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Technological solutions to technology’s problems feature in “How to Fix The Future”

03:45 | 19 February

Larry Downes Contributor

Larry Downes is a senior industry and innovation fellow at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. He is the author of several books on the Internet and business.

In this edition of Innovate 2018, Andrew Keen finds himself in the hot seat.

Keen, whose new book, “How to Fix the Future”, was published earlier this month, discusses a moment when it has suddenly become fashionable for tech luminaries to abandon utopianism in favor of its opposite.  The first generation of IPO winners have now become some of tech’s most vocal critic—conveniently of new products and services launched by a younger generation of entrepreneurs.

For example, Tesla’s Elon Musk says that advances in Artificial Intelligence present a “fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.”  Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff believes Facebook ought to be regulated like a tobacco company because social media has become (literally?) carcinogenic.  And Russian zillionaire George Soros last week called Google “a menace to society.”

Eschewing much of the over-the-top luddism that now fills the New York Times (“Silicon Valley is Not Your Friends”), the Guardian (“The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia”), and other mainstream media outlets, Keen proffers practical solutions to a wide range of tech-related woes.  These include persistent public and private surveillance, labor displacement, and fake news.

From experiments in Estonia, Switzerland, Singapore, India and other digital outposts, Keen distills these five tools for fixing the future:

  • Increased regulation, particularly through antitrust law
  • New innovations designed to solve the unintended side-effects of earlier disruptors
  • Targeted philanthropy from tech’s leading moneymakers
  • Modern social safety nets for displaced workers and disenfranchised consumers
  • Educational systems geared for 21st century life



Despite controversy, Logan Paul hasn’t done anything to be kicked off of YouTube

10:52 | 13 February

Despite the controversy surrounding YouTube celebrity Logan Paul (thanks to a string of videos exploiting an apparent suicide and tasering a rat), the young media personality hasn’t done anything to warrant being kicked off of the platform that made him a star.

That’s according to chief executive Susan Wojcicki, who defended her company’s treatment of Paul’s video controversy on stage at the Code Media conference in Huntington Beach, Calif.

While YouTube has suspended Paul’s ability to monetize videos through ads, it has not booted him from the platform — a step Wojcicki said could only be taken if a user violates YouTube’s content policies.

“We terminate accounts all the time,” Wojcicki said. Things that get accounts terminated include the promotion of drug use, the promotion of hate or use of hate speech, violent activities, releasing private information about individuals and adult content. “These are guidelines to be part of our community and we outline clearly the strikes,” Wojcicki said.

Since Paul’s videos — though tasteless and awful — did not violate YouTube’s policies, the company was forced to take other actions to throttle the star’s ability to make money off of the platform.

“We took two actions — a removal from our premium monetization and a hold of all of our original shows,” Wojcicki said. “And due to a pattern of egregious behavior we have decided to suspend monetization.”

Wojcicki insisted that YouTube was consistent across the platform, enforcing the rules that it can while not becoming an arbiter of what content can be distributed. “We need to have consistent behavior,” she said. “What you think is tasteless other people might not think is tasteless [so] we need to have consistent rules.”

Even without terminating an account, Wojcicki said that taking away the monetization is powerful in itself and a line in the sand for what the company will and won’t allow on its platform.

She also emphasized the steps that YouTube has committed to take to ensure that inappropriate content isn’t distributed.

In the past year alone, YouTube has run afoul of parents — thanks to inappropriate content distributed under the guise of children’s entertainment — and advertisers for its distribution of what Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed called “toxic content”.

As a response YouTube’s parent company, Google, will hire 10,000 people to examine content and ensure that featured videos do not include material that could be considered inappropriate.

“It’s really important to see where are you drawing the line. on one side is censorship and on the other side is too much freedom,” Wojcicki said. “You can go too far and censor content that is really important for the world to see. Where do you draw those lines? You need to go to the experts. You need to talk to the experts and you need to determine how to do this globally.”

Featured Image: YouTube Kavos



YouTube is expanding Red to more countries

07:58 | 13 February

YouTube Red will expand its subscription service to as many as 100 countries, according to YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki .

Speaking at Recode’s Code Media conference in Huntington Beach, Calif., Wojcicki said that YouTube will be looking to expand its Red service “to many more countries”.

The subscription service first launched in October 2015 as a $9.99 subscription for ad-free viewing and was designed as a replacement to Google Music Key to give users a simple way to watch or listen to YouTube video and Play Music — as a tier on existing YouTube and Google accounts.

The company said it would split subscription revenue with rights holders of content people listen to or see on the service. And the company has signed on independent creators, record labels, TV networks and movie studios to the program, we’ve reported.

Creators who didn’t sign on to YouTube Red had their videos on the ad-free YouTube hidden from view.

As YouTube moved away from Red’s use as a music service and began layering exclusive access to original series and movies, featuring YouTube stars like PewDiePie and the toxic influencer of the moment Logan Paul.

Both men have stirred up controversy and highlight the many problems that YouTube has with content from some of its most popular entertainers.

As YouTube continues to launch its premium content, the question remains whether it will continue to rely on YouTube-made celebrities like PewDiePie and Paul, which could be disastrous for the company’s advertisers, or tries to make more premium content in the Hulu or Netflix mold.

As it looks to go global, these content issues, and the attendant advertising struggles that come with them will likely only get thornier. Especially as key advertisers like Unilever start threatening to remove their business.

Wojcicki has said that YouTube will bring on 10,000 people to vet content… The company has yet to set a timeline for their hiring, but as the continued Paul controversy shows, the clock is ticking.



Unilever warns social media to clean up “toxic” content

19:10 | 12 February

Consumer goods giant Unilever, a maker of branded soaps, foodstuffs and personal care items and also one of the world’s biggest online advertisers, has fired a warning shot across the bows of social media giants by threatening to pull ads from digital platforms if they don’t do more to mitigate the spread of what it dubs “toxic” online content — be it fake news, terrorism or child exploitation.

“It is critical that our brands remain not only in a safe environment, but a suitable one,” CMO Keith Weed is expected to say at the annual Interactive Advertising Bureau conference in California today, according to extracts from the speech provided to us ahead of delivery. “Unilever, as a trusted advertiser, do not want to advertise on platforms which do not make a positive contribution to society.”

The remarks echo comments made last month by UK prime minister Theresa May who singled out social media firms for acute censure, saying they “simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist or extremist content”.

Unilever’s Weed is expected to argue that consumers are worried about “fraudulent practice, fake news, and Russians influencing the U.S. election”, and are sensitive to the brands they buy becoming tainted by associated with ad placement alongside awful stuff like terrorist propaganda or child exploitation content.

“2018 is either the year of techlash, where the world turns on the tech giants — and we have seen some of this already — or the year of trust. The year where we collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society,” he will argue.

Online ad giants Facebook and Google have increasingly found themselves on the hook for enabling the spread of socially divisive, offensive and at times out-and-out illegal content via their platforms — in no small part as a consequence of the popularity of their content-sharing hubs.

While the Internet is filled with all sorts of awful stuff, in its darkest corners, the mainstream reach of platforms like Facebook and YouTube puts them squarely in the political firing line for all sorts of content issues — from political disinformation to socially divisive hate speech.

The fact Facebook and Google are also the chief financial beneficiaries of online ad spending — together accounting for around 60 per cent of online ad spending in the US, for example — makes it difficult for them to dodge the charge that their businesses directly benefit from divisive and exploitative content — all the way from clickbait to fake news to full blown online extremism.

Facebook’s 2016 dismissal of concerns about fake news impacting democracy as a “pretty crazy idea” has certainly not aged well. And CEO Mark Zuckerberg has since admitted his platform is broken and made it his personal goal for 2018 to “fix Facebook“.

Both companies faced a growing backlash last year — with a number of advertisers and brands pulling ads from YouTube over concerns about the types of content that their marketing messages were being served alongside, thanks to the programmatic (i.e. automatic) nature of the ad placement.

While Facebook got a political grilling over hosting Kremlin disinformation — though Putin’s online dis-ops clearly sprawl across multiple tech platforms. But again, Facebook’s massive reach garners it a greater share of blame — as the most effective channel (we currently know of) for political disinformation muck spreading. (Last fall, for example, it was forced to admit that ~80,000 pieces of Russian-backed content may have been viewed by 126M Facebook users during the 2016 US election.)

Google responded with alacrity to boycotts by its own advertisers last year, saying it would expands controls for brands to give them more say over where their ads appeared on YouTube, and by taking “a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content” — including demonitizing more types of videos.

As part of its attempts to de-risk the user generated content its business relies on, and thus avoid the risk of further spooking already spooked advertisers, it’s recently been removing videos of the so-called ‘Tide Pod Challenge’ — i.e. where people film themselves trying to consume laundry detergent. Videos which it had previously left online.

Incidentally Tide Pods aren’t a Unilever brand but their parent company, Procter & Gamble, also roasted social media firms last year — calling for them to “grow up” and slamming the “non-traditional media supply chain” for being “murky at best, and fraudulent at worst”.

Unilever’s Weed also takes aim at ad fraud in his speech, noting how it’s partnered with IBM to pilot a new blockchain tech for advertising — which he touts as having “the potential to drastically reduce advertising fraud by recording how media is purchased, delivered and interacted with by target audiences, providing reliable measurement metrics”. (Can blockchain really fix click fraud? That Unilever is entertaining the idea arguably shows how far trust levels have fallen.)

But his main message is tilted at social media giants’ need to “build social responsibility” and invest in trust and transparency to avoid damaging the precious substance known as ‘brand trust’ which these tech giants’ revenue-feeding digital advertisers depend on.

Though the speech seems rather less clear on exactly what they should do to vanquish the toxic content their business models have (inadvertently or otherwise) been financially incentivizing.

Governments in Europe have been leaning on social media giants to accelerate development of tech tools that can automatically flag and remove problem content (such as hate speech) before it has a chance to spread — though that approach is hardly uncontroversial, and critics argue it whiffs of censorship.

Weed’s message to social media can be summed up as: This is a problem we’ll work with you to fix, but you need to agree to work on fixing it. “As a brand-led business, Unilever needs its consumers to have trust in our brands,” he’ll say. “We can’t do anything to damage that trust -– including the choice of channels and platforms we use. So, 2018 is the year when social media must win trust back.”

Unilever is making three specific “commitments” relating to its digital media supply chain:

  1. that it will not invest in “platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate”, further emphasizing: “We will prioritise investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact in society”
  2. that it is committed to creating “responsible content” — with an initial focus on tackling gender stereotypes in advertising
  3. that it will push for what it dubs “responsible infrastructure”, saying it will only partner with organizations “which are committed to creating better digital infrastructure, such as aligning around one measurement system and improving the consumer experience”

So, while the company is not yet issuing an explicit ultimatum to Facebook and Google, it’s certainly putting them on notice that the political pressure they’ve been facing could absolutely turn into a major commercial headache too, if they don’t take tackling online muck spreading seriously.

tl;dr massive, mainstream success has a flip side. And boy is big tech going to feel it this year.

Facebook and Google both declined to comment on Unilever’s intervention.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch/Getty Images



Aurora will power Byton EV’s autonomous driving features

18:38 | 9 February

Aurora, the self-driving startup founded by Google self-driving car project alum Chris Urmson, along with Tesla Autopilot developer Sterling Anderson, CMU robotics expert and Uber vet Drew Bagnell, and a team of industry experts, will be making the autonomous smarts for Byton’s forthcoming electric vehicle. Byton, a startup that had a splashy debut at CES earlier this year.

Byton’s Concept electric SUV is a car with a lot of interesting tech features, aside from its all-electric drive train. The vehicle has a massive, dashboard-covering display that incorporates information readouts, entertainment options and vehicle controls. It’s a screen that seems somewhat ill-suited for the task of paying attention to the road while driving, and the Byton car also has front seats that swivel towards the inside of the vehicle so that those in the front can better interact with those in the back.

Both of those features are more geared toward a future in which autonomous driving is a ready and viable option for Byton owners. The car is aiming for a 2019 starting ship date, by which time it’s possible self-driving features won’t seem such a distant dream. And now we know that Byton has a technology partners on the autonomous driving side of things with the technical know-how to make it an even more realistic expectation.

Aurora, despite officially breaking cover only just last year, is already working with a range of automakers on their autonomous driving technology, including Volkswagen and Hyundai. Aurora CEO Chris Urmson explained that its goals mean it’s happy to work with companies at all stages of development and maturity to help make self-driving a practical reality.

“Our mission is to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safety, quickly and broadly,” he said in n interview. “So for us to have that broad part, it means we have to work with a nudger of great partners, and we’re very fortunate with the folks we have [as partners] to date… this is how we help the business, and we look forward to being able to engage with others in the future.”

For Byton and Aurora, this partnership will kick off with pilot test driving in California sometime soon,  and Byton hopes to eventually tap Aurora with its goal of fielding premium electric consumer vehicles with SAE Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous capabilities.

Aurora as a company is excited about its progress during its first year in operation, and is ramping up staffing and attracting key talent in a very competitive industry thanks to its pedigree and founding team, Urmson tells me.

“It started with a handful of us, a couple in my living room here in California, and a couple in Pittsburgh. We’ve been growing the team, that’s been one of the core focuses of this last year,” he said. “In my previous gig I had the privilege of helping build that program from day one, to a massive organization certainly leading the space, and now with Sterling and Drew, we have the opportunity to build version two of that, and learn from our experience, and build an organization and build a technology that can have a huge impact on the world, and do that quickly and safely.”



Google fined $21.1M for search bias in India

14:20 | 9 February

Another antitrust fine for Google. India’s competition commission has issued a 1.36BN rupees (~$21.1M) penalty on the search giant for abusing its dominant position in the local search market for online general web search and web search advertising services.

“Google was leveraging its dominance in the market for online general web search, to strengthen its position in the market for online syndicate search services. The competitors were denied access to the online search syndication services market due to such a conduct, writes the Competition Commission of India (CCI) in a press release.

“Further, prohibitions imposed under the negotiated search intermediation agreements upon the publishers have been held to be unfair as they restricted the choice of these partners and prevented them from using the search services provided by competing search engines.”

Detailing a specific instance of Google’s search bias, the CCI says its investigation found that Google was directing web users who were searching for flights to its own flight search page — and thereby disadvantaging businesses trying to gain market access, while also unfairly imposing its products on users of general search services as well.

The watchdog did also clear Google of any competition violations related to other elements of its business — specifically specialized search design (OneBoxes), AdWords, online intermediation and distribution agreements.

The original complaint against the company was filed in India in 2012 by a local matchmaking website.

Commenting on the order, a Google spokesman told us: “We have always focused on innovating to support the evolving needs of our users. The Competition Commission of India has confirmed that, on the majority of issues it examined, our conduct complies with Indian competition laws.

“We are reviewing the narrow concerns identified by the Commission and will assess our next steps,” he added.

The size of the CCI’s fine was calculated based on Google’s revenue from its operations in India only, and equates to around 5 per cent of its turnover in the market.

Meanwhile Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reported full year revenue of $110.8BN for 2017. So $21M really is just pocket change for the US tech giant — which also continues to flesh out the feature set of its vertical search products.

Last summer the European Union’s Competition Commission made its presence more firmly felt by slapping Google with a record breaking $2.7BN antitrust fine relating to the Google Shopping search comparison service and following a multi years investigation.

In that case search placement that privileges Google’s own commercial products also got the company into hot water.

The EC’s antitrust watchdog objected to it systematically privileging its own shopping product in search results and also found that it had been demoting rival vertical search services in its general search results. That combination of actions was deemed illegal under the bloc’s competition rules.

In the EU Google has since made changes to how it displays shopping search results to try to remedy the situation — and avoid further fines — by letting anyone bid for the ads it displays at the top of product-related search results.

However recent analysis of how that remedy is working suggests it’s not made material difference to competitors — with Google’s own shopping search ads still accounting for more than 99 per cent of the ads displaying alongside shopping searches. And Google rivals have called for more changes.

The EU watchdog is also continuing to actively investigate other areas of Google’s business, including its Android operating system.

And has publicly acknowledged complaints against other Google products — including maps and travel search, with the bloc’s antitrust chief suggesting it may open other investigations.

Featured Image: Carlos Luna/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE



Waymo gets to the heart of its case

05:15 | 9 February

Attorneys for Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle spinout, are nearing the end of their plaintiffs presentation against Uber in a trial that is likely to have broad ramifications for the common Valley practice of acqui-hiring talent.

The case hinges on whether the jury believes Uber’s assertion that the technology used in its autonomous car project was developed and acquired independently, in spite of the fact that the company almost assuredly received data on the same technology from Alphabet’s servers as part of Uber’s acquisition of Anthony Levandowski’s company Otto.

Today’s courtroom testimony hinged on two critical points. The first was the scope of the due diligence that Uber conducted during its negotiations with Otto. The second was whether the documents that Levandowski brought with him from Google were sufficiently vital in the development of Uber’s autonomous car project to merit damages.

Arguments ranged from the banal to the bizarre with a good portion of the proceedings taken up by a fairly lengthy explanation of Google’s security measures (quite extensive as one would assume). Uber’s defense attorneys responded by noting that one of Waymo’s top engineers carried an early prototype of its proprietary LIDAR technology to Burning Man (okay, maybe not as extensive as one would hope).

We will have more arguments tomorrow from Waymo, and then the complete case from defendant Uber. Whatever the end result, the case has serious implications for the acquisition of startups, and corporate development heads are paying close attention to how to improve processes — particularly around due diligence — to ensure they aren’t caught in an intellectual property thicket like Uber is facing right now.

To recap a bit: Uber allegedly acquired trade secrets from Waymo when it lured one of the founding figures of the autonomous vehicle movement — Anthony Levandowski — away from Google with promise of riches and independence to pursue his own path within Uber’s massive corporate machinery. Uber did wind up acquiring Levandowski — and the company he set up, Otto — along with several of Waymo’s top engineering talent.

It’s clear to most outside observers that Kalanick and Levandowski were doing some shady, shady stuff (indemnifying Otto executives against intellectual property lawsuits; downloading information from Google’s internal servers onto personal computers; wiping Google hardware; sending each other weird clips of the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” speech), but what’s less clear is how much of the technology that Levandowski accessed actually made it into Uber’s autonomous vehicle program.

While the the technical points will determine this trial’s outcome, the broader problem is that Silicon Valley has a very, very, long history of rewarding just this sort of bad behavior. The Bay Area’s tech industry was created with what may be the most famous example of intellectual property “theft” in history: the infamous “traitorous eight” who left Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories to form Fairchild Semiconductor and kicked off the modern computing era.

Fast forward a few decades, and you arrive at today’s case, with Waymo suing Uber for the theft of trade secrets related to its self-driving car program.

That Uber — a poster child for startup malfeasance and miscreantism — could manage to cast a pall over Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit is yet another example of how the company’s hyper-aggressive corporate practices have done real damage to the Bay Area’s startup factory. But it’s culture of acquisitions is not unique, and the Valley needs to own up to its history.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch



Nest co-founder Matt Rogers announces exit from Google

02:19 | 9 February

A day after Alphabet announced plans to roll Nest into its hardware team, cofounder Matt Rogers has announced that he’s exciting the company. The story was first noted by CNET and quickly confirmed by Rogers on Twitter.

Could just be social media talk, but Rogers’ brief statement on the matter appeared to imply that there were no hard feelings. “Nest has been an amazing journey and the honor of my career to build,” he wrote. “I could not be more proud of what we have all accomplished and can’t wait to see what’s next for Nest.”

Nest has been an amazing journey and the honor of my career to build. I could not be more proud of what we have all accomplished and can't wait to see what's next for Nest.

— Matt Rogers (@nestmatt) February 8, 2018

Rogers says he’s leaving the company he started work on nearly nine years ago in order to spend more time at incite.org, a VC firm and product development lab he also had a hand in cofounding. Rogers also stated that he’s going to “start thinking about the next adventure,” perhaps pointing to another startup in his future.

Rogers cofounded Nest in 2010, along with fellow former Apple engineer Tony Fadell, who vacated his CEO role in June 2016 — two years after the company was acquired by Google.

Marwan Fawaz, an industry veteran stepped into the position of company head — a role he will continue to hold in some fashion, even as Nest loses some independence as part of the larger Google machine.



Nest is being rolled into Google’s hardware team

23:06 | 7 February

Back in 2014, Google bought Nest — the hardware company behind things like the Nest Cam and the Nest thermostat — for around $3.2 billion. At the time, Google opted to keep Nest running as its own independent operation.

Seems that’s about to change.

Google’s head of hardware Rick Osterloh announced this afternoon that Nest will “join forces” with Google’s hardware team. In other words, they’re rolling Nest under the Google/Alphabet umbrella after all.

A rep from Nest tells us that the Nest brand will continue on within Google. They also confirmed that Nest CEO Marwan Fawaz will now report to Rick Osterloh, and that the company doesn’t “anticipate any significant role reductions” (in other words, they’re not planning to lay a bunch of people off as part of the merge.)

This is just the latest move by Google to beef up its hardware chops by bringing more engineers under one roof; just last week, the company finalized its deal to spend $1.1 billion acquiring a large part of HTC’s hardware operation.

Nest had previously (and still does, as of this morning) highlighted its independent relationship from Google, noting in its privacy FAQ that the company had a “separate management team, brand and culture. We even have our own separate headquarters!”

Rumors of this move had been going around for a few months now, with the first reports popping up back in November of 2017.



Google Photos can now automatically create themed movies on demand

22:47 | 7 February

For the longest time now, Google Photos has used its machine learning magic to automatically create movies for you based on your recent trips or around special occasions. What you couldn’t do, though, was to tell Google Photos to create these movies on demand. That’s changing today, as Google has now launched the ability to create themed movies via the app or web on demand.

Google says it timed this launch around Valentine’s Day, but that’s only one of the options. The others include movies around your cats and dogs (but not both at the same time), your kids (or those of your friends and family members), a selfie movie, “Smiles of 2017,” Mother’s and Father’s Day movies and, on a sadder note, “In Loving Memory.” 

For these movies, you simply select the people or animals who should star in them and Google will automatically try to find the best images and videos, set them to the appropriate music, and give you the full video a minute or two after you kicked off the process.

Since Google neither knows who is a father, mother or dead, you can obviously create these movies for everybody. I’m sure your friends would love to feature in your “In Loving Memory” movies.

Indeed, don’t expect too many smarts here, as Google Photos also happily created a “Meow Movie” for people. The only real difference between movies, it seems, is the song that plays in the background. For the “Meow Movie,” for example, that song used the word “meow” way too many times. I’m not sure what I expected when I first tried this, but it was more.

Featured Image: Getty Images


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