Large tech companies increasingly take on roles government used to; they may just get more than they asked for
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It’s a truism to say that Washington is broken. We may or may not be in a government shutdown when you read this, Congress sucks, and our President is an orange genius.
It’s also a truism to say that when a power vacuum exists, other forces quickly rush in to fill the vacuum. When governments fail, this often takes the form of a military coup, a dictator, or populist insurgent. In the 21st century though, we’re much to distracted by our phones and feeds to latch on to the archetypal revolutionary (unless, of course, that “revolutionary” pops up in our feeds incessantly; see, supra orange genius).
Now the U.S. is nowhere near “failing state” status, but Washington’s incompetence has left glaring gaps that need filling. From our crumbling infrastructure to lack of basic research funding and failure to lead in crucial areas of science and technology, increasingly America must turn elsewhere. And so we have. To use a few examples:
- Amazon’s huge and expanding logistics network and ecommerce site allow businesses large and small to tap into its platform to sell online. Over 300,000 businesses started selling on Amazon in the past year alone. The company is at the forefront of bringing drones and other next generation technologies to the market, long ago surpassing the U.S Postal Service as a delivery and logistics innovator.
- A simple “smart” thermometer has demonstrated that it can track flu trends as well as the CDC.
- Amazon again. First Amazon announced its own municipality Bachelorette, with the winning city securing 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in initial investment. Then, Apple announced it’d be repatriating its overseas cash stash, creating 20,000 jobs and establishing an Apple campus in a new location. Meanwhile, too many states and municipalities are fighting over budgets or shutting down (looking at you, Ill. and N.J.), too busy to even think about generating the type of investment these companies can swing.
- Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are the “town squares” where we go to discover news, watch Tide Pods videos, and see how everyone else is getting rich off bitcoin. Even if, as I discussed last week, Facebook is backing away from its role as a news platform, Zuckerberg still has his ambition of building the “social infrastructure” needed to connect the world. And Facebook’s changes illustrate its strong desire to self regulate and avoid actual government interference.
Perhaps most importantly, large tech companies are now funding the R&D driving future technologies like machine learning, while the federal government sits on the sidelines:
“Annual federal funding for all computer science and mathematics R&D [at the National Science Foundation] is less than half of what Google alone spends”
By the way, while our government has neglected to invest in A.I., China has not. And our President seems intent on exacerbating this gap between the U.S. and China; a President that really wanted to be “tough on China” would recognize the importance of “winning” on this front.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the smart thermometer example above. A digital health startup, Kinsa, has been tracking individuals’ temperatures when its smart thermometer is used, and because of the data it gathers, can now track flu trends as well as the CDC. Kinsa has received $30 million in venture funding; $17 million of this was raised last year, a mere fraction of the $11.5 billion in total private digital health funding in 2017. In fact, in 2017, total digital health funding rose above total CDC funding. These are companies pursuing machine learning in healthcare and public health, early cancer detection, and genomics aimed at personalizing care.
As governments continue to sputter, shutdown or struggle with balancing budgets, cash rich technology companies and venture capital firms will continue to recognize the market opportunity this lack of government funding provides.
The larger question though, is this: do we want to live in such a world? Governments, while slow, are generally accountable to an electorate. In fact, the slow-moving nature of governments is not a bug, but a feature. While it makes them slow to do good things like address new trends, invest in new technologies, or pass popular legislation, it also slows them from doing unfavorable or unpopular things. Tech companies often criticize governments for getting in the way or not sharing their utopian vision of the Future, brought to you by Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, tech companies and VC firms are notoriously fast moving; “move fast and break things” the saying goes — disregarding rules, regulations, and anything else in the way. Additionally, they’re largely unaccountable for their decisions: Zuckerberg, Larry and Sergey, and many other founders have voting control over their companies, holding special preferred shares. VCs are accountable to their limited partner investors, but not accountable to citizens at large as a government might be. Not to mention the pervasive sexism and total lack of diversity in VC; do we really expect these men to invest in companies that represent the needs of society at large? They’re not doing a great job so far. I love sporting my Allbirds and AirPods riding my Peloton as much as the next guy, but I’m hardly the individual most representative of society’s needs at large. If we’re demanding tech companies and VC fill funding gaps left by government — an institution which at least nominally responds to the needs of society — more people and more types of people must be involved in building the technology and companies of the future. The trend toward investing money outside of Silicon Valley is a start; change starts by bringing money and technology closer to those who need it most. As technology moves to transforms non-tech industries like health care, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing, Midwesterners and others outside Silicon Valley are well-positioned to execute this change.
Silicon Valley’s always been full of unbridled optimism, vowing to change the world with technology. It’s time technology bring these changes to the majority of Americans, and Silicon Valley may not be the place to accomplish this.
Google wants you to turn the TV off with your purse
A recently published patent application from Google describes “techniques and apparatuses for attaching electronic components to interactive textiles.” In other words, Google has dreamed up a flexible fabric that can process touch input to generate touch data that is useable to initiate functionality at various remote devices wirelessly paired to the interactive textile. For example, the interactive textile may aid users in controlling volume on a stereo, pausing a movie playing on a television, or selecting a webpage on a desktop computer. Due to the flexibility of textiles, the interactive fabric may be easily integrated within many objects such as clothing, handbags, fabric casings, hats, and so forth.
“Draw me like one of your French girls”
Apparently, the Google Arts & Culture app’s art selfie feature has made quiet an impressionism. Sitting in Chicago, I wouldn’t know. Illinois, along with Texas, is one of two states with strict biometric privacy laws that seem to have scared Google away from shipping the feature here. Passed in 2008, Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (740 Ill. Comp. Stat. 14/1) requires a company to publish and disclose a policy about how it collects, uses, and destroys biometric information, with $1,000 (negligent) or $5,000 (intentional or reckless) fines per violation. There have been numerous class action suits brought under BIPA, with upwards of 30 suits brought in 2017 alone against Snapchat, Facebook, and employers of all types, as they increasingly use biometric information to identify employees.
Publishing a terms of service as BIPA requires seems easy enough — we agree to these all the time without reading them. Perhaps what has these companies more cautious is the provision requiring for the destruction of biometric information after its purpose has been served:
“A private entity must … establish a retention schedule and guidelines for permanently destroying biometric identifiers and biometric information when the initial purpose for collecting or obtaining such identifiers or information has been satisfied or within 3 years of the individual’s last interaction with the private entity, whichever occurs first.”
As we know, these companies love to store our data to train machine learning algorithms, so perhaps there’s just no benefit for them to offer art selfies in a state where they risk running afoul of the law. Offering the product is obviously a means for Google (or others) to gather more of our data, but if a state says that’s illegal, it’s simply not worth the risk. Is the law asking Google to destroy biometric information after its generated your Renaissance-era match? If so, offering the app generates no long term value (i.e. data) for the company.
Fantasized ‘bout this back in Chicago
Speaking of Chicago, Kanye and Kim named their third child after Ye’s hometown. Kanye has had a complex relationship with the city of Chicago since at least 2007, when he released Graduation. “She never mess with entertainers ‘cause they always leave,” Kanye raps of Chicago on “Homecoming”, clearly feeling guilt about the distance fame has put between him and the city.
Fast forward to 2016’s Life of Pablo, when he calls upon Chicago’s newest favorite son, Chance the Rapper to open the album, reaching for any connection he can to his former city. Previously, he opened My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (this blog’s namesake and the Greatest Album of All Time), with the line “I fantasized ‘bout this back in Chicago,” setting the stage for an album that surveys the deepest and darkest moments of his life, seemingly wondering if leaving his hometown was worth all this. Now he’s got the connection he long ago lost.
Alexa, what was your MCAT score? Amazon’s Alexa group briefly posted a job for a “HIPAA Compliance Lead” last week, leading to speculation that the company is looking to build out the virtual assistant’s healthcare capabilities. A lot of questions about how Amazon may bring a HIPAA-compliant Alexa to market remain (build Alexa into medical devices or use Amazon’s Echo?, in-home or in-hospital?), but the prospect itself is cool, and something hospitals have already been experimenting with on their own.
FCC as semi-competent. Some welcome news from the mostly incompetent FCC: it announced Thursday that it will continue to define home broadband as connections that are 25 mbps. The commission also established a new standard for mobile broadband as a connection of 10 mbps or higher, and said it had rejected the idea — which it had floated last year — of labeling mobile internet service an adequate replacement for home broadband. As this week’s analysis may demonstrate, I believe shrinking the digital divide is critical for the U.S.’s continued dynamism.
Sign of the apocalypse
According to Quartz, Alexa now says she’s a feminist when asked. Now that that’s settled, can she get to work on the gender gap @ Amazon? 75 percent of managers are male according to recent diversity numbers from Amazon; wouldn’t it be interesting to see diversity numbers specifically for tech and engineering positions?