Losing rider safety when losing Uber

The authorities of Colombia said they are planning to enforce existing laws that could cause drivers of on-demand transportation apps such as Uber and Cabify to lose their driver’s license for a duration of up to 25 years, according to CNN Español. In other words, if you drive for Uber or competitor Cabify (headquartered in Madrid) and get caught, your whole livelihood would be in danger.

This is great news for the country’s taxi lobby and cab drivers, but bad news for riders, whether locals or tourists. For several reasons, taking an Uber in Bogota or Medellín is much wiser than hailing a cab.

Taxis in Medellín protesting against Uber

Locals I met during my travels to Medellín had all bad experiences about taxi drivers to tell, from having been robbed by a driver to having been harassed. Also, many cab drivers possess surprisingly little knowledge of the roads and seem to be unwilling or unable to properly use smartphone apps to find their best way through the traffic (that’s based on my own experience as well as what I have been told by locals). Presumably, the real black sheep are in the minority. Yet, it’s enough for the younger generation of locals who live in areas with good Uber coverage to prefer Uber over taxis. Of course, even using Uber doesn’t guarantee total safety, but thanks to the ratings systems and the driver tracking, the probability of a seamless ride increases significantly.

In addition, the yellow taxis are an easy target for robbers who tend to operate on motorbikes and who threaten passengers at gunpoint to get valuables. While regular cars can be a target as well, when sitting in a taxi, one makes it particularly easy to those looking for a victim.

Furthermore, most taxis in Colombia are rather small vehicles, often without (working) AC, and some are not in the best condition. Generally, the Uber X rides I took happened in cars that were of better standard and size than the average taxi would be.

In the moment in which transportation apps are forced to cease operations in a country such as Colombia, it significantly reduces people’s ability to opt for safety when having to go somewhere.

Other than during travel in developing countries, I personally hardly ever use Uber (nor Taxis). I am in no way an Uber evangelist. But in certain markets, aside from potential savings for riders (which are a more controversial topic, in my eyes) there are undeniable benefits to Uber which – if removed – would make life harder for locals. And naturally, for visitors even more.

How Facebook and Google could collapse

What do Google and Facebook have in common, aside from that they are multi-billion dollar tech giants headquartered in Silicon Valley? Both companies currently experience massive internal tension.

At Google, the issue seems to be particularly related to ideological division (the whole “Google Memo” controversy last year was a clear sign of something bigger bubbling under the surface) and to moral questions about which type of projects the company should engage in or not (e.g., Should it get involved with the Pentagon for development of AI technology? Should it launch a censored search-engine in China?). In addition, many employees are protesting against how accusations and cases of sexual misbehavior and harassment are being handled inside the company.

Facebook doesn’t have the same culture of open, even public dissent as Google (at least from my perspective as an outside observer). However, based on recent media reports, internally tensions are boiling over. No surprise considering the never-ending stream of scandals and revelations of alleged or proven Facebook wrongdoing. It must be tough working at a company which increasingly is being blamed for all the world’s evils; one that evidently has a pretty significant and in parts destructive impact on politics and the public debate.

These internal conflicts might just blow over. But looking at their nature and how much they touch and are fueled by fundamental contemporary issues such as political polarization (this all is happening against the backdrop of Donald Trump, his impact on society and the debilitating strife between progressives and conservatives ), social justice, ethics, surveillance and the limits (and obligations) of capitalism, it’s more likely that things will keep escalating.

Essentially, what’s happening in many Western countries right now is happening inside Facebook and Google: Debates that in many regards are necessary but that have a tendency to polarize and to require a lot of attention.

For these companies’ business, which are built around the principle of moving forward fast (and often ruthlessly), these conflicts are a threat. They make it harder to maintain the pace and level of innovation that shareholders haven gotten accustomed to. They presumably also create internal uncertainty and confusion about what “disruptive” ideas can and should be openly discussed. One can imagine people walking on eggshells, mistrust grows, every little issue turns into a big thing because of existing tensions. Leaks are becoming more frequent, public scrutiny and pressure increases, more controversial decisions and past missteps are being revealed. The stock price is tanking. Morale plunges. Eventually people will look for jobs elsewhere.

And this how Facebook’s and Google’s dominant role could slowly deteriorate, until it collapses entirely.

=======
Sign up for my weekly email, loaded with great things to read about the digital world.

Algorithmic survival of the fittest

In Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the concept of survival of the fittest stands for the phenomenon that the traits of life forms that have the biggest reproductive success will, over time, become prevailing, while other traits disappear.

I would like to adopt this framework for the age of algorithms. On the leading tech platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok (gotta be inclusive here), algorithms play a key role in selecting what information people get to see, and who gets to be seen. Since these services’ business models are centered around advertising, their algorithms are optimized for making people spend as much time as possible on them.

Thanks to the vast amounts of usage data generated by billions of daily users as well as the ever-improving capabilities of machine learning (or “Artificial Intelligence”), one has to expect this optimization process to eventually become highly effective, if not truly perfect. Continue Reading

Universal Basic Income and human dignity

Convinced critics of an Universal Basic Income (UBI) often point to the importance of work for human dignity as a major argument against the UBI. The most recent example gave AI pioneer Andrew Ng in this interview:

“Silicon Valley has a lot of excitement about unconditional basic income. I don’t support that. There’s a lot of dignity to work. For someone that’s unemployed I really support the government giving them a safety net with the expectation that they’ll do something to contribute back, such as study, so they can gain the skills they need to re-enter the workforce and contribute back to the tax base that is hopefully paying for all of this.”

But why is the UBI often presented as a dichotomy to working, and thus in consequence as a way to rob people of their dignity?

To me, the way an UBI would have to be constructed and framed is straightforward and very much in harmony with the critical role of work for people’s mental well-being:

An UBI is NOT meant to discourage people to work. It is meant to offer them more freedom to align how they spend their time with their areas of interest and with other life priorities. It is meant to offer more room for calculated risk-taking, as well as the ability to choose work which is deeply meaningful to them, but badly paid (such as helping people in need). And it is meant to remove the most basic existential fears from everyone’s mind, such as homelessness, not being able to buy food or not being able to pay for a necessary health procedure – while at the same time reducing the stigmatization and bureaucracy associated with traditional social welfare support.

The UBI is not meant to enable or encourage people to have a comfortable life without doing any work. Sure, if an individual who receives an UBI chooses to move to the most affordable place in a country, to only eat instant Ramen and to be content with that, good for him or her. But most humans would not be satisfied with that kind of lifestyle, so they’d still have to look for an occupation. However, unlike today, they could do this with a mind freed from the most pressing existential pressure, and maybe they would only choose a 20-hour- or 30-hour-week-job.

So the point of the UBI, according to my view, should be to give people more freedom in regards to their occupational choices. An UBI done right (according to me) would not rob anyone of their dignity.

=======
Sign up for my weekly email, loaded with great things to read about the digital world.

What makes iOS 12 very exciting

It doesn’t usually happen that I feel like writing about a new release of iOS, but with version 12 which was just made available by Apple, it does. This latest operating system for the iPhone and iPad could have a groundbreaking effect on user habits and the technology industry large.

These following 3 features of iOS 12 are significant in my eyes and justify a hot take:

  • iOS 12 makes older devices faster
    One of the key features for iOS 12 is performance – and this extends to older devices. I installed iOS 12 on an old iPhone 6s Plus as well as on an iPad Mini (first or second generation, not sure), and they certainly seem to run faster again. If this experience holds true for many others, this could slowly change the prevailing paradigm of having to own a device not older than about 2 years in order to get optimal performance. For some consumers this means that instead of upgrading their phone at least every 2 years, they can wait maybe a year longer  – and instead get an Apple Watch in addition (at least this is what Apple would want them to do).
  • Time well spent features
    Google added features for users to analyze and control their usage and app habits with its latest version of Android, “Pie”, and now Apple follows suit with “Screen Time” (available in the settings section). I played around with it and instantly could see how this will make me waste less time with certain app categories. There appear to be many options for customization as well. Setting everything up properly takes a bit time, so the question is how many users will do it. But let’s say many will, then this can have a profound impact on the app industry: If millions of users for example decide to limit their daily social media budget, the impact might be a significant slump in minutes spent on Instagram, Facebook etc.
  • Shortcuts
    For me, this is the most interesting feature addition to iOS for many years. With shortcuts, owners of iPhones and iPads can connect various actions which previously required separate actions from the users, to workflows that can be triggered at once (for example through Siri). Apps can create their own shortcuts and promote them to their users. But it is also possible to download a dedicated “Shortcuts” app from the App Store and custom-build productivity-enhancing solutions. The latter method requires a rather complex procedure (for being iOS), and I wasn’t spontaneously able to come up with anything useful. In the end, this customization through a dedicated app might remain a feature that’s awesome in theory but attractive for few in practice – or it simply requires a bit of getting used to. I’m now monitoring consciously how I use my iOS devices, to become aware which frequent procedures I might be able to put into a workflow. In any case, I love being able to play around with something like this. It also got me to activate Siri on my iPhone. Having used an Amazon Echo for a while made me realize the potential of voice control, and shortcuts might be exactly what’s needed to turn me into a Siri loyalist, too.

There are some other additions to iOS 12 which I have no opinions about yet. But these three are fantastic, in my eyes. They make iPhones and iPads more fun and potentially more efficently to use, help to spot and kill destructive user habits (Dopamin craving is a curse), and enable more people to use Apple devices – even those who don’t have the means or willingness to constantly upgrade to the latest device or to buy anything else than a used device.

=======
Sign up for my weekly email, loaded with great things to read about the digital world. Sent to more than 600 subscribers (September 2018).

The hottest technologies are all losing steam simultaneously

Have you noticed that many of the most anticipated technologies of the past years all seem to be losing steam at the moment?

Self driving cars? Lots of doubts.
Blockchain? Still lacking killer applications, and the corporate world is losing interest.
Crypto currencies? Things are said to be worse than during the dot-com crash.
Virtual reality? It doesn’t look good right now.
Machine Learning/AI? Stuck. Continue Reading

The internet broke free speech

The idea of free speech is great and highly important. But when it emerged it could do comparatively little damage, because most individuals had no reach beyond their personal network and the market square. So no matter how silly and possibly damaging something someone said was — the harm was fairly contained. Sure, ideas still traveled. But it took much longer and required extraordinary circumstances.

Now times are different. Anyone with street smartness and a certain intuitive understanding for how to emotionally trigger people can use the internet and tech platforms to spread their message to a huge crowd.

In such an environment, applying the old principle of free speech means that even the most absurd, 100 % fact-free bullshit could instantly be spread to the masses. Sadly, the masses cannot be trusted with being great at filtering out the bullshit, as history has taught us over and over again.

The internet has disrupted free speech, and now the question is: How to move forward. The case of Alex Jones and Infowars shows that the leading tech platforms inevitably become the arbitrators of “truth”. This is extremely undesirable, but also unavoidable — because the alternative of having demagogues, hatemongers and manipulators spread their messages to millions of people at basically zero cost is even worse (and this of course extends to various spheres of extremist ideologies).

On a small-scale level, freedom of speech must prevail. But on the giant scale where the tech platforms operate, it cannot. Which truly sucks. It’s a wide open can of worms. But seriously what other option is there?

Freedom of speech must be defended. But there cannot be an universal “right to distribution”.

=======
Sign up for my weekly email, loaded with great things to read about the digital world. Sent to more than 600 subscribers (August 2018).

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.

=======
Sign up for the meshedsociety weekly email, loaded with great things to read about the digital world. Sent to almost 600 subscribers (May 2018).
=======

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