Ten steps to prepare for an exponential future

If it feels like technological change is happening faster than it used to, that’s because it is.

It took around 12,000 years to move from the agrarian to the industrial revolution but only a couple of hundred years to go from the industrial to the information revolution that’s now propelling us in a short number of decades into the artificial intelligence revolution. Each technological transformation enables the next as the time between these quantum leaps becomes shorter.

That’s why if you are looking backwards to get a sense of how quickly the world around you will change, you won’t realize how quickly our radically different future is approaching. But although this can sometimes feel frightening, there’s a lot we can do now to help make sure we ride this wave of radical change rather than get drowned by it.

Here’s my essential list:

  1. Do what you can to preserve your youth
    Scientists are discovering new ways to slow the biological process of aging. It won’t be too long before doctors start prescribing pills, gene therapies, and other treatments to manage getting old as a partly curable disease. Because most of the terrible afflictions we now fear are correlated with age, medically treating aging will push off the date when we might have otherwise developed cancers, heart disease, dementia, and other killers. To maximally benefit from the new treatments for aging tomorrow, we all, no matter what our current age, need to do what we can to take care of our bodies today. That means exercising around 45 minutes a day, eating a healthy and mostly plant-based diet, trying to sleep at least seven hours a night, avoiding too much sun, not smoking, building and maintaining strong communities and support networks, and living a purposeful life. The healthier you are when the anti-age treatments arrive, the longer you’ll be able to maintain your vitality into your later years.
  2. Quantify and monitor your health
    You can’t monitor what you can’t measure. If you want to maintain optimal health, you need a way to regularly assess if you are on the right track. Monitoring your health through regular broad-spectrum blood and stool tests, constant feedback about your heart rate and sleep patterns from devices like your Apple Watch or Fitbit, having your genome sequenced, getting a full body MRI, and having a regular colonoscopy may seem like overkill to most people. But waiting until you have a symptom to start assessing your health status is like waiting until your car is careening down a hill to check if the brakes are in order. Some smart people worry that this kind of monitoring of “healthy” people will waste money, overwhelm our already overburdened healthcare system, and cause people unnecessary anxiety. But even the healthiest among us are in the early stages of developing one disease or another. Society will inevitably shift from a model of responsive sick care of people already in trouble to the predictive healthcare trying to keep people out of it. Do you want to be a dinosaur-like victim of the old model or a proactive pioneer of the new one?
  3. Freeze your essential biological materials
    Our bodies are a treasure trove of biological materials that could save us in the future, but every morning we still flush gold down the toilet. That gold, our stool, could potentially be frozen so we could repopulate our essential gut bacteria if our microbiome were to take a dangerous hit from antibiotics or illness. Skin cells could be transformed into potentially life-saving stem cells and stored for future use to help rejuvenate various types of aging cells. If our future treatments will be personalized using our own biological materials, but we’ll need to have stored these materials earlier in life to receive the full benefit of these advances. We put money in the bank to ensure our financial security, so why wouldn’t we put some of our biological materials in a bio-bank to have our youngest possible rescue cells waiting for us when we need them and help secure our physiological security?
  4. If you plan on ever having children, freeze your eggs or your sperm
    More people will soon shift from conceiving children through sex to conceiving them through IVF and embryo selection. The preliminary driver of this will be parents’ increasing recognition that they can reduce the roughly 3% chance their future children will be born with dangerous genetic mutations by having their embryos screened in a lab prior to implantation in the mother. This may seem less exciting than making babies in the back seat of a car, but the health and longevity benefits of screening embryos will ultimately overpower conception by sex kind of like how vaccinating our children has (mostly) overpowered the far more natural option of not doing so. If you are likely to conceive via IVF and embryo selection, why not freeze your eggs, sperm, or embryos when you are at your biological peak and when the chance of passing on genetic abnormalities is lower than it may be later in life?
  5. Manage your public identity
    The days of living incognito are over. No matter how aggressively some of us may try to avoid it, our lives leave massive digital footprints that are becoming an essential part of our very identities. The authoritarian government in China is planning to give “social credit“ scores evaluating the digitally monitored behavior of each citizen in a creepy and frightening way. But even in more liberal societies we will all be increasingly judged at work, at home, and in our commercial interactions based on our aggregated digital identities. These identities will be based on what we buy, what we post, what we seek, and how and with whom we interact online. Some societies and individuals are smartly trying to exert a level of control over the collection and use of this personal data, but even this won’t change the new reality that our digital identities will significantly influence what options are available to us in life and represent us after we die. Given this, and perhaps sadly, we all need to protect our privacy but also think of our public selves as brands, managing our digitally recorded activity from early on to present ourselves to the world the way we consciously want the world to know us.
  6. Learn the language of code
    Our lives will be increasingly manipulated by algorithms few of us understand. Most people who were once good at finding their way now just use their GPS-guided smart phones to get where they need to go. As algorithms touching many different aspects of our lives get better, we will increasingly rely on them to make plans, purchasing decisions, and even significant life choices for us. Pretty much every job we might do and many other aspects of our lives will be guided by artificial intelligence and big data analytics. Fully understanding every detail of how each of these algorithms function may be impossible, but we’ll be even more at their mercy if we don’t each acquire at least a rudimentary understanding of what code is and how it works. If you can read one book about code, that’s a start. Learning the fundamental of coding will do even more to help you navigate the fast arriving algorithmic world.
  7. Become multicultural
    Pretty much wherever you were in the 18th century, you needed to understand Europe to operate effectively because European power then defined so many parts of the world. The same was true for understanding United States in the 20th century understanding America was imperative for most people living outside of the United States because US actions influenced so many aspects of their lives. For many people living in 20th century America, understanding the rest of the world was merely interesting. As China rises and Global power decentralizes in the 21st-century, we’ll all need to learn more about China, India, and other new power, population, and culture centers than ever before. This won’t just help you become a more well-rounded person, it will give you a far greater chance of success in most anything you’ll be doing. Although machine translation will make communicating across languages pretty seamless, you’ll need a cultural fluidity and fluency to succeed in the 21st century world. The good news is that people motivated to learn about other groups and societies now have more resources than ever before to do so. If you want to be ready for our multicultural, multinational future, you’d better start doing all you can to learn about other cultures and societies now.
  8. Become an obsessive learner
    Technological change has been a constant throughout human history, but the pace of change is today accelerating far more rapidly than ever before. As innovations across the spectrum of science and technology empower, inspire, and reinforce each other, multiple technological transformations are converging into a revolutionary whole far greater than the sum of its parts. This unprecedented rate of change will mean that much of your knowledge will start becoming obsolete as soon as you acquire it. To keep up in your career and life, you’ll need to dedicate yourself to a lifetime of never ending, aggressive, continuous, and creativity-driven learning. The only skill worth having in an exponential world will be knowing how to learn and a passion for doing it. Call me an old-fashioned futurist, but this learning process must include reading lots of books to help you understand where we have come from and how the disparate pieces of information fit together to create a larger story. This type of knowledge will be an essential foundation of the wisdom we’ll each and all need to navigate our fast-changing world.
  9. Invest in physical community
    We humans are social species. A primary reason we rose to the top of the food chain and built civilization is that our brains are optimized for collaborating with those around us. When we bond with our partners and friends, we realize one of our essential cord needs as humans. That’s why people in solitary confinement tend to go a bit crazy. But although our progression from feeling our sense of connection, belonging, and community has expanded from the level of clan to village to city to country to, in some ways, the world, we are still not virtual beings. We may get a little dopamine hit whenever someone likes our tweet or Facebook post, but most of us still need a connected physical community around us in order to be happy and to realize our best potential. With all of the virtual options that will surround us – chatbots engaging us in witty repartee, virtual assistants managing our schedules, and even friends messaging from faraway lands among them – our virtual future must remain grounded in our physical world. To build your essential community of flesh and blood people, you must invest in deep and meaningful relationships with the people physically around you.
  10.   Don’t get stuck in today The olden days were, at least in most peoples’ minds, always better. We used to have better values, a better work ethic, better communities. We used to walk to school uphill in both directions! But while we do need to hold on to the best of the past, we also need to march boldly into the future. Because the coming world will feel like science fiction, will all need to be like science fiction writers  imagining the world ahead and positioning ourselves to shape it for the better. The technologies of the future will be radically new but we’ll need to draw on the best of our ancient value systems to use them wisely. The exponential future is coming faster than most of us appreciate or are ready for. Like it or not, we are now all futurists.

GPS Rollover is today. Here’s why devices might get wacky

The Global Positioning System time epoch is ending and another one is beginning, an event that could affect your devices or any equipment or legacy system that relies on GPS for time and location.

Most clocks obtain their time from Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). But the atomic clocks on satellites are set to GPS time. The timing signals you can get from GPS satellites are very accurate and globally available. And so they’re often used by systems as the primary source of time and frequency accuracy.

When Global Positioning System was first implemented, time and date function was defined by a 10-bit number. So unlike the Gregorian calendar, which uses year, month and date format, the GPS date is a “week number,” or WN. The WN is transmitted as a 10-bit field in navigation messages and rolls over or resets to zero every 1,204 weeks.

Since that time, the count has been incremented by one each week, and broadcast as part of the GPS message.

The GPS week started January 6, 1980 and it became zero for the first time midnight August 21, 1999.  At midnight April 6, the GPS WN is scheduled to reset, which could be problematic for legacy systems and impact time and the time tags in location data. Utilities and cellular networks also use GPs receivers for timing and controlling certain functions. For instance, the U.S. power grid uses timestamps embedded in GPS. The U.S. Department of Energy says that “GPS supports a wide variety of critical grid functions that allow separate components on the electric system to work in unison.”

It should be noted that the WN restart date could be different in some devices, depending on when the firmware was created.

The bug, which some has described as the Y2K of GPS, will cause problems in some GPS receivers such as resetting the time and corrupting location data. The GPS WN rollover event may hurt the reliability of the reported UTC, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security. HDS said an GPS device that conforms to the latest IS-GPS-200 and provides UTC should not be adversely affected. The agency also provided a word of caution:

However, tests of some GPS devices revealed that not all manufacturer implementations correctly handle the April 6, 2019 WN rollover. Additionally, some manufacturer implementations interpret the WN parameter relative to a date other than January 5, 1980. These devices should not be affected by the WN rollover on April 6, 2019 but may experience a similar rollover event at a future date.

If you own a newer commercial device with updated software, it’s most likely fine. But double check and make sure the software is up-to-date.

The U.S. Naval Observatory suggests contact the manufacturer of your GPS receiver if you have been effected by the GPS week number rollover. Some GPS receiver manufacturers can be found at the GPS World website.

Work has been done to avoid this kind of rollover issue — or at least punt it down the line. The modernized GPS navigation message uses a 13-bit field that repeats every 8,192 weeks.

The most important developments in Crypto 2.0

Something strange is happening in the world of cryptocurrencies. To the investor, the speculator, or the casual observer, the industry is in the midst of the “crypto winter” marked by dwindling public interest and stagnant prices after last year’s massive plunges.

But to the engineer or the founder, it is an industry which has never been so feverish; a sector erupting and overflowing with new initiatives, new developments, and new technologies. What follows is a brief, oversimplified summary of what I view as the most important current initiatives.

Outsiders ask, quite reasonably: will anyone outside of a tiny minority ever really care? But “ever” is a long time, and blockchainers are still fairly flush with funding from the boom, and — more importantly — armed with two of the most potent weapons known to humankind: technical brilliance and true belief.

Startups Weekly: What’s up with YC? Plus, mobility layoffs and Airbnb’s grand plans

Where to begin… Netflix darling Marie Kondo is hitting up Sand Hill Road in search of $40 million to fund an ecommerce platform, Y Combinator is giving $150,000 to a startup building a $380,000 flying motorcycle (because why not) and Jibo, the social robot, is calling it quits, speaking to owners directly of its imminent shutdown.

It was a hectic week in unicorn land so, I’m just going to get right to the good stuff.

Changes at Y Combinator

Where to begin! Not only did the prolific accelerator announce long-time president Sam Altman would be making an exit, but TechCrunch scooped the firm’s decision to move its headquarters to San Francisco. Y Combinator is going through a number of changes, outlined here. Interestingly, sources tell TechCrunch that YC has no succession plans. We’re guessing that’s because Altman had already mostly transitioned away from the firm, with CEO Michael Seibel assuming his responsibilities. The question is, is Altman planning to launch a startup? Hmmmmm.

Airbnb’s a hotelier

As it gears up for an IPO, Airbnb is showing its mature side. In a bid to accelerate growth, the home-sharing unicorn is buying HotelTonight in a deal said to be valued at around $465 million. Accel, the storied venture capital firm, was the business’s first-ever investors and is now its largest stakeholder. Oughta be a nice return. We’re still wondering whether it’s a cash deal, a cash and stock deal or an all-stock deal. Let me know if you’ve got the deets.

Mobility cuts

Lyft is preparing for its imminent IPO by getting lean. The ride-hailing company is trimming 50 staff members in its scooters and bikes unit, reports TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden. The cuts are mostly impacting those who joined the company when it acquired the electric bike-sharing startup Motivate, a deal that closed about three months ago. I’ll point out that Lyft employs 5,000 people; these layoffs are about one percent of their total workforce. And while we’re on the topic of mobility layoffs, Mobike, the former Chinese bike-share unicorn, is closing down all international operations and putting its sole focus on China.

Munchery goes bankrupt

Several weeks after a sudden shutdown left customers and vendors in the lurch, meal-kit service Munchery has filed for bankruptcy. In the Chapter 11 filing, Munchery chief executive officer James Beriker cites increased competition, over-funding, aggressive expansion efforts and Blue Apron’s failed IPO as reasons for its demise. Here’s the story, complete with Munchery’s bankruptcy filing.

Funders fundraise

This week Precursor Ventures closed its sophomore pre-seed fund on $32 million, NEA filed to raise its largest venture fund yet ($3.6 billion), SoftBank raised $2 billion on a $5 billion target for a Latin America Fund, aMoon raised $660 million for Israeli healthcare deals and Coral Capital brought in $45 million to make early-stage investments in Japan.

Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets

Startup cash

Sea is raising up to $1.5B
Grab confirms $1.46B investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund
Music services company Kobalt is raising roughly $100M
Eargo raises $52M for virtually invisible, rechargeable hearing aids
Matterport raises $48M to ramp up its 3D imaging platform
Netflix star and tidying expert Marie Kondo is looking to raise $40M
Blueground raises $20M for flexible apartment rentals

Netflix star and tidying expert Marie Kondo

A16z gets even bigger

Andreessen Horowitz tapped David George as its newest general partner and its first top dealmaker focused on late-stage deals. George joins from General Atlantic, where he’d backed consumer internet, enterprise software and fintech startups as a principal since 2012. The firm’s swelling team is amongst the largest of any VC firm. Most partnerships consist of one to three top dealmakers and a few partners or principals. A16z breaks the mold with its ever-expanding team of GPs. We talked to George and a16z managing director Scott Kupor.

Worth reading

The Khashoggi murder isn’t stopping SoftBank’s Vision Fund, by TechCrunch’s Jon Russell and Jonathan Shieber.

SXSW

Stopping by SXSW? Meet TechCrunch’s writers at our annual Crunch By Crunch Fest party in Austin, Texas. RSVP here to join us on Sunday, March 10th from 1pm to 4pm at the Swan Dive at 615 Red River St. @ E. 7th St., just 3 blocks from the convention center. Hang out with TechCrunchers and fellow readers, enjoy free drinks and check out a live performance by electro-RnB musician Elderbrook.  And check out the full line-up of TechCrunch panels here. I will be discussing the double standard in sex tech with Lora Haddock, the CEO of Lora DiCarlo, on Thursday, March 14th at 2pm at the Fairmont Congressional A, 101 Red River.

Listen to me talk

This week on Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines, Crunchbase New’s editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss Y Combinator’s new HQ, Chime’s big funding round and SoftBank’s new Latin America fund. Listen here.

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Taxing your privacy

Data collection through mobile tracking is big business and the potential for companies helping governments monetize this data is huge. For consumers, protecting yourself against the who, what and where of data flow is just the beginning. The question now is: How do you ensure your data isn’t costing you money in the form of new taxes, fees and bills?  Particularly when the entity that stands to benefit from this data — the government — is also tasked with protecting it?

The advances in personal data collection are a source of growing concern for privacy advocates, but whereas most fears tend to focus on what type of data is being collected, who’s watching and to whom is your data being sold, the potential for this same data to be monetized via auditing and compliance fees is even more problematic.

The fact is, you don’t need massive infrastructure to now track/tax businesses and consumers. State governments and municipalities have taken notice.

The result is a potential multi-billion dollar per-year business that, with mobile tracking technology, will only grow exponentially year over year.

Yet, while the revenue upside for companies helping smart cities (and states) with taxing and tolling is significant, it is also rife with contradictions and complications that could, ultimately, pose serious problems to those companies’ underlying business models and for the investors that bet heavily on them.

Internet of Things connecting in cloud over city scape.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/chombosan

The most common argument when privacy advocates bring up concerns around mobile data collection is that consumers almost always have the control to opt out. When governments utilize this data, however, that option is not always available. And the direct result is the monetization of a consumer’s privacy in the form of taxes and tolls. In an era where states like California and others are stepping up as self-proclaimed defenders of citizen privacy and consent, this puts everyone involved in an awkward position — to say the least.

The marriage of smart cities and next-gen location tracking apps is becoming more commonplace.  AI, always-on data flows, sensor networks and connected devices are all being employed by governments in the name of sustainable and equitable cities as well as new revenue.

New York, LA and Seattle are all implementing (or considering implementing) congestion pricing that would ultimately rely on harvesting personal data in some form or another. Oregon, which passed the first gas tax in 1919, began it’s OreGo Program two years ago utilizing data that measured miles driven to levy fees on drivers so as to address infrastructure issues with its roads and highways.

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

As more state and local governments look to emulate these kinds of policies the revenue opportunity for companies and investors harvesting this data is obvious.  Populus, (and a portfolio company) a data platform that helps cities manage mobility, captures data from fleets like Uber and Lyft to help cities set policy and collect fees.

Similarly, ClearRoad  is a “road pricing transaction processor” that leverages data from vehicles to help governments determine road usage for new revenue streams.  Safegraph, on the other hand, is a company that daily collects millions of trackers from smartphones via apps, APIs and other delivery methods often leaving the business of disclosure up to third parties. Data like this has begun to make its way into smart city applications which could impact industries as varied as the real estate market to the Gig Economy.

“There are lots of companies that are using location technology, 3D scanning, sensor tracking and more.  So, there are lots of opportunities to improve the effectiveness of services and for governments to find new revenue streams,” says Paul Salama, COO of ClearRoad . “If you trust the computer to regulate, as opposed to the written code, then you can allow for a lot more dynamic types of regulation and that extends beyond vehicles to noise pollution, particulate emissions, temporary signage, etc.”

While most of these platforms and technologies endeavor to do some public good by creating the baseline for good policy and sustainable cities they also raise concerns about individual privacy and the potential for discrimination.  And there is an inherent contradiction for states ostensibly tasked with curbing the excesses of data collection then turning around and utilizing that same data to line the state’s coffers, sometimes without consent or consumer choice.

Image courtesy Bryce Durbin

“People care about their privacy and there are aspects that need to be hashed out”, says Salama. “But we’re talking about a lot of unknowns on that data governance side.  There’s definitely going to be some sort of reckoning at some point but it’s still so early on.”

As policy makers and people become more aware of mobile phone tracking and the largely unregulated data collection associated with it, the question facing companies in this space is how to extract all this societally beneficial data while balancing that against some pretty significant privacy concerns.

“There will be options,” says Salama.  “An example is Utah which, starting next year, will offer electric cars the option to pay a flat fee (for avoiding gas taxes) or pay-by-the-mile.  The pay-by-the-mile option is GPS enabled but it also has additional services, so you pay by your actual usage.”

Ultimately, for governments, regulation plus transparency seems the likeliest way forward.

Image courtesy Getty Images

In most instances, the path to the consumer or tax payer is either through their shared economy vehicle (car, scooter, bike, etc.) or though their mobile device.  While taxing fleets is indirect and provides some measure of political cover for the governments generating revenue off of them, there is no such cover for directly taxing citizens via data gathered through mobile apps.

The best case scenario to short circuit these inherent contradictions for governments is to actually offer choice in the form of their own opt-in for some value exchange or preferred billing method, such as Utah’s opt-in as an alternative way to pay for road use vs. gas tax.   It may not satisfy all privacy concerns, particularly when it is the government sifting through your data, but it at least offers a measure of choice and a tangible value.

If data collection and sharing were still mainly the purview of B2B businesses and global enterprises, perhaps the rising outcry over the methods and usage of data collection would remain relatively muted. But as data usage seeps into more aspects of everyday life and is adopted by smart cities and governments across the nation questions around privacy will invariably get more heated, particularly when citizen consumers start feeling the pinch in their wallet.

As awareness rises and inherent contradictions are laid bare, regulation will surely follow and those businesses not prepared may face fundamental threats to their business models that ultimately threaten their bottom line.

The shift to collaborative robots means the rise of robotics as a service

The 2018 Holiday shopping season was the biggest on record for e-commerce, with nearly $126 billion in online sales. But as e-commerce continues to expand, the demand for warehouse workers is growing faster than the labor supply and creating an increased need for automation.

Given its dominance in e-commerce and the massive scale of its business, there’s no surprise that Amazon was one of the first companies to supplement their human workforce with robotics. Since the acquisition of Kiva in 2012, a growing army of robots performs an increasing variety of tasks at Amazon facilities. However, those tasks remain limited in their ability to displace their human counterparts entirely.

Today, robotics are more affordable to a broader array of companies, thanks to lower cost components, and advancements in technology have paved the way for the rise of the collaborative robot or “cobot”.

inVia Robotics warehouse robots

Cobots are more precise and increasingly flexible with advanced sensor technology, AI, Lidar/Radar, GPS, and connectivity. Machine learning has also made cobots more versatile—not just in their hardware, but in software that facilitates adaptation to a broad array of tasks. And because sensor-rich robots can adapt to a variety of new challenges on the fly, we see more use cases for real-world application.

Don’t expect a severe shift to collaborative robots — we are still in the early innings. The global industrial robot market, dominated by the “Big 4” (Kuka, ABB, Fanuc, and Yaskawa) was valued at more than $15 billion in 2017, while the market for cobots reached only $287 million. However, the digital transformation of warehouses presents a tremendous market opportunity for new companies to create value.

We draw connections to the shift we saw from legacy software to SaaS, where traditional sales and business models switched to recurring revenue streams and cloud-based subscription services. By combining domain-specific go-to-market with robust software management platforms, the next generation of robotics companies has the opportunity to avoid long integrator-led sales cycles and become highly sticky over time, much like the early SaaS providers.

6 River Systems robots lead workers to items they need to get from a warehouse shelf.

Additionally, collaborative robotic technology allows robots to augment human labor, lowering the barriers to entry, while still providing clear payback arguments around efficiency. Like the shift to cloud software, best-in-class platforms are now available to the masses without significant upfront investment in infrastructure.

We believe that co-bots will unlock market verticals traditionally underserved by robotics, such as logistics, food, and security.  Companies that offer full-service solutions to these sectors provide attractive opportunities to build value. For example, 6 River Systems — whose cobots, known as Chucks, use cloud software to coordinate warehouse tasks and work side-by-side with human employees — are changing how we think about the human-robot dynamic.

Cobalt Robotics, in the security vertical, allows human security guards to remotely monitor offices, creating cost savings for the employer, and efficiencies for the security guard. And other companies like RightHand Robotics, inVia Robotics, Starship are poised to replace human labor in some commercial settings.

The rapid innovation in this industry promises to bring efficiency and growth to countless sectors in coming years. Robotics programs at esteemed universities such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgia Tech are churning out a pool of world-class entrepreneurs who are not only seizing a timely—and hopefully profitable opportunity—but boldly advancing the industry.

To quote my fellow partner at Menlo Ventures, Matt Murphy, “We are entering a golden era of robotics, where robotics will become mainstream, drive huge efficiencies, and in some cases make the impossible possible.”

Even the IAB warned adtech risks EU privacy rules

A privacy complaint targeting the behavioral advertising industry has a new piece of evidence that shows the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) shedding doubt on whether it’s possible to obtain informed consent from web users for the programmatic ad industry’s real-time bidding (RTB) system to broadcast their personal data.

The adtech industry functions by harvesting web users’ data, packaging individual identifiers and browsing data in bid requests that are systematically shared with third parties in order to solicit and scale advertiser bids for the user’s attention.

However a series of RTB complaints — filed last fall by Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group; Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave; and Michael Veale, a data and policy researcher at University College London — allege this causes “wide-scale and systemic breaches” of European Union data protection rules.

So far complaints have been filed with data protection agencies in Ireland, the UK and Poland, though the intent is for the action to expand across the EU given that behavioral advertising isn’t region specific.

Google and the IAB set the RTB specifications used by the online ad industry and are thus the main targets here, with complainants advocating for amendments to the specification to bring the system into compliance with the bloc’s data protection regime.

We’ve covered the complaint before, including an earlier submission showing the highly sensitive inferences that can be included in bid requests. But documents obtained by the complainants via freedom of information request and newly published this week show the IAB itself warned in 2017 that the RTB system risks falling foul of the bloc’s privacy rules, and specifically the rules around consent under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force last May.

The complainants have published the latest evidence on a new campaign website.

At the very least the admission looks awkward for online ad industry body.

“incompatible with consent under GDPR “

In an email sent to senior personnel at the European Commission in June 2017 by Townsend Feehan, the CEO of IAB Europe — and now being used as evidence in the complaints — she writes that she wants to expand on concerns voiced at a roundtable session about the Commission’s ePrivacy proposals that she claims could “mean the end of the online advertising business model”.

Feehan attached an 18-page document to the email in which the IAB can be seen lobbying against the Commission’s ePrivacy proposal — claiming it will have “serious negative impacts on the digital advertising industry, on European media, and ultimately on European citizens’ access to information and other online content and services”.

The IAB goes on to push for specific amendments to the proposed text of the regulation. (As we’ve written before a major lobbying effort has blow up since GDPR was agreed to try to block updating the ePrivacy rules which operate alongside, covering marketing and electronic communications and cookies and other online tracking technologies.)

As it lobbies to water down ePrivacy rules, the IAB suggests it’s “technically impossible” for informed consent to function in a real-time bidding scenario — writing the following, in a segment entitled ‘Prior information requirement will “break” programmatic trading’:

As it is technically impossible for the user to have prior information about every data controller involved in a real-time bidding (RTB) scenario, programmatic trading, the area of fastest growth in digital advertising spend, would seem, at least prima facie, to be incompatible with consent under GDPR – and, as noted above, if a future ePrivacy Regulation makes virtually all interactions with the Internet subject solely to the consent legal basis, and consent is unavailable, then there will be no legal be no basis for such processing to take place or for media to monetise their content in this way.

The notion that it’s impossible to obtain informed consent from web users for processing their personal data prior to doing so is important because the behavioral ad industry, as it currently functions, includes personal data in bid requests that it systematically broadcasts to what can be thousands of third party companies.

Indeed, the crux of the RTB complaints are that personal data should be stripped out of these requests — and only contextual information broadcast for targeting ads, exactly because the current system is systematically breaching the rights of European web users by failing to obtain their consent for personal data to be sucked out and handed over to scores of unknown entities.

In its lobbying efforts to knock the teeth out of the ePrivacy Regulation the IAB can here be seen making a similar point — when it writes that programmatic trading “would seem, at least prima facie, to be incompatible with consent under GDPR”. (Albeit, injecting some of its own qualifiers into the sentence.)

The IAB is certainly seeking to deploy pro-privacy arguments to try to dilute Europeans’ privacy rights.

Despite it’s own claimed reservations about there being no technical fix to get consent for programmatic trading under GDPR the IAB nonetheless went on to launch a technical mechanism for managing — and, it claimed — complying with GDPR consent requirements in April 2018, when it urged the industry to use its GDPR “Consent & Transparency Framework”.

But in another piece of evidence obtained by the group of individuals behind the RTB complaints — an IAB document, dated May 2018, intended for publishers making use of this framework — the IAB also acknowledges that: “Publishers recognize there is no technical way to limit the way data is used after the data is received by a vendor for decisioning/bidding on/after delivery of an ad”.

In a section on liability, the IAB document lays out other publisher concerns that each bid request assumes “indiscriminate rights for vendors” — and that “surfacing thousands of vendors with broad rights to use data without tailoring those rights may be too many vendors/permissions”.

So again, er, awkward.

Another piece of evidence now attached to the RTB complaints shows a set of sample bid requests from the IAB and Google’s documentation for users of their systems — with annotations by the complainants showing exactly how much personal data gets packaged up and systematically shared.

This can include a person’s latitude and longitude GPS coordinates; IP address; device specific identifiers; various ID codes; inferred interests (which could include highly sensitive personal data); and the current webpage they’re looking at;

“The fourteen sample bid requests further prove that very personal data are contained in bid requests,” the complainants argue.

They have also included an estimated breakdown of seven major ad exchanges’ daily bid requests — Index Exchange, OpenX, Rubicon Project, Oath/AOL*, AppNexus, Smaato, Google DoubleClick — showing they collectively broadcast “hundreds of billions of bid requests per day”, to illustrate the scale of data being systematically broadcast by the ad industry.

“This suggests that the New Economics Foundation’s estimate in December that bid requests broadcast data about the average UK internet user 164 times a day was a conservative estimate,” they add.

The IAB has responded to the new evidence by couching the complainants’ claims as “false” and “intentionally damaging to the digital advertising industry and to European digital media”.

Regarding its 2017 document, in which it wrote that it was “technically impossible” for an Internet user to have prior information about every data controller involved in a RTB “scenario”, the IAB responds that “that was true at the time, but has changed since” — pointing to its Transparency & Consent framework (TCF) as the claimed fix for that, and further claiming it “demonstrates that real-time bidding is certainly not ‘incompatible with consent under GDPR'”.

Here are the relevant paras of IAB rebuttal on that:

The TCF provides a way to provide transparency to users about how, and by whom, their personal data is processed. It also enables users to express choices. Moreover, the TCF enables vendors engaged in programmatic advertising to know ahead of time whether their own and/or their partners’ transparency and consent status allows them to lawfully process personal data for online advertising and related purposes. IAB Europe’s submission to the European Commission in April 2017 showed that the industry needed to adapt to meet higher standards for transparency and consent under the GDPR. The TCF demonstrates how complex challenges can be overcome when industry players come together. But most importantly, the TCF demonstrates that real-time bidding is certainly not “incompatible with consent under GDPR”.

The OpenRTB protocol is a tool that can be used to determine which advertisement should be served on a given web page at a given time. Data can inform that determination. Like all technology, OpenRTB must be used in a way that complies with the law. Doing so is entirely possible and greatly facilitated by the IAB Europe Transparency & Consent Framework, whose whole raison d’être is to help ensure that the collection and processing of user data is done in full compliance with EU privacy and data protection rules.

The IAB goes on to couch the complaints as stemming from a “hypothetical possibility for personal data to be processed unlawfully in the course of programmatic advertising processes”.

“This hypothetical possibility arises because neither OpenRTB nor the TCF are capable of physically preventing companies using the protocol to unlawfully process personal data. But the law does not require them to,” the IAB claims.

However the crux of the RTB complaint is that programmatic advertising’s processing of personal data is not adequately secure — and they have GDPR Article 5, paragraph 1, point f to point to; which requires that personal data be “processed in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data, including protection against unauthorised or unlawful processing and against accidental loss”.

So it will be down to data protection authorities to determine what “appropriate security of personal data” means in this context. And whether behavioral advertising is inherently hostile to data protection law (not forgetting that other forms of non-personal-data-based advertising remain available, e.g. contextual advertising).

Discussing the complaint with TechCrunch late last year, Brave’s Ryan likened the programmatic ad system to dumping truck-loads of briefcases in the middle of a busy railway station in “the full knowledge that… business partners will all scramble around and try and grab them” — arguing that such a dysfunctional and systematic breaching of people’s data is lurking at the core of the online ad industry.

The solution Ryan and the other complainants are advocating for is not pulling the plug on the online ad industry entirely — but rather an update to the RTB spec to strip out personal data so that it respects Internet users’ rights. Ads can still be targeted contextually and successfully without Internet users having to be surveilled 24/7 online, is the claim.

They also argue that this would lead to a much better situation for quality online publishers because it would make it harder for their high value audiences to be arbitraged and commodified by privacy-hostile tracking technologies which — as it stands — trail Internet users everywhere they go. Albeit they freely concede that purveyors of low quality clickbait might fair less well.

*Disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media Group, aka Oath/AOL . We also don’t consider ourselves to be purveyors of low quality clickbait  

The GPS wars have begun

Where are you? That’s not just a metaphysical question, but increasingly a geopolitical challenge that is putting tech giants like Apple and Alphabet in a tough position.

Countries around the world, including China, Japan, India and the United Kingdom plus the European Union are exploring, testing and deploying satellites to build out their own positioning capabilities.

That’s a massive change for the United States, which for decades has had a practical monopoly on determining the location of objects through its Global Positioning System (GPS), a military service of the Air Force built during the Cold War that has allowed commercial uses since mid-2000 (for a short history of GPS, check out this article, or for the comprehensive history, here’s the book-length treatment).

Owning GPS has a number of advantages, but the first and most important is that global military and commercial users depend on this service of the U.S. government, putting location targeting ultimately at the mercy of the Pentagon. The development of the technology and the deployment of positioning satellites also provides a spillover advantage for the space industry.

Today, the only global alternative to that system is Russia’s GLONASS, which reached full global coverage a couple of years ago following an aggressive program by Russian president Vladimir Putin to rebuild it after it had degraded following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Now, a number of other countries want to reduce their dependency on the U.S. and get those economic benefits. Perhaps no where is that more obvious than with China, which has made building out a global alternative to GPS a top national priority. Its Beidou (北斗 – “Big Dipper”) navigation system has been slowly building up since 2000, mostly focused on providing service in Asia.

Now, though, China hopes to accelerate the launch of Beidou satellites and provide worldwide positioning services. As Financial Times noted a few weeks ago, China has launched 11 satellites in the Beidou constellation just this year — almost half of the entire network, and it hopes to expand by another dozen satellites by 2020. That would make it one of the largest systems in the world when fully deployed.

A Long March-3B carrier rocket carrying the 24th and 25th Beidou navigation satellites takes off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on November 5, 2017 in Xichang, China. Photo by Wang Yulei/CHINA NEWS SERVICE/VCG via Getty Images

China is not just putting satellites into orbit though, but demanding that local smartphone manufacturers include Beidou positioning chips in their devices. Today, devices from a number of major manufacturers, including Huawei and Xiaomi, use the system, along with GPS and Russia’s GLONASS as well.

That puts American smartphone leaders like Alphabet and particularly Apple in a bind. For Apple, which prides itself on providing one unified iPhone device worldwide, the disintegration of the monopoly around GPS presents a quandary: Does it offer a unique device for the Chinese market capable of handling Beidou, or does it add Beidou chips to its phones worldwide and run into trouble with U.S. national security authorities?

The complexity doesn’t stop there. China may be the most aggressive in launching its alternative to GPS and also the most bullish in providing worldwide coverage, but it is not alone in pursuing its own system.

Japan has made launching a space program a national priority to compete with China and rejuvenate its economy, and one critical component of that program is building out a positioning system. The Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (準天頂衛星システム), which has cost ¥120 billion ($1.08 billion) to date, is designed to augment GPS with more coverage of Japan and also trigger an estimated ¥2.4 trillion ($21.58 billion) in economic benefits.

Using this new system comes at a huge cost due to lack of manufacturing scale. As the Nikkei Asian Review noted a few weeks ago, “The high price of receivers is a hurdle, however. Mitsubishi Electric on Thursday began selling receivers accurate to within a few centimeters — at a price of several million yen, or tens of thousands of dollars, apiece.” The additional location accuracy in Japan may well be necessary for autonomous cars, but auto manufactures will need to lower costs quickly if they want to include the technology in their vehicles.

Like Japan, India has similarly pursued a GPS-augmenting system known as IRNSS, and it has now launched seven satellites to increase coverage of the subcontinent. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, which is expected to leave the European Union in March following the referendum over Brexit, will most likely lose access to the EU’s Galileo positioning system, and is planning to launch its own. As for Galileo itself, it is expected to be fully operational in 2019.

In short, the world has moved from one system (GPS) to arguably seven. And while Chinese manufacturers increasingly have GPS, GLONASS and Beidou installed on one chip, that scale may only work in a country the size of China. In Japan, where the smartphone market is saturated and the population is less than a tenth of China, the scale required to lower prices may well be harder to find. It will be even tougher in the United Kingdom, for the same reasons.

Theoretically, one positioning chip could be designed to incorporate all of these different systems, but that might run afoul of U.S. national security laws, particularly in regards to GLONASS and Beidou. Which means that much as the internet is fragmenting into disparate poles, we might soon find that our smartphone positioning chips need to fragment as well in order to handle these local markets. That will ultimately mean higher prices for consumers, and tougher supply chains for manufacturers.

Building a great startup requires more than genius and a great invention

Many entrepreneurs assume that an invention carries intrinsic value, but that assumption is a fallacy.

Here, the examples of the 19th and 20th century inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are instructive. Even as aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors lionize Edison for his myriad inventions and business acumen, they conveniently fail to recognize Tesla, despite having far greater contributions to how we generate, move, and harness power. Edison is the exception, with the legendary penniless Tesla as the norm.

Universities are the epicenter of pure innovation research. But the reality is that academic research is supported by tax dollars. The zero-sum game of attracting government funding is mastered by selling two concepts: Technical merit, and and broader impact toward benefiting society as a whole. These concepts are usually at odds with building a company, which succeeds only by generating and maintaining competitive advantage through barriers to entry.

In rare cases, the transition from intellectual merit to barrier to entry is successful. In most cases, the technology, though cool, doesn’t give the a fledgling company the competitive advantage it needs to exist among incumbents, and inevitable copycats. Academics, having emphasized technical merit and broader impact to attract support for their research, often fail to solve for competitive advantage, thereby creating great technology in search for a business application.

Of course there are exceptions: Time and time again, whether it’s driven by hype or perceived existential threat, big incumbents will be quick to buy companies purely for technology.  Cruise/GM (autonomous cars), DeepMind/Google (AI), and Nervana/Intel (AI chips). But as we move from 0-1 to 1-N in a given field, success is determined by winning talent over winning technology. Technology becomes less interesting; the onus on the startup to build a real business.

If a startup chooses to take venture capital, it not only needs to build a real business, but one that will be valued in the billions. the question becomes how a startup can create durable, attractive business, with a transient, short-lived technological advantage.

Most investors understand this stark reality. Unfortunately, while dabbling in technologies which appeared like magic to them during the cleantech boom, many investors were lured back into the innovation fallacy, believing that pure technological advancement would equal value creation. Many of them re-learned this lesson the hard way. As frontier technologies are attracting broader attention, I believe many are falling back into the innovation trap.

So what should aspiring frontier inventors solve for as they seek to invest capital to translate pure discovery to building billion-dollar companies?  How can the technology be cast into an unfair advantage that will yield big margins and growth that underpin billion-dollar businesses?

Talent productivity: In this age of automation, human talent is scarce, and there is incredible value attributed to retaining and maximizing human creativity.  Leading companies seek to gain an advantage by attracting the very best talent. If your technology can help you make more scarce talent more productive, or help your customers become more productive, then you are creating an unfair advantage internally, while establishing yourself as the de facto product for your customers.

Great companies such as Tesla and Google have built tools for their own scarce talent, and build products their customers, in their own ways, can’t do without. Microsoft mastered this with its Office products in the 90s, through innovation and acquisition, Autodesk with its creativity tools, and Amazon with its AWS Suite. Supercharging talent yields one of the most valuable sources of competitive advantage: switchover cost.  When teams are empowered with tools they love, they will loathe the notion of migrating to shiny new objects, and stick to what helps them achieve their maximum potential.

Marketing and Distribution Efficiency: Companies are worth the markets they serve.  They are valued for their audience and reach.  Even if their products in of themselves don’t unlock the entire value of the market they serve, they will be valued for their potential to, at some point in the future, be able to sell to the customers that have been tee’d up with their brands. AOL leveraged cheap CD-ROMs and the postal system to get families online, and on email.

Dollar Shave Club leveraged social media and an otherwise abandoned demographic to lock down a sales channel that was ultimately valued at a billion dollars. The inventions in these examples were in how efficiently these companies built and accessed markets, which ultimately made them incredibly valuable.

Network effects: Its power has ultimately led to its abuse in startup fundraising pitches. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram generate their network effects through Internet and Mobile. Most marketplace companies need to undergo the arduous, expensive process of attracting vendors and customers.  Uber identified macro trends (e.g., urban living) and leveraged technology (GPS in cheap smartphones) to yield massive growth in building up supply (drivers) and demand (riders).

Our portfolio company Zoox will benefit from every car benefitting from edge cases every vehicle encounters: akin to the driving population immediately learning from special situations any individual driver encounters. Startups should think about how their inventions can enable network effects where none existed, so that they are able to achieve massive scale and barriers by the time competitors inevitably get access to the same technology.

Offering an end-to-end solution: There isn’t intrinsic value in a piece of technology; it’s offering a complete solution that delivers on an unmet need deep-pocketed customers are begging for. Does your invention, when coupled to a few other products, yield a solution that’s worth far more than the sum of its parts? For example, are you selling a chip, along with design environments, sample neural network frameworks, and datasets, that will empower your customers to deliver magical products? Or, in contrast, does it make more sense to offer standard chips, licensing software, or tag data?

If the answer is to offer components of the solution, then prepare to enter a commodity, margin-eroding, race-to-the-bottom business. The former, “vertical” approach is characteristic of more nascent technologies, such as operating robots-taxis, quantum computing, and launching small payloads into space. As the technology matures and becomes more modular, vendors can sell standard components into standard supply chains, but face the pressure of commoditization.

A simple example is Personal Computers, where Intel and Microsoft attracted outsized margins while other vendors of disk drives, motherboards, printers, and memory faced crushing downward pricing pressure.  As technology matures, the earlier vertical players must differentiate with their brands, reach to customers, and differentiated product, while leveraging what’s likely going to be an endless number of vendors providing technology into their supply chains.

A magical new technology does not go far beyond the resumes of the founding team.

What gets me excited is how the team will leverage the innovation, and attract more amazing people to establish a dominant position in a market that doesn’t yet exist. Is this team and technology the kernel of a virtuous cycle that will punch above its weight to attract more money, more talent, and be recognized for more than it’s product?

The Casio Rangeman GPR-B1000 is a big watch for big adventures

The Casio Rangeman GPR-B1000 is comically large. That’s the first thing you notice about it. Based on the G-Shock design, this massive watch is 20.2mm thick and about 60mm in diameter, a true dinner plate of a watch. Inside the heavy case is a dense collection of features that will make your next outdoor adventure great.

GPR-B1000, which I took for an extended trip through Utah and Nevada, is an outdoor marvel. It has all of the standard hiking watch features including compass, barometer, altimeter, and solar charging, but the watch also has built-in GPS mapping, logging, and backtracking. This means you can set a destination and the watch will lead you and you can later use your GPS data to recreate your trek or even backtrack out of a sticky situation.

This is not a sports watch. It won’t track your runs or remind you to go to your yoga class. Instead it’s aimed at the backwoods hiker or off piste skier who wants to get from Point A to Point B without getting lost. The watch connects to a specialized app that lets you set the destinations, map your routes, and even change timezones when the phone wakes up after a flight. These odd features make this a traveler’s dream.

The watch design is also unique for Casio. Instead of a replaceable battery the device charges via sunlight or with an included wireless charger. It has a ceramic caseback – a first for Casio – and the charger fits on like a plastic parasite. It charges via micro USB.

It has a crown on the side that controls scrolling through various on-screen menus and the rest of the functions are accessed easily from dedicated buttons around the bezel. The watch is mud- and water-proof to 200 meters and it can survive in minus 20 degrees Celsius temperatures. It is also shock resistant.

The $800 GPR-B1000 is a beefy watch. It’s not for the faint of wrist and definitely requires a bit of dedication to wear. I loved it while hiking up and down canyons and mountains and it was an excellent travel companion. One of the coolest features is quite simply being able to trust that the timezone is correct as soon as you land in Europe from New York.

That said you should remember that this watch is for “Adventure Survival” as Casio puts it. It’s not a running watch and it’s not a fashion piece. At $800 it’s one of Casio’s most expensive G-Shocks and it’s also the most complex. If you’re an avid hiker, however, the endless battery, GPS, and trekking features make it a truly valuable asset.

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