. The event marked the culmination of an extensive antitrust investigation that encompassed over a million corporate documents and hundreds of hours of personnel interviews. One reporter for the Verge characterized the hearing as “one of the biggest tech oversight moments in recent years.” Representative David Cicilline, the Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee Chair, made the subcommittee’s belief in the importance of the hearing clear at its outset.

“Because these companies are so central to our modern life, their business practices and decisions have an outsized effect on our economy and our democracy,” Cicilline said. “Any single action by any one of these companies can affect hundreds of millions of us in profound and lasting ways.”

Cicilline further argued that each of the four tech companies under investigation — Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple — comprised a crucial channel for distribution, such as an app store or ad venue, and uses monopolizing methods to purchase or otherwise block potential competitors. He also noted that the companies all either show preference to their branded products or create pricing schemes that undermine third-party brands’ abilities to compete.

As you might have already guessed, each case has a wealth of associated information and considerations. Recapping them, let alone providing commentary, would be challenging at best. So, instead, I want to consider the question of whether or not a business can be both a market ecosystem and fair competitor through the context of one business: Amazon.

Amazon fell under fire earlier this year, when the Wall Street Journal released a stunning report that the e-retailer had used data from its third-party sellers — data that was believed to be proprietary — to inform the development and sale of competing, private-label products.

This revelation sent shockwaves through the business community, despite the fact that it wasn’t entirely unanticipated; according to reporting from the Verge, the European Union’s main antitrust body claimed that it was “investigating whether Amazon is abusing its dual role as a seller of its own products and a marketplace operator and whether the company is gaining a competitive advantage from data it gathers on third-party sellers” in 2019.

Amazon has pushed back on these concerns, claiming that it has policies that forbid private-label personnel from obtaining specific seller data. However, the Wall Street Journal’s interviews of former and current employees found that the rule was inconsistently enforced and overlooked so often that the use of third-party, proprietary data was openly discussed in product development meetings.

“We knew we shouldn’t,” one former employee said while recounting a pattern of using seller data to launch and bolster Amazon products. “But at the same time, we are making Amazon branded products, and we want them to sell.”

And therein lies the core of the problem. Amazon is a company that maintains a laser focus on success — even to the point that its employees are willing to circumvent policy for its sake. But we can’t blame the employees, not entirely. The tech industry has long been known for its move-fast-and-break-things attitude, and Amazon more than most; the e-retailer’s obsession with achievement is near-legendary.

In 2015, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld published an exposé that painted Amazon’s culture as one specifically designed for intense, high-output, and unforgiving efficiency.

“Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else,” Kantor and Streitfeld described.

“The culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being ‘vocally self-critical’ is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster.”

The article even noted that Amazon holds yearly firing sessions (dubbed “cullings” in the exposé) to shed those who don’t perform up to its notoriously high standards. Illness, parenthood, and even family loss — none were considered excuses for lapses in performance.

Given the stressful environment and achievement-at-all-costs mentality, is it any surprise that employees would sneak around a barely-enforced policy to obtain data that will help their projects succeed? I would say no.

In a culture that positions cutthroat competitiveness as a professional survival mechanism, an anticompetitive policy is little more than flimsy caution tape: readily seen, easily circumvented, and meant more to provide plausible deniability than to prevent anyone from breaking the rules.

And, of course, we have to acknowledge the point that a company that periodically culls its staff for the sake of efficiency wouldn’t mind pushing blame onto a worker who happens to get caught. Bezos already did so in his hearing. He testified, “What I can tell you is we have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business but I can’t guarantee that policy has never been violated.”

Another hearing exchange between Cicilline and Bezos is particularly telling.

Cicilline asks, “Isn’t it an inherent conflict of interest for Amazon to produce and sell products that compete directly with third party sellers, particularly when you, Amazon, set the rules of the game?”

Bezos responds: “The consumer is the one making the decisions.”

But how is that an appropriate response, when the data Amazon collects allows the e-retailer an unfair advantage to design and market products designed to outstrip the competition? It remains to be seen whether legislators will ultimately choose to spin off Amazon marketplace from its Basics line, but Amazon has proven beyond a doubt that it is naive to believe that a company that was built with a crush-the-competition mentality should be trusted with safeguarding smaller, vulnerable competitors’ proprietary data.

Company culture beats policy, every time.

Originally published on Medium

By |October 19th, 2020|Business, Culture, Current Events|

Quarantine Can be a Pressure Cooker for Inspiration

Life in quarantine feels like an odd suspension of real life; a time in which the world grinds to an indefinite, boring, and under-achieving halt.

When you live in New York, it only ever takes a glance out the window to remind yourself that the country is in a state of emergency. The streets are oddly silent; the few who brave the open air wear makeshift masks and veer in fearful six-foot detours around other pedestrians. Flip on the news, and you get a cacophony of news stories that riff on the same two questions — What’s happening with COVID-19? When will it end? — in a continuous loop. Sheltering at home somehow generates as much exhaustion as it does restless cabin fever. Life in quarantine feels like an odd suspension of real life, a time in which the world grinds to an indefinite, boring, and under-achieving halt.

This period of pause is the pits for everyone — but especially so for aspiring entrepreneurs. Currently, over 42 states have implemented shelter-in-place mandates and isolated over 316 million people in their homes. Businesses of all stripes have shuttered their doors or attempted to shift their day-to-day work into a new, remote, normal. It’s a unique and stressful time to be in business; according to a recent study by PWC, nearly three-quarters of surveyed American CFOs are “greatly concerned” about COVID-19’s impact on their operations. While there theoretically could be a worse time to start a business, the current pandemic would be challenging to surpass.

But here’s the thing. Amidst all of this business stress and well-deserved economic concern, there is room for hope. While there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has burdened us with challenges, it has also compelled tech-forward entrepreneurs across countless industries to pivot into a frantic period of innovation.

To borrow a quote from Entrepreneur writer Hamza Mudassir, “Black swan events, such as economic recessions and pandemics, change the trajectory of governments, economies, and businesses — altering the course of history.” The coronavirus will likely be the same — perhaps, even, for the better.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen an explosion of digital teleworking solutions, teaching tools, therapy and stress-relief apps, and retail solutions that, I believe, will benefit us even when the pandemic finally recedes. These offerings are only available because forward-thinking entrepreneurs took the initiative to see beyond the immediate crisis and give consumers what they need. They continued problem-solving even in a world in lockdown.

I’m not necessarily saying that now is the time to build your business — quite the opposite. But there are steps that aspiring entrepreneurs can take to keep their entrepreneurial dreams alive and prepare for when consumers and business leaders alike can finally step into the open air.

“This will be a before moment and an after moment for the world,” Open AI CEO Sam Altman recently told CNBC. “There’s incredible innovation coming.”

Here’s what you can do to get ready for that ‘after’ moment.

Reflect on Your Business Idea

If there’s one fact that we know for sure, it’s that society will feel the repercussions of COVID-19 long after the virus itself fades.

“We’re going to have to work through this quarantine state of mind even when the physical quarantine has lifted,” Sheva Rajaee, founder of the Center for Anxiety and OCD in Irvine, California, recently told reporters for Vox.

Despite our assertions that we’ll make up for lost time and treasure in-person interactions once shelter-in-place restrictions lift, it seems likely that our current fears of infection and interpersonal contact will persist even as we transition back into ordinary life. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to look at their business ideas and consider whether they could be retooled to better suit the needs of a consumer base that increasingly treasures at-home services. Alternatively, entrepreneurs may want to consider how their business could be pivoted to lessen their reliance on in-person contact and maximize their use of digital channels.

Build Your Connections

Entrepreneurship is an inherently lonely profession. While a friend, a colleague, or a partner may sympathize with your anxiety or celebrate your wins, they can never fully understand the nerve-wracking thrill that comes part and parcel with building a business. During hard times like these, that kind of loneliness can feel crippling; it lowers morale, reduces productivity, and dampens creativity.

But, if you can build a network of people who truly understand the struggle from firsthand experience, you’ll be better equipped to face the entrepreneurial challenge head-on. As entrepreneur and writer David Sax put the matter in a recent article for Fast Company, “We need to build a community of entrepreneurs who can lean on each other, learn from each other, and let one another know that while they may feel as though they are facing the world alone, their experience is shared, and in some way, the burden is too.”

Reach out to entrepreneur-based social media groups; get involved with your local small business organizations; forge real connections with the acquaintances you’ve meant to contact but never have. Take the time to build a supportive network, and you’ll see the supportive and creative returns tenfold.

Balance Your Perspective

The pandemic is happening. Yes, it may seem like stating the obvious — but it needs to be said. Society will be struggling through this challenge for a while, and the repercussions will persist for months, if not years.

As Forbes contributor Hod Fleishman recently wrote, “We need to accept that reality is changing, identify what works, and […] define new ways of working. COVID-19 is terrible, it’s a tragedy, but it also opens up new business opportunities.”

We need to find a way to move on and thrive despite the hardship and uncertainty we face right now. Strive for creativity and productivity — and when you feel overwhelmed, give yourself the time you need to process the stress.

I wholeheartedly believe that with persistence, optimism, and effort, entrepreneurs can get through the COVID-19 crisis and do their part to make our world a better, more creative place.

Originally published on ThriveGlobal

By |September 11th, 2020|Business, Culture|

For Investors, Property Tech Goes Far Beyond a Smart Home

At first listen, the term “property tech” seems to fit comfortably within the context of ultra-luxurious modernism. We picture something at home within sleek glass-and-metal walls and minimalist design. We imagine an -powered abode where the temperature, light, and -connected outlets can be adjusted with a few smartphone taps or an offhand remark, and a security app allows you to video chat doorstep visitors from halfway around the world.

These products align with the average consumer’s idea of residential technology. But for those in the commercial real estate sector, “property tech” has an entirely different definition — one far removed from the realm of modernist homeowners and IoT-enthusiasts. In fact, far from being an unnecessary luxury, property tech stands a good chance of revolutionizing commercial real estate at every point, from development to sales to property management.

Prop Tech: A Promising New Frontier for Commercial Real Estate

As defined by Tech Target,  refers to the “use of information technology (IT) to help individuals and companies research, buy, sell, and manage real estate.” Innovative PropTech solutions are usually designed to facilitate greater efficiency and connectivity in the real estate market, allowing consumers and vendors at all levels to achieve their goals quickly and at high quality. While PropTech capabilities vary widely across products, they tend to fall into three broad categories: smart home, real estate sharing, and .

The first category encompasses the majority of the IoT-powered home devices mentioned at the top of this piece — the smart thermostats, remotely-controlled home systems, and digital security solutions. Real estate sharing refers to online platforms like Airbnb, Redfin, and Zillow, which facilitate the advertisement and sale of real-world properties. The last term is all but self-explanatory; “fintech” references any tool that assists in real estate financial management or transactions.

The potential that PropTech holds to reform the commercial real estate sector is off the charts — and investors know it. According to a recent , global investment in real estate technology netted an incredible $12.6 billion across 347 deals in 2017 alone, $6.5 billion of which funneled directly to U.S.-based companies. Re:Tech researchers further noted that investment trends indicated a great deal of early interest in untested PropTech solutions, with early-stage companies receiving “the lion’s share” of funding dollars.

Early Successes Illustrate High Potential

This flurry of investor interest isn’t without basis. The PropTech sector has seen runaway growth and concrete success in recent years; aside from the evident popularity of digital-forward platforms like Airbnb and Zillow in the rental and buying markets, adoption of smart home technology has reached a fever pitch. Deloitte reports that sensor deployment in real estate is projected to grow at a  and will likely top 1.3 billion in 2020.

Some companies have even incorporated cutting-edge PropTech innovations into their business model to remarkable success. Take the Texas-based real estate investment firm Amherst Holdings as an example. Last year, Forbes profiled  and data modeling during the asset identification process, noting how Amherst used AI not only to discover investment properties, but also to make dozens of offers per day on potentially lucrative homes. The strategy has paid off; today, the investment firm is thriving, and its portfolio encompasses an incredible 16,000 homes across the American Sunbelt region.

New York: A New Sandbox for PropTech Creativity?

Now, however, companies may not need to foray into PropTech testing without support. Last November, New York announced that it would launch a pilot program that would allow PropTech startups to trial their products via NYC’s portfolio of public properties.  in a press release, “The New York City Economic Development Corporation will launch a pilot program that allows companies to implement proof-of-concept property technology products in the city’s 326.1 million square feet of owned and managed real estate.”

“We want to make our buildings available to incentivize the kinds of innovations that you are all out there working on day in and day out,” Vicki Been, the deputy mayor for housing and development, commented. “We want our buildings and our tenants to be helpful to you, and provide a way to test some of the ideas that you are developing so that we can get those ideas out to the market and into buildings even faster.”

In this way, the city is offering itself up as an innovation sandbox, a place where real estate innovators can test and troubleshoot their digital tools to the betterment of all — and especially New Yorkers.

With this philosophy of openness and curiosity comes an opportunity for New York-based real estate players to not only test innovative approaches but put them together into a unified strategy. We’ve all seen companies find significant success by leveraging one variety of PropTech solution. Airbnb thrives in facilitating short-term real estate transactions, Google and Amazon have cornered the smart home market, and Amherst Holdings has established a winning, AI-powered strategy for finding and acquiring assets. Individually, all of these tactics show impressive results — but what could we achieve if we managed to link them together?

The Tools of Today Could Create the RE Strategy of Tomorrow

In theory, the disparate PropTech solutions we see now could be stitched into a seamless strategy. The strategy might progress as follows — real estate operators could use  and  to identify lucrative neighborhoods and home in on investment properties, then apply -powered  to purchase those buildings. Next, they might retrofit their assets to have utility sensors that can ensure optimal utility use and management. These IoT-equipped devices could also better automate the care of a building by notifying owners when a system requires maintenance and providing real-time insights on how tenants .

When linked, these PropTech solutions can , allowing property firms an opportunity to gain better insights into how they can best use, maintain, and improve their asset properties.

The implications for commercial real estate improvement are huge — and, to be clear, this is all available technology. Real estate operators could incorporate PropTech into their strategic workflow today if they wanted. Will that change require some upfront investment and effort? Absolutely — but, as New York’s decision to offer itself as a testing sandbox demonstrates, there is no better time for real estate operators to get ahead of the curve and start crafting unified strategies than right now.

Originally published on 

By |July 20th, 2020|Business, Current Events, Technology|

Could COVID-19 Kickstart Surveillance Culture?

Several months ago, saying that the “cure” that facial recognition offers is worse than the ills it solves would have seemed hyperbolic. But now, the metaphor has become all too literal — and the medicine it promises isn’t quite so easy to reject when sickness is sweeping the globe.

Even as it depresses economies across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a new period of growth and development for facial recognition technology. Creators pitch their tools as a means to identify sick individuals without risking close-contact investigation.

In China, the biometrics company Telpo has launched non-contact body temperature measurement terminals that — they claim — can identify users even if they wear a face mask. Telpo is near-evangelical about how useful its technology could be during the coronavirus crisis, writing that “this technology can not only reduce the risk of cross infection but also improve traffic efficiency by more than 10 times […] It is suitable for government, customs, airports, railway stations, enterprises, schools, communities, and other crowded public places.”

COVID-19: A Push Towards Dystopia?

At a surface glance, Telpo’s offerings seem…good. Of course we want to limit the spread of infection across public spaces; of course we want to protect our health workers by using contactless diagnostic tools. Wouldn’t we be remiss if we didn’t at least consider the opportunity?

And this is the heart of the problem. The marketing pitch is tempting in these anxious, fearful times. But in practice, using facial recognition to track the coronavirus can be downright terrifying. Take Russia as an example — according to reports from BBC, city officials in Moscow have begun leveraging the city’s massive network of cameras to keep track of residents during the pandemic lockdown.

In desperate times like these, the knee-jerk suspicion that we typically hold towards invasive technology wavers. We think that maybe, just this once, it might be okay to accept facial recognition surveillance — provided, of course, that we can slam the door on it when the world returns to normal. But can we? Once we open Pandora’s box, can we force it shut again?

In March, the New York Times reported that the White House had opened talks with major tech companies, including Facebook and Google, to assess whether using aggregated location data sourced from our mobile phones would facilitate better containment of the virus. Several lawmakers immediately pushed back on the idea; however, the discussion does force us to wonder — would we turn to more desperate measures, like facial surveillance? How much privacy would we sacrifice in exchange for better perceived control over the pandemic?

Understanding America’s Surveillance Culture Risk

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since January, when an expose published by the New York Times revealed that a startup called Clearview AI had quietly developed a facial recognition app capable of matching unknown subjects to their online images and profiles — and promptly peddled it to over 600 law enforcement agencies without any public scrutiny or oversight. Clearview stands as a precursor; a budding example of what surveillance culture in America could look like, if left unregulated. One quote in particular sticks in my head.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that because information constantly increases, there’s never going to be privacy,” David Scalzo, the founder of a private equity firm currently investing in Clearview commented for the Times. “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology. Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.”

Scalzo’s offhand, almost dismissive tone strikes an odd, chilling contrast to the gravity of his statement. If facial recognition technology will lead to a surveillance-state dystopia, shouldn’t we at least try to slow its forward momentum? Shouldn’t we at least consider the dangers that a dystopia might pose — especially during times like these, when privacy-eroding technology feels like a viable weapon against global pandemic?

I’m not the only one to ask these questions. Since January’s expose, Clearview AI has come under fire from no fewer than four lawsuits. The first castigated the company’s app for being an “insidious encroachment” on civil liberties; the second took aim both at Clearview’s tool and the IT products provider CDW for its licensing of the app for law enforcement use, alleging that “The [Chicago Police Department] […] gave approximately 30 [Crime Prevention and Information Center] officials full access to Clearview’s technology, effectively unleashing this vast, Orwellian surveillance tool on the citizens of Illinois.” The company was also recently sued in Virginia and Vermont.

All that said, it is worth noting that dozens of police departments across the country already use products with facial recognition capabilities. One report on the United States’ facial recognition market found that the industry is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7.0 billion by 2024. The Washington Post further reports that the FBI alone has conducted over 390,000 facial-recognition searches across federal and local databases since 2011.

Unlike DNA evidence, facial recognition technology is usually relatively cheap and quick to use, lending itself easily to everyday use. It stands to reason that if better technology is made available, usage by public agencies will become even more commonplace. We need to keep this slippery slope in mind. During a pandemic, we might welcome tools that allow us to track and slow the spread of disease and overlook the dangerous precedent they set in the long-term.

Given all of this, it seems that we should, at the very least, avoid panic-prompted decisions to allow facial recognition — and instead, consider what we can do to avoid the slippery slope that facial recognition technology poses.

Are Bans Protection? Considering San Francisco

In the spring of 2019, San Francisco passed legislation that outright forbade government agencies from using tools capable of facial surveillance — although the ruling was amended to allow for equipped devices if there was no viable alternative. The lawmakers behind the new ordinance stated their reasoning clearly, writing that “the propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits.”

They have a point. Facial recognition software is notorious for its inaccuracy. One new federal study also found that people of color, women, older subjects, and children faced higher misidentification rates than white men.

“One false match can lead to missed flights, lengthy interrogations, tense police encounters, false arrests, or worse,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the Washington Post. “But the technology’s flaws are only one concern. Face recognition technology — accurate or not — can enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale.”

While it’s still too early to have a clear gauge on the ban’s efficacy, it is worth noting that the new legislation sparked a few significant and immediate changes to the city’s police department. In December, Wired reported that “When the surveillance law and facial recognition ban were proposed in late January, San Francisco police officials told Ars Technica that the department stopped testing facial recognition in 2017. The department didn’t publicly mention that it had contracted with DataWorks that same year to maintain a mug shot database and facial recognition software as well as a facial recognition server through summer 2020.”

The department scrambled to dismantle the software after the ban, but the department’s secretive approach remains problematic. The very fact that the San Francisco police department was able to acquire and apply facial recognition technology without public oversight is troubling.The city’s current restrictions offer a stumbling block by limiting acceptance of surveillance culture as a normal part of everyday life — and prevent us from automatically reaching for it as a solution during times of panic.

A stumbling block, however, is not an outright barricade. Currently, San Francisco is under a shelter-in-place mandate; as of April 6, it had a reported 583 confirmed cases and nine deaths. If the situation worsens, could organizers suggest that the city make an exception and use facial recognition tracking to flatten the curve, just this once? It’s a long-shot hypothetical, but it does lead us to wonder what could happen if we allow circumstances to convince us into surveillance culture, one small step at a time.

Bans can only do so much. While the San Francisco ruling proves that Scalzo’s claim that “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology” isn’t strictly speaking correct, the sentiment behind it remains. Circumstances can compel us into considering privacy-eroding tech even as those explorations lead us down a path to dystopia.

So, in a way, Scalzo is right; the proliferation of facial recognition technology is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on bans and protective measures. Instead, we should pursue them further and slow the momentum as much as we can — if only to give ourselves time to establish regulations, rules, and protections. We can’t give in to short-term thinking; we can’t start down the slippery slope towards surveillance culture without considering the potential consequences. Otherwise, we may well find that the “cure” that facial recognition promises is, in the long term, far worse than any short-term panic.

Originally published on Hackernoon.com

By |June 12th, 2020|Business, Current Events, Technology|

What Does It Matter If AI Writes Poetry?

Robots might take our jobs, but they (probably) won’t replace our wordsmiths.

These days, concerns about the slow proliferation of AI-powered workers underly a near-constant, if quiet, discussion about which positions will be lost in the shuffle. According to a report published earlier this year by the Brookings Institution, roughly a quarter of jobs in the United States are at “high risk” of automation. The risk is especially pointed in fields such as food service, production operations, transportation, and administrative support — all sectors that require repetitive work. However, some in creatively-driven disciplines feel that the thoughtful nature of their work protects them from automation.

It’s certainly a memorable passage — both for its utter lack of cohesion and its familiarity. The tone and language almost mimic J.K. Rowling’s style — if J.K. Rowling lost all sense and decided to create cannibalistic characters, that is. Passages like these are both comedic and oddly comforting. They amuse us, reassure us of humans’ literary superiority, and prove to us that our written voices can’t be replaced — not yet.

However, not everything produced by AI is as ludicrous as A Giant Pile of Ash. Some pieces veer on the teetering edge of sophistication. Journalist John A. Tures experimented with the quality of AI-written text for the Observer. His findings? Computers can condense long articles into blurbs well enough, if with errors and the occasional missed point. As Tures described, “It’s like using Google Translate to convert this into a different language, another robot we probably didn’t think about as a robot.” It’s not perfect, he writes, but neither is it entirely off the mark.

Moreover, he notes, some news organizations are already using AI text bots to do low-level reporting. The Washington Post, for example, uses a bot called Heliograf to handle local stories that human reporters might not have the time to cover. Tures notes that these bots are generally effective at writing grammatically-accurate copy quickly, but tend to lose points on understanding the broader context and meaningful nuance within a topic. “They are vulnerable to not understanding satires, spoofs or mistakes,” he writes.

And yet, even with their flaws, this technology is significantly more capable than those who look only at comedic misfires like A Giant Pile of Ash might believe. In an article for the Financial Times, writer Marcus du Sautoy reflects on his experience with AI writing, commenting, “I even employed code to get AI to write 350 words of my current book. No one has yet identified the algorithmically generated passage (which I’m not sure I’m so pleased about, given that I’m hoping, as an author, to be hard to replace).”

Du Sautoy does note that AI struggles to create overarching narratives and often loses track of broader ideas. The technology is far from being able to write a novel — but still, even though he passes off his perturbance at the AI’s ability to fit perfectly within his work as a literal afterthought, the point he makes is essential. AI is coming dangerously close to being able to mimic the appearance of literature, if not the substance.

Take Google’s POEMPORTRAITS as an example. In early spring, engineers working in partnership with Google’s Arts & Culture Lab rolled out an algorithm that could write poetry. The project leaders, Ross Goodwin and Es Devlin, trained an algorithm to write poems by supplying the program with over 25 million words written by 19th-century poets. As Devlin describes in a blog post, “It works a bit like predictive text: it doesn’t copy or rework existing phrases, but uses its training material to build a complex statistical model.”

When users donate a word and a self-portrait, the program overlays an AI-written poem over a colorized, Instagrammable version of their photograph. The poems themselves aren’t half bad on the first read; Devlin’s goes: “This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

As Devlin herself puts it, the poetry produced is “Surprisingly poignant, and at other times nonsensical.” The AI-provided poem sounds pretty, but is at best vague, and at worst devoid of meaning altogether. It’s a notable lapse, because poetry, at its heart, is about creating meaning and crafting implication through artful word selection. The turn-of-phrase beauty is essential — but it’s in no way the most important part of writing verse. In this context, AI-provided poetry seems hollow, shallow, and without the depth or meaning that drives literary tradition.

In other words, even beautiful phrases will miss the point if they don’t have a point to begin with.

In his article for the Observer, John A. Tures asked a journalism conference attendee his thoughts on what robots struggle with when it comes to writing. “He pointed out that robots don’t handle literature well,” Tures writes, “covering the facts, and maybe reactions, but not reason. It wouldn’t understand why something matters. Can you imagine a robot trying to figure out why To Kill A Mockingbird matters?”

Robots are going to verge into writing eventually — the forward march is already happening. Prose and poetry aren’t as protected within the creative employment bastion as we think they are; over time, we could see robots taking over roles that journalists used to hold. In our fake-news-dominated social media landscape, bad actors could even weaponize the technology to flood our media feeds and message boards. It’s undoubtedly dangerous — but that’s a risk that’s been talked about before.

Instead, I find myself wondering about the quieter, less immediately impactful risks. I’m worried that when AI writes what we read, our ability to think deeply about ourselves and our society will slowly erode.

Societies and individuals grow only when they are pushed to question themselves; to think, delve into the why behind their literature. We’re taught why To Kill a Mockingbird matters because that process of deep reading and introspection makes us think about ourselves, our communities, and what it means to want to change. In a world where so much of our communication is distilled down into tweet-optimized headlines and blurbs, where we’re not taking the time to read below a headline or first paragraph, these shallow, AI-penned lines are problematic — not because they exist, but because they do not spur thought.

“This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

The line sounds beautiful; it even evokes a vague image. Yet, it has no underlying message — although, to be fair, it wasn’t meant to make a point beyond coherency. It isn’t making a point. It’s shallow entertainment under a thin veil of sophistication. It fails at overarching narratives, doesn’t capture nuance, and fails to grasp the heartbeat of human history, empathy, and understanding.

If it doesn’t have that foundation to create a message, what does it have? When we get to a place where AI is writing for us — and be sure, that time will come — are we going to be thinking less? Will there be less depth to our stories, minimal thought inspired by their twists? Will it become an echoing room rather than a path forward? At the very least, will these stories take over our Twitter feeds and Facebook newsfeeds, pulling us away from human-crafted stories that push us to think?

I worry that’s the case. But then again, maybe I’m wrong — maybe reading about how an AI thinks that Ron ate Hermione’s family provides enough dark and hackneyed comedy to reassure our belief that AI will never step beyond its assigned role as a ludicrous word-hacker.

For now, at least.

By |April 17th, 2020|Culture, Technology|
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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.

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