Thank you for Duplex, Google

With its experimental voice-based digital assistant system for booking appointments called “Duplex”, Google has created quite a stir. Some people are amazed. Some people are worried. Some are both. Oddly, I am neither. But there are couple of interesting take-aways.

1. Smells like Vaporware

Duplex and the demo shown are a perfect way to wow a geeky audience at a Google developer conference (mission accomplished). But for a company such as Google, is also easy to prepare the technology for a highly predictable use case such as booking an appointment. How natural and human-like would Duplex sound if the person on the other end of the line suddenly asks “Hey by the way, what do you think about the situation in the Middle East/the Eurovision Song Contest/Paleo?”. Exactly, these questions would not be asked during this type of call. Therefore, what remains is a highly trivial bot conversation, a well-functioning yet not revolutionary speech recognition system, and an indeed noteworthy human-like computer-generated voice. That’s for sure an achievement. But it does not say anything about the feasibility of the approach in more wide-ranging conversations, and neither about the actually potential of Duplex on the market.

2. “The new can’t do new things in *old* ways.”

The former Windows president Steven Sinofsky coined the adage that new cannot do new things in old ways. Yet this is exactly what Google does with Duplex. The investor Bijan Sabet puts it trechantly: “It reminds me of those apps that allow you to send a fax from a smartphone. It’s duct tape for old Infrastructure”

In fact, the whole scenario of people having to call to make an appointment should not exist at all (and probably won’t in a few years). Traditional online booking systems can do this better, as can chat bots. It’s strange that Google would try to solve such a transient problem over actual innovating in this field. Sabet again:

“Instead I would rather see Google use it’s financial and engineering might to get everyone online and connected in a decentralized way via API so office hours, reservations, communications arent addressed thru computers pretending to be humans.”

But when complaining about the misguided allocation of resources and lack of innovative thinking in regards to Duplex, the premise is that Google actually would be serious with this. But the company’s actual intentions might be very different…

3. Google kicked off an important debate

Considering the previously mentioned points, it’s unlikely that the Google management presented Duplex with the sole (or prime) intention of actually launching such a service. More probably at least is that, aside from the goal to entertain the Google I/O crowd, Google wanted to spark a debate and show how far technology has come to imitate humans in narrow, highly predictable types of conversations. Mission accomplished, again. I saw people discussing Duplex who otherwise never talk about cutting-edge tech topics. It’s important that even the non-techy crowd starts thinking about AI and its possibilities as well as challenges, because it is upon us and will affect everyone. We should be thankful to Google for doing this.

4. Our human discomfort with being presented with our lack of sophistication

On Hacker News, a commentator made this thought-provoking remark:

“People who answer phones to take bookings perform an extremely limited set of questions and responses, that’s why they can even be replaced by dumb voice response systems in many cases. In these cases, the human being answering the phone is themselves acting like a bot following a repetitive script.”

Indeed, part of the outrage and criticism in regards to Duplex could be caused by the natural human discomfort with being confronted with our own bot-likeness. Two years ago, I wrote a blog post pointing out that Twitter makes humans look like bots. Since then, I am noticing bot-like behavior everywhere.

Digital technology and particularly AI is challenging humans in ways which are scary, for the simple reason that it shows us our own shortcomings and lack of sophistication, such as when doing scripted conversations on the phone while insisting in wanting to keep the exclusive right to perform those conversations.

Machines will keep entering more and more territories of everyday life. The natural response for humans must be to actually focus on the areas in which we are and will be, for a long time, more capable than computers. And it also needs to be the realization that if we don’t want to be outperformed by bots, we must stop behaving like bots ourselves.

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A message to WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

Jan Koum, the other co-founder and former CEO of WhatsApp, is leaving Facebook. His former colleague Brian Acton did the same a few months ago.

Judging from the media reports about Koum’s parting with Facebook, it seems that a long-standing disagreement of Koum and Acton with Facebook’s core values in regards to the collection of user data and ad monetization is one (or the) reason why both are moving on. Acton even went so far as to embrace the tiny #deletefacebook movement (which has little chances of success). Continue Reading

The slippery slope of accepting casualties caused by self-driving cars

Last week’s first ever deadly accident with a self-driving car was tragic for the victim. It was also inevitable. No sane person would expect the technology already to be perfect. In fact, probably few would expect the technology to ever be so perfect that the number of (fatal) accidents could be reduced to zero.

It’s also clear that more severe accidents involving autonomous cars will follow. This reality might sound harsh when put into words, but everybody today participating in traffic (whether as driver, passenger, cyclist or pedestrian) is silently acknowledging the existing risk in the same way: We know that an accident could happen, but we consider the upside of mobility being much bigger than the risk of a crash. And rightly so.

There is a peculiarity with accidents involving autonomous cars though: The question of responsibility beyond the legal liability. As outlined in this piece, from a legal point of view, the emerging scenarios could probably be solved. But another issue remains: It is a basic rule of modern human civilization (outside of war zones) that if one person is harmed, then this person or his/her relatives and friends crave to see a face of someone who caused or was in some way participating in the harm – regardless of whether this person will be deemed legally responsible. Continue Reading

Revolut and N26, please be successful in disrupting banking

For years, the promise of FinTech startups disrupting the complacent and technologically lagging consumer banks of Europe has been a theoretical one. Now this is finally changing, with two rapidly emerging and well-funded players expanding across Europe (and beyond): London-based Revolut and Berlin-based N26.

Both startups are offering banking services built for the mobile age, in a free and a paid premium plan. While initial doubts about their longevity were justified (as with any startup entering a highly regulated, complicated industry), considering the size of recent funding rounds, chances are good that both services will stick around for a while. N26 just raised $130 million from Tencent and Allianz Group. Revolut pocketed $66 million in a Series B last year from Index Ventures and others. Continue Reading

Facebook’s data scandal: A time for everyone to be humble and self-critical

In the early years of the existence of Facebook’s platform, app developers were able to access the data of friends of a user who installed the app and gave the necessary permissions. That’s the method Cambridge Analytica used for allegedly accumulating personal data of 50 million Facebook users.

In a trenchant blog post, James Allworth describes the dramatic extent to which the Facebook platform through its Graph API allowed third party apps to harvest data from in theory every user registered and active on Facebook, until the rules were changed in 2015. “What was Facebook thinking?”, he rightly wonders.

But here is another, equally astonishing question: Why did no one else see this coming? Continue Reading

Great times ahead for everyone in the business of audio content

Here is a German version of this post.

The rise of smart speakers and wireless headphones leads to a likely increase of time available for audio consumption. Who benefits from this? Among others of course those offering music streaming, podcasts and audiobooks.

Especially for podcasts, the potential is huge. Last year, 24 percent of Americans age 12 or older have listened to at least one podcast every month. In Germany in 2015, 1.3 million people out of about 80 million (total population) consumed podcasts every day. The room for growth is obvious.

And the conditions could not be better. Apple just released an analytics service for its podcast platform, which still is said to be the market leader (but its dominance is shrinking). Finally, podcast creators can get data on listening behavior on a per-episode basis. And while some feared that this would lead to very uncomfortable insights, such as large numbers abandoning podcast episodes prematurely, the concerns appear to have been unfounded. As Wired just titled after talking to a bunch of podcasts producers about their numbers: “Podcast listeners really are the holy grail advertisers hoped they’d be”.

Beyond a predictable growth of the podcast sector, another trend of 2018 is poised to be a blurring of the lines between the different types of audio formats. The Amazon-owned audiobook platform Audible is expanding its podcast portfolio. In Germany, it even plans to launch journalistic live shows, which would basically pit it against radio. Meanwhile, music streaming giant Spotify is also doubling down on podcasts.

Distinguishing between music streaming, podcasts, audiobooks and traditional radio might soon become much harder. That’s a natural process. For listeners, the labels don’t matter. What matters is to have access to the right type of audio content at a given moment. Whether they want their favourite songs, background noise, world news, a thought-provoking talk about philosophy, something to laugh, tunes to fall asleep to or the audio version of a bestselling book, depends a lot on their context, environment and what they are doing while listening. If a player in the market manages to offer every type of audio content with good usability and a competitive price under one roof, it’ll likely be a big hit.

Although it cannot be ruled out that audiobooks, due to the particular economics, will remain separate from other audio content. Google just started selling audiobooks on its Play Store.

The upcoming audio boom leads to interesting questions, such as what role traditional radio will play. So far it has fared quite well against digital competitors. But will millions of AirPod users end up walking around listening to their local radio station all day? That’s not impossible but rather unlikely.

Also: Will audio content be complementary or substituting to display-based digital media? Considering the current backlash against social media and the consequential emergence of movements such as “Time well spent”, replacing  display-time with audio content might be an effective way to break with a bad habit (such as mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds) by creating a better one.

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AirPods and competitors: The big impact of small wireless headphones

A German version of this text can be found here.

2018 is only a few days old, but my digital life has already significantly improved: A few weeks ago I finally purchased wireless earphones. Not Apple’s AirPods but a similar product, since I prefer real in-ear headphones. And wow, what a difference the cable-free lifestyle makes.

Ever since I got my first Walkman in the mid 90s, I, like many others, had to struggle with the cables that carried the sound to the ears. There was no alternative. Tangled cables were the norm. No day went by without at least one short moment of frustration caused by cables that somehow were in the way or that accidentally got stuck and subsequently violently pulled out of the ears. While this certainly is a first world problem, it’s one that was eagerly waiting for a solution. Now it is here. Continue Reading

Of course Bitcoin is in a bubble. Let’s end the debate and think about what it means.

Currently, every day another pundit from the financial world is making a remark about whether Bitcoin is in a bubble or not. Astonishing that this is still a debatable question.

Of course Bitcoin is in a bubble. What other reasonable (yes, reasonable, not just mambo jambo) explanation is there for the crazy explosion in the Bitcoin price? People should be honest with themselves: Bitcoin’s price keeps increasing because people expect the price to increase and would love a piece of the profit. It’s all speculation.

Sure, there might be the occasional individual in a country with a non-functioning financial system, who uses Bitcoin for non-speculative transactional purposes. But realistically, other cryptocurrencies are more suited for that, due to lower transaction fees and faster processing times.

Right now, Bitcoin is pure speculation, and it’s a bubble. Period.

With that being settled, the more important questions, in my eyes, are: Continue Reading

A culture of responsible behavior is possible and could save the web

Here you can read a German version of this text.

In order to prevent the web’s demise, the emergence of a culture of responsible behavior is required. Examples from the “analogue” world prove that under certain circumstances, such a culture is possible.

Why do people participate in elections, even though they know that abstaining wouldn’t have any measurable impact on the result? Some other force drives them to invest time and energy into casting their vote: A learned and internalized sense of responsibility which derives from the realization that many small actions taken together lead to a big impact.

A similar principle comes into effect when people separate and recycle trash. This is a very popular “sport” in my country of origin, Germany. Again, the individual effect of not separating is negligible. And unlike with voting, there isn’t even immediate direct feedback about the positive effects of recycling (or the negative of not recycling) available. So technically, until very recently (before a law that went into effect in 2015 actually made recycling mandatory), there was very little incentive to put the effort into separating the trash. Yet, in 2006, an astonishing 92 percent of Germans reported separating their trash. Continue Reading

Benevolent digital dictators, without control

What is Facebook? That strange but relevant question was recently at the center of a long piece by Select All. Clearly, to describe Facebook and other highly influential tech firms simply as profit-driven companies like any other enterprise falls absurdly short, as it doesn’t allow us to grasp what they do and what they represent. It is like labeling every person as a “human”, and then ignoring what she/he does with their life. Obviously, it matters to our understanding of that person whether we are talking to a car mechanic, artist or president of a state.

The title of the article posed the question if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knows what Facebook is. Most likely he doesn’t. Facebook’s conflation with essentially every of our civilization’s and daily life’s major systems, has turned Facebook into a thing which doesn’t represent anything that humanity has seen before, and that lacks a proper descriptive name.

Bill Fitzgerald describes the status quo like this:

“For all the talk of disruptive innovation, how tech entrepreneurs are the smartest people in the room, etc, etc, we are now in a situation where billions of dollars have been spent creating platforms that the creators neither control nor understand.”

So we don’t know what Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are. Neither do their leaders. Nor do they have control. Sounds awkward and uncomfortable.

This also leads to another question: Who/What is Mark Zuckerberg, who/what is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey? If Facebook and Twitter aren’t just companies like [enter any major brand or manufacturer of consumer goods or traditional media company], then these guys aren’t just CEOs. They are something else.

Here is my proposal: They are a type of dictator. A digital equivalent, not ruling over geographical nations but over something akin to a digital nation. For now, these dictators are not intentionally evil. They are, or at least want to be, benevolent. And last but not least, as we just learned, they are kind of clueless and have lost control.

Digital, benevolent, clueless dictators without control over what’s happening with their platforms. But with the (accidental and undemocratic) power to change the whole world. That’s something to chew on.

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