In October, a bombshell academic study questioned whether widely used software could cause racial bias in US health care. It found that an algorithm some providers use to prioritize access to extra help with conditions such as diabetes systematically favors white patients’ needs over those of black patients. Democratic presidential candidate and senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Senate colleague Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) are now demanding answers.
“In using algorithms, organizations often attempt to remove human flaws and biases,” Booker and Wyden wrote. “Unfortunately, both the people who design these complex systems, and the massive sets of data that are used, have many historical and human biases built in.” The letters were sent to health companies Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna Corporation, Humana, Aetna, and UnitedHealth Group.
The study that prompted Booker and Wyden’s letters found racial bias in the output of patient management software from UnitedHealth subsidiary Optum. It is used to predict the health care needs of 70 million patients across the US, but data from a major hospital showed that it understated the severity of black patients’ disease, assigning them lower scores than white patients with the same medical conditions.
That skew could have serious, even fatal, consequences, because some health systems use the scores to determine who gets access to special programs for people with complex chronic conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease. In the large academic hospital where the study was conducted, the authors calculated that the algorithm’s bias effectively reduced the proportion of black patients receiving extra help by more than half, from almost 50 percent to less than 20 percent.
Booker and Wyden are not the first to suggest those results should stir government action. Last month, New York state’s health and financial services regulators wrote a joint letter to UnitedHealth warning that “these discriminatory results, whether intentional or not, are unacceptable and are unlawful in New York.” The agencies asked the company not to use any algorithms or data analysis unless it could show they were free from racially disparate impacts. UnitedHealth declined to answer questions about how it was responding to the study that showed bias in its technology’s output, or subsequent pressure from regulators.
In April, Booker and Wyden introduced a Senate bill called the Algorithmic Accountability Act that would require organizations using automation in decision-making to evaluate their technology for discrimination. US representative Yvette Clarke (D-New York) introduced a version in the House.
James Thomson, a former Amazon employee and partner at Buy Box Experts, a firm that consults with Amazon sellers, says the company does do some automatic screening before items go up for sale. “If you have certain words in your listings, Amazon will find them right away,” he says, like weapons or drugs. But humans don’t manually review each product, and plenty of goods that violate Amazon’s policies fall through the cracks.
What’s less understood is how offensive items are created and listed in the first place. Some are almost certainly the work of sellers intentionally pushing hateful or racist ideologies, whether to spread those ideas or to make a buck (or both).
But many of these listings are likely the unfortunate byproduct of an increasingly automated ecommerce landscape. In this world, sellers attempt to make a profit by offering vast quantities of easily customizable items to fill every consumer niche imaginable. A merchant, for example, might flood the market with thousands of posters featuring different and sometimes incredibly obscure inspirational quotes, in the hopes that some pay off.
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Two of the Amazon merchants who sold Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments, Hqiyaols Ornament and Fcheng, are still active sellers on the platform. Both currently offer a seemingly endless array of other ornaments with images from around the world, including a church in Spain, a picturesque house in Nuremberg, Germany, and a colorful wat in Cambodia. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why one location was chosen over another, and almost none of the ornaments have a single review.
That’s because the ornaments likely don’t exist until someone buys one. The sellers behind them have created an enormous ecommerce net of sorts, designed to catch that one person from Cumberland, Kentucky, looking for a hometown-themed Christmas ornament when they log onto Amazon. When that happens, whoever is behind Fcheng can print the image onto the ceramic ornament and send it to the lucky buyer. In the meantime, they’re not sitting on expensive inventory, and it doesn’t cost them anything to continue listing ornaments featuring other places on Amazon.
Many of the pictures these sellers use—including one of Auschwitz—can be traced back to Pixabay, a site offering images that it says can be downloaded for free and used for almost any purpose without needing to credit the photographer who took them. Last year, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal similarly traced the images used by a merchant selling posters to Pixabay.
While Pixabay encourages people to use its images for most editorial and commercial purposes, the Pixabay License forbids selling “unaltered copies” of its photographs, like posters or prints “on a physical object,” which would conceivably include ornaments. Pixabay did not immediately return a request for comment.
It’s not clear whether merchants like the ones uncovered by the Auschwitz Museum use computer scripts or other tools to list products in bulk, and Amazon declined to say whether it believes they rely on automation. These sellers’ goods do give off a certain computer-generated eeriness. Encountering them is like stumbling upon a bizarre digital artifact, a consumer product designed to cater to a human desire that may never exist.
When merchants rely on this strategy of abundance, though, they create a mountain of ghost products Amazon and other ecommerce companies need to competently vet, or else they risk facing a scandal like the one that unfolded this week. At the scale these companies operate, there’s no easy solution. Something like Auschwitz Christmas ornaments might just be the cost of doing business the Amazon way.
The everything store has an everything cloud. Amazon Web Services offers more than 160 services from disk storage to satellite control antennas. On Monday, the company said it would widen its cloud menu to include access to quantum computers—Amazon’s first big commitment to a technology rivals IBM and Google say will transform computers’ impact on businesses and society.
Amazon is now offering to induct companies into the mysteries of quantum computing, too. Starting this month, customers will be able to access quantum hardware via Amazon’s cloud platform from three startups: D-Wave Systems, IonQ, and Rigetti Computing. The quantum computing service is called Braket, after a notation used in quantum physics, and also includes quantum programming and simulation tools.
No one has yet built a quantum computer ready to do practical work, or that appears to be close. Bill Vass, a vice president of technology at AWS, says companies should start experimenting with the technology anyway to prepare for the quantum era. “We talked to hundreds of customers that want to start to learn to use quantum computers,” he says. Amazon is also starting a consulting group to help customers identify how quantum computing could help their businesses.
Amazon trails rivals in its move into quantum computing. Vass says that the quantum project has been in development for about four years. The quantum research projects of Microsoft, IBM, and Google are more than twice that old. IBM and Google have built some of the most advanced prototype quantum processors, while Microsoft is betting on a much less mature technology it claims will ultimately prove to be more practical.
Amazon is not the first to launch a quantum cloud service either. IBM has offered access to its own quantum hardware over the internet since 2016 and Google says it will soon do the same. Microsoft, whose cloud computing business ranks second behind Amazon, became the first company to announce it would offer access to multiple forms of quantum hardware last month.
Since they have no quantum hardware of their own, Amazon and Microsoft have little option but to play matchmaker for technology from outsiders. Both claim this model fits better with how the tech industry works, because customers need flexibility. “Having multiple machines and technologies available is much better than forcing someone down a single choice for hardware or software,” Vass of Amazon says—in the same way that the company offers cloud customers many different processor and software choices. Amazon says it has tested programs that involve two different quantum processors and conventional computers, all working together.
Amazon’s hardware partners represent three different approaches to quantum processors, which are built from devices called qubits that encode data into quantum mechanical effects. Bay Area startup Rigetti uses superconducting circuits, the same approach as IBM and Google; Canada’s D-Wave uses similar technology to make processors limited to certain operations; and IonQ, a spinout from the University of Maryland, uses individual ions controlled with lasers.
Longer term, Amazon’s menu of quantum offerings could include quantum processors of its own. Simone Severini, the company’s director of quantum computing and a professor at University College London, says Amazon is working on quantum hardware, but declined to provide details. The company said Monday it is establishing a quantum computing research center at Caltech where Amazon researchers will collaborate with academics on both software and hardware.
Owning a business is one of the best ways to create lasting wealth and freedom. But there’s a lot of uncertainty.
Maybe you don’t have the funding, connections, or world-changing vision required to get moonshot ideas like Tesla, Amazon, or SpaceX off the ground. Perhaps you have a business but are struggling to build momentum. Or you have a franchise but want to create something of your own.
I know how difficult it is to start a business from scratch. My first entrepreneurial venture was selling flowers on the street at 16 years old. I didn’t know anything about flowers or sales, and unsurprisingly, no one bought from me. But there was an established flower shop with lots of foot traffic nearby. Looking back, what if I had bought that business and leveraged the reputation and customers they’d already established?
I didn’t have the money to do that, but here’s the thing: In some instances, it is possible to buy a profitable business without having any cash, credit, or experience. Rather than starting from nothing, it’s much easier and quicker to take something good and make it great — plus it’s less risky. You can even find businesses poised to double, triple, or 10X in value within a year. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a real estate investment or stock option that will give you those kinds of returns.
Over the past decade, I’ve bought multimillion-dollar businesses this way and taught others to do the same. It works so well that I’m also establishing an investment fund to support these kinds of deals. Why teach others how to do it? Simple. It gives me access to a flow of deals I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Here’s how to buy profitable businesses without spending your own money.
1. Identify what you want.
The best opportunities are small companies earning between $1 million and $10 million a year in revenue. Look for simple business models with little investment competition, such as professional services like construction, engineering, and plumbing. But the best sector is the one that speaks to your interests and experience.
At the same time, you may not even need personal experience in the industry—because you may be able to work out a deal in which the business owner trains you. If you don’t want to manage the day-to-day operations yourself, you can hire an experienced professional or promote from within the company while the owner is still around to train them. You can usually find someone doing the same job for another business and incentivize them to leave their salary for equity in your company.
2. Find motivated sellers.
It’s crucial to find business owners who want to move on and are motivated to sell. Many baby boomers are ready to retire, while other sellers are bored and need a change.
Most businesses sell for a multiple of the profits. For example, one that’s earning $100,000 will sell for three times that amount. But if you find a motivated seller, you can often negotiate only to pay the equivalent of one year’s revenue (in this case, $100,000).
You can find these businesses the same way you would find clients — through social media marketing or networking, for instance. It’s simply about changing the conversation and putting yourself out there as an investor looking for opportunities.
3. Calculate this simple math.
Offer to sign a nondisclosure agreement, so the business owner is comfortable sharing their books with you. Confirm that there’s more money coming in than going out and that cash flow has remained consistent over the past three years. Then ensure there’s enough profit to cover the cost of financing.
In addition to profitability, consider whether the business has opportunities for improvement, particularly if it’s weak in an area where you excel. You can often double your profits just by improving marketing or operations, for example.
4. Connect with the business owner.
While demonstrating smart plans for the business is important, your pitch should be about more than that. For many owners, their business is their baby — which means they care about more than money. They want to know that you’ll look after the brand and reputation they’ve worked so hard to build. So they may be wary that you will lay off their long-time employees or damage meaningful relationships.
Focus on why you will be the best steward of what they have built by demonstrating that you’re trustworthy and will continue their legacy. How? Build rapport, ask questions, and speak directly to their concerns. Show that you care about them rather than talking about yourself the whole time. It’s even better if you can position yourself as a young, eager version of them.
5. Finance the deal, sometimes with little or no out-of-pocket costs.
Many financing options don’t require your own capital — or any at all. If the owner is motivated to move on, you can often buy a high-potential business for next to nothing. Some business owners will let you pay them back over time using the profits from the business. If they want to be paid up front, you can secure a loan from a financial institution that specializes in acquisitions. Banks can use the business profits as collateral; they’re less interested in your credit and mostly want to see that you have skin in the game.
You’d be surprised how much of the financing terms are negotiable, so brush up on your sales and persuasion skills. It’s common to pay no more than 30 percent of the purchase price at closing. If you can find experienced investors to loan you the money in exchange for equity, you can use the profits from the business to cover the interest payments.
There are other deal structures, but the point is this: Rather than acquiring debt to fund an unproven idea, it’s possible to buy an asset that has the cash flow to pay for itself.
6. Dive into due diligence.
After you agree on an offer, it’s time for due diligence. Consult with accountants and lawyers and negotiate a fee structure that’s contingent on closing the deal. That way, they’re not motivated to bill as many hours as possible.
Speak openly with key employees to understand how the business runs and ensure that they don’t plan to leave when the deal closes. Establish a solid succession plan with a manager who knows the industry inside and out. Clarify your role and theirs and identify key performance indicators (KPIs) for everyone.
7. Leverage the business owner through the transition.
Now you need to hold everyone accountable, with a clear process in place that you can execute. The business owner knows exactly how everyone and everything works, so lean on them throughout the transition. They’re typically motivated to help you succeed, but consider stipulating a handover period to ensure they stay long enough to pass on their knowledge.
Congratulations! You are the owner of an established, profitable business. Whether you stay involved in the day-to-day or step back and let others do that, you now have a valuable asset — and more personal freedom.
Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin just announced that Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be replacing Page as the CEO of parent company Alphabet.
Alphabet first came into existence in 2015 as “a collection of companies” that included Google but also other organizations like Waymo (self-driving cars), Verily (life sciences) and Calico (biotech R&D). At the time, Page shifted from the Google CEO role to Alphabet CEO, with Pichai stepping in to lead the search giant.
However, Page and Brin said, “Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet.”
Rather than framing this as a departure, the pair suggests that they’re moving away from any management roles, but they remain “deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders.”
Investment in space startups is significant and growing, and the opportunities available to commercial players in space exploration, research and industrialization are multiplying. But for non-expert investors and observers, these opportunities can seem obtuse and obscured, buried in technical jargon and a heady amount of hype.
That’s a great time to consult with those already active in space investing — like François Chopard, CEO of global aerospace and defense accelerator Starburst.
Chopard recently presented a deck detailing the current state of the space industry, specifically from the perspective of early-stage startup and investment activity. The Starburst CEO essentially pegs the beginning of the current upturn in space and defense startup investing as getting off the ground in around 2015, right around the time that SpaceX started ramping its launch cadence after more than a decade of development, testing and early commercial launch service.
Notably, Chopard says that Starburst has a database holding more than 6,000 aerospace and defense startups put together by its scouting team, and that while he personally expected some kind of plateau or slow in the rate of growth in the sector to have come into play by now, in fact there has been no such slowdown.
This year alone, there was a total of $5 billion in disclosed funding — and that’s data that doesn’t include the final three months of the year. Taken together, that represents four percent of the overall VC market, per Starburst’s calculations.
Chopard also outlines trending opportunities that Starbust is seeing in terms of the space and defense industry’s development, citing the “ground segment” as the “next bottleneck,” for instance.
Essentially, that means that all these new satellite companies who are able to get their hardware to space thanks to the advent and availability of affordable launch vehicles will need Earth-based infrastructure to handle the data they gather, both in terms of transmission and storage, and that’s going to be a booming opportunity for new and emerging companies.
This deck is a great look at what’s interesting and exciting to investors about aerospace and defense, and why it’s a category that has seen a lot of growth in terms of VC investment in recent years despite seemingly high technology hurdles and perceived long development timelines.
NASA is going to be sending something it calls a ‘robot hotel’ to the International Space Station aboard the next commercial resupply mission, which is set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this week. The robot hotel is more formally known as the “Robotic Tool Stowage” unit, or the RiTS for short because NASA loves nothing quite so much as it loves acronyms.
Depending on how eager you are to anthropomorphize robots, the ‘hotel’ designation might not be quite as appropriate as ‘garage’ – this unit is essentially a protected parking space for robots when not in use, helping to protect them from potential dangers presented by being in space, including exposure to radiation, and the potential to get hit by micrometeors and other debris.
The first guests at the hotel will be two robots called Robotic External Leak Locators (RELL – bc acronyms). They do what it says on the tin, finding leaks in the ISS exterior hull from the outside, which is a key job. And in the past, they’ve been stored inside the ISS when not in use, but space is at a premium in the station itself, so any time you can save some it’s good new for astronauts and for ongoing research and other equipment.
Plus, the RELLs need to be calibrated when they’re sent out to do their job, a process that requires 12 full hours. Since their new storage environment is already external, it’ll be much easier and quicker for the station’s Dextre robotic arm to retrieve them ad set them to work.
Books are fundamentally about stories, and 2019 (and really, the past decade) has been the story of technology’s domination of every industry and function of society. Founders and tech executives are more powerful than ever, and how we use that power for good or evil will deeply shape the future of our world.
Whether it’s the sudden rise of TikTok and the ubiquity of social networks in business, economics, and politics, or the coming conflagration of climate change, or the challenges of personal and professional development, or just finding your way in building a startup, there was just an avalanche of books published this year on every topic near and dear to a technologist’s and founder’s heart.
I wanted to get a sense of what our readers thought were the best books they read this year, and so I reached out to our Extra Crunch membership to ask for their recommendations. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a group of people who actually pay for deeper journalism, our EC readers submitted dozens and dozens of book recommendations on every subject imaginable.
From those recommendations, I carefully selected a list of just 12 books that seemed the most recommended by our readers and also captured the zeitgeist of the times we are living in. Every book here is great and important, and I only wish we had more time to read them all.
How to handle the coming total disruption of society by technology
Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall
Anyone who has worked long enough in innovation and technology knows that great ideas can come from anywhere. But how do those ideas actually go from mere thoughts to actions and products, while avoiding the organizational politics that often prevent them from seeing the light of day in the first place?
Safi Bahcall, a PhD physicist from Stanford who co-founded and led Synta Pharmaceuticals as CEO through its IPO on NASDAQ in 2007, has been thinking about serendipity in science for years, and Loonshots is his first book. In it, Bahcall borrows concepts from science to move beyond looking purely at organizational culture to investigating organizational structure, investigating how we design our teams and how that can play an outsized role in whether new ideas flourish — or are killed on the spot.
Widely lauded by luminaries and a bestseller on Amazon and the Wall Street Journal, the book asks one of the most important questions in innovation today and gives a series of vignettes on how to improve our ability to handle spontaneity. A great book for the disrupting — and the disrupted.
The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation by Carl Benedikt Frey
Princeton University Press / 480 pages / June 2019
Digital disruption is all around us. Artificial intelligence is quickly eliminating millions of middle-class jobs, and fears of automation are growing among more and more workers, polarizing our politics and complicating the future of business.
Yet, all of this has happened before. More than a century ago, technologies like replaceable parts and the steam engine combined to create one of the greatest transformations our society has ever seen in the Industrial Revolution. But just how did the Industrial Revolution happen, and how did it affect everyday people in England, America, and elsewhere?
Carl Benedikt Frey, a fellow at Oxford University and director of the Programme on Technology & Employment at the Oxford Martin School, investigates the short, medium, and long-term consequences of the Industrial Revolution on workers, finding that in fact the changes had extraordinarily negative consequences in the short term. His lessons from this pivotal moment in history can help technology leaders avoid the biggest risks today in how we design human/AI systems in the coming age of automation.
Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction by Thomas M. Siebel
You’ve re-built your structure based on Loonshots, and learned the lessons of The Technology Trap, but ultimately, many leading enterprise companies today are facing extinction from a number of new technology waves like elastic cloud computing and the internet of things. For those not doing the disrupting but rather on the receiving end, what exactly are you supposed to do?
Billionaire entrepreneur Tom Siebel, who founded Siebel Systems and eventually merged it into Oracle in 2006 for nearly $6 billion, wrote his first book in almost two decades on the topic of how legacy companies can navigate these turbulent times. Through Digital Transformation, Siebel tries to offer the disrupted a primer on just what is going on in AI and other big tech waves to help executives understand what strategies they can use to defend their businesses.
A brisk and reasonably short read, Digital Transformation offers key lessons, even if they may well be ignored by most before it is too late.
How to deal with tech’s inadequacies and head-banging, stupid behavior
Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
While we love writing about the growth of innovative products and startups here at TechCrunch, the other side of that coin is that there has been a constant cavalcade of dumb actions by founders and engineers the past few years that has turned many sour on the future of our industry. Whether it is sexism in financial underwriting or employee political controversies (stories just from the last few days), technology is increasingly under a microscope — and the industry doesn’t look good at full resolution.
Technically Wrong, a book by consultant and tech critic Sara Wachter-Boettcher, tries to take a more playful approach to all these challenges by just sort of splaying them all out together for the world to see. While ostensibly targeted at the general public, the idiocies that Wachter-Boettcher identifies should be taught in every software engineering, product management, and UX design class.
As one Extra Crunch member wrote in their endorsement:
This is my favourite book. It highlights examples of bias in tech and how this has led to negative or even harmful applications in society. It makes a strong case for any developer to consider how their tech may be biased or have potential to be used for harm. A must read.
Given the plague of scandals hitting tech, the book is perhaps a tad out of date just two years post-publication, but its lessons are invaluable and will stand the test of time.
Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again by Brittany Kaiser
Perhaps no scandal has rocked the tech industry — or politics in general — quite like the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio that not only showed the power that Facebook and other social networks have over us through our user data, but also the scale to which that data influences purchasing decisions and of course, our elections.
Brittany Kaiser was a consultant and former Obama campaign worker who joined Cambridge Analytica hoping to make a difference. I guess in a way she did, eventually learning the true nature of big data and how that intersects with the needs of campaign managers. Through Targeted, she writes about her experience on the ground floor of the organization, and also places the company in the context of the broader challenges facing technology and ethics going forward. It’s a cri de coeur for other tech industry workers to think about how their work is affecting society and perhaps tapping out in much the way that Kaiser did.
Targeted is competing directly with Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America by Christopher Wylie for this year’s best memoir on the sordid story. Targeted got the recs from EC readers though, and it’s certainly a story that deserves more than one point of view.
How to think about the biggest news stories this year
We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 288 pages / September 2019
Climate change was all over the news this year, and perhaps nowhere more than in tech’s central headquarters of Silicon Valley, which faced fires and repeated blackouts this year as utility company PG&E struggled to deliver power amidst California’s changing climate. But climate change isn’t just something that is “happening” — it’s being driven by the choices we make every single day.
Long-time novelist Jonathan Safran Foer returns to the theme of his sole non-fiction book Eating Animals to look at how our decisions around food are directly impacting the health of the planet. While it may seem like what we eat for breakfast is but a minor drop of carbon in a massive ocean, the reality is that our collective and aggregated decisions have huge implications for how our food systems are organized.
Foer brings his literary talents to bear on the subject, creating a textured and at times stream-of-consciousness account that interleaves climate change fear, personal anecdotes, and short stories to create a compelling case for changing our daily habits in ways that align with the needs of our environment. It may not be tuned to every reader’s preferred style, but few books connect all the dots on this subject quite like We Are The Weather
AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / 272 pages / September 2018
Another storyline that just kept rearing its head in the headlines this year was China. From the trade war and tariffs between Trump and Xi, to the increasing security risks of Chinese industrial espionage, to the surveillance technology that companies like Huawei are exporting to undergird digital authoritarianism, China’s actions are transforming our world (and at least from this side of the Pacific, not for the positive).
One locus of competition between the U.S. and China though remains focused on artificial intelligence, and which country will take the lead in this critical new market. China has invested prodigious amounts of funding into the industry through its Made in China 2025 plan, while the United States continues to have some of the leading research groups and companies in the space.
Kai-Fu Lee, a well-known trans-Pacific venture capitalist, tries to demystify and de-intensify the arms race story by carefully investigating what is really taking place in the AI labs and products from leading companies like Didi, Baidu, and Google. Less focused on fear than on analysis, Lee brings to bear his decades of experience on the subject to offer readers an in-depth, sober, and ultimately compelling look at how Chinese and American efforts around AI differ, and just how they can learn from each other. It was also our most recommended book by EC members, and I’ve also personally loved it (and discussed it a bit, although never truly got around to reviewing it – sorry!)
How to think about stories
Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality by Lakshmi Sarah and Melissa Bosworth
McLuhan’s oft-repeated and often wrongly-interpreted “the medium is the message” is a key aspect of communications studies, but another angle is that the medium determines the types of stories that can be communicated. Books, radio, and television are platforms that offer storytellers certain tools and constraints, and over the decades (and for books, centuries), we have learned how to mold and optimize our visions to those intrinsic limits.
Virtual reality though is a whole new field, and as a medium, it is just getting started. How do we take advantage of the immersiveness intrinsic to VR? What are the new limits on storytelling, and what norms around plot and characters are going to have to be established to make this medium accessible to viewers?
Multimedia journalists Lakshmi Sarah and Melissa Bosworth wrote Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality as a primer for any storyteller that wants to learn more about how immersive media, augmented reality, and virtual reality are going to transform storytelling, reporting, and entertainment into the future.
As one EC reader wrote in their recommendation:
It provides a really good overview of different types of virtual reality and how they can be shaped to resonate with audiences in different ways. For anyone considering VR, it’s incredibly helpful.
It’s certainly early days, and books like this almost certainly have a short half-life. Nonetheless, for those looking to explore stories in VR, this is just the title to get up-to-speed on this small but rapidly growing segment of the tech industry.
Our EC readers are heavy on the non-fiction, but we did occasionally get some recommendations for fiction. One popular novel was Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So, okay, clearly a critic favorite. But what makes the novel so unique and compelling in a year that had a serious number of great entries?
Similar to Foer above, Powers is concerned about how humans and climate change are coming together to devastate our natural environment and particularly, our trees and forests. The Overstory is really a multitude of stories of Americans who connect with nature and each other to start to take action to address the massive changes coming and already in progress.
This is the twelfth novel for Powers, who in addition to literature, has a background in physics and was formerly a computer programmer. His work on The Overstory was partly inspired by time he spent in Silicon Valley while at Stanford, where he observed California’s famed redwood trees. If you are looking for a thought-provoking novel, you don’t need to look too much farther.
How to help yourself in the tech world
The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You by Julie Zhuo
There is an archetypical story that happens at rapidly growing startups. A founder hires friends and people they know, builds a team, launches a product, and strikes gold. As growth continues unabated, more and more people are hired — forcing the startup to invent a management structure to bring some level of organization to the chaos. But managers are hard to find, and there are already employees with some level of tenure at the company. And so those early employees are often moved up rapidly to managerial and executive roles, suddenly handling direct reports with no experience whatsoever.
Julie Zhuo, VP of Design at Facebook, has written a guide for exactly these first-time, suddenly-promoted managers on exactly what they should be doing to begin bringing order to the chaos. This book is definitely in the self-help, management guru wing of the bookstore, but Zhuo’s personal experience going through this transformation shows through in her examples and clearly defined points for improvement.
One EC reader wrote in their recommendation:
One of the biggest org fallacies of fast-growing startups is promoting great ICs into first-time management roles and expecting they’ll quickly turn into great people managers with little training, mentorship, or role-models. Since that almost always works to plan, Julie, the first designer and later head of design at Facebook, wrote a book outlining all the challenges of being that first-time manager and the learnings along the way. A book I recommend to my team across the board.
The Making of a Manager targets a unique audience with unique insights and is worth a read.
Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett
This was a surprising recommendation from the EC membership, but once I investigated it, completely understood why it fits on this list. One of the biggest challenges for children is their emotional development — how do they interact with the world and with other people? How do they listen to themselves and how they are feeling?
It’s not just children though, since all of us can improve how we respond to the daily stresses on our lives.
That’s why Marc Brackett, the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, explores how we handle our emotions and why it is important to give and receive “permission to feel.” He offers an acronym (of course he does) called RULER to manage our emotional lives better:
Recognizing emotions in oneself and others.
Understanding the causes and consequences of emotion.
Labeling emotions with precise words.
Expressing emotions taking context and culture into consideration.
Regulating emotions effectively to achieve goals and wellbeing.
Considering that tech can often be one of the least emotionally hospitable industries out there, Brackett’s thoughts and solutions seem like a perfect fit for improving the quality and well-being of our workplaces and lives.
Isaacson is probably best known today for his 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, but he has followed up that magnum opus with another dive into another entrepreneur, this time quintessential Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci. You’ve got all the typical Isaacson accoutrements here: the storyline, the characters, the life lessons, the inspiration. I don’t know how anyone can walk away from a book like this and not be deeply inspired by the power of a single human to change the world (or at least invent new ones!)
As one EC member wrote in their recommendation: “Curiosity and imagination lead to awareness and innovation. He perfected the art. A lesson for all.”
The book first came out two years ago with a paperback version coming out about a year ago, so perhaps noteworthy that our EC members still find deep value in this biography and its lessons.
What kinds of businesses might be able to operate in space? Well, data centers are one potential target you might not have thought of. Space provides an interesting environment for data center operations, including advanced analytics operations and even artificial intelligence, due in part to the excellent cooling conditions and reasonable access to renewable power supply (solar). But there are challenges, which is why a new partnership between Florida-based space startup OrbitsEdge and Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) makes a lot of sense.
The partnership will make OrbitsEdge a hardware supplier for HPE’s Edgeline Converged Edge Systems, and basically it means that the space startup will be handling everything required to “harden” the standard HPE micro-data center equipment for use in outer space. Hardening is a standard process for getting stuff ready to use in space, and essentially prepares equipment to withstand the increased radiation, extreme temperatures and other stressors that space adds to the mix.
OrbitsEdge, founded earlier this year, has developed a proprietary piece of hardware called the “SatFrame” which is designed to counter the stress of a space-based operating environment, making it relatively easy to take off-the-shelf Earth equipment like the HPE Edgeline system and get it working in space without requiring a huge amount of additional, custom work.
In terms of what this will potentially provide, the partnership will mean it’s more feasible than ever to set up a small-scale data center in orbit to handle at least some of the processing of space-based data right near where it’s collected, rather than having to shuttle it back down to Earth. That process can be expensive, and difficult to source in terms of even finding companies and infrastructure to use. As with in-space manufacturing, doing things locally could save a lot of overhead and unlock tons of potential down the line.
Don’t look now, but artificial intelligence is watching you. Artificial intelligence has tremendous power to enhance spying, and both authoritarian governments and democracies are adopting the technology as a tool of political and social control.
The potential of AI surveillance is the subject of the third installment of the Sleepwalkers podcast. The episode examines how AI consolidates power and control, and asks if we can limit this troubling trend.
Data collected from apps and websites already help optimize ads and social feeds. The same data can also reveal someone’s personal life and political leanings to the authorities. The trend is advancing thanks to smartphones, smart cameras, and more advanced AI.
An algorithm developed at Stanford in 2017 claimed to tell from a photograph whether a person is gay. Accurate or not, such a tool creates a new opportunity for persecution.
“Take this type of technology, feed it to a citywide CCTV surveillance system, and go to a place like Saudi Arabia where being gay is considered a crime,” says Lisa Talia Moretti, a digital sociologist. “Suddenly you’re pulling people off the street and arresting them because you’re gay, because the computer said so.”
No country has embraced facial recognition and AI surveillance as keenly as China. The AI industry there has flourished thanks to fierce competition and unrivaled access to personal data, and the rise of AI is enabling tighter government control of information, speech, and freedoms.
In some Chinese cities, facial recognition is used to catch criminals in surveillance footage, and to publicly shame those who commit minor offenses. Most troubling, AI is being used in Xinjiang, a province in Western China, to persecute Muslims. China is now exporting the technology, along with the principles of techno-repression, to countries including Pakistan, Cambodia, and Laos, through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Even if China’s AI capabilities are exaggerated, the AI boom there is having a chilling effect on personal freedom, says Ian Bremmer, an expert on global political risk and founder of the Eurasia Group. “You just need a government that is starting to get that capacity and make it known, and have a few people that are sort of strung up as examples, and suddenly everyone is scared,” he says.
This might feel like a distant reality, but similar tools are being developed and used in the West. Just ask Glenn Rodriguez, who faced judgment from an algorithm when seeking parole from prison in the US.
Despite 10 years of good behavior, Rodriguez saw how an algorithm called COMPAS, designed to predict inmates’ likelihood of reoffending, would be biased against him. And even though the parole board went against the computer program’s advice, and set him free, they agreed to impose the algorithm’s recommended curfew. “I’m still haunted by COMPAS,” Rodriguez warns.
Law enforcement is embracing AI. The episode concludes with the New York Police Department testing technologies including facial recognition. And although AI promises to make the department more effective and even more accountable, whether we accept this troubling trend may determine whether the West sleepwalks towards its own form of technological tyranny.
“In America, the liberty we take for granted is hard-won and fragile,” says Oz Woloshyn, the host of Sleepwalkers. “So much hangs in the balance, and the decisions we take will affect our lives profoundly, and echo through the lives of our children.”