For us, success is outsized positive impact—which is why I’m happy to see our work becoming part of Brazil’s National IoT Plan.
Recently, I was asked what long-term success looked like for me. Here’s the reply I gave:
To have outsized positive impact on society by getting large organizations (companies, governments) to ask the right questions early on in their decision-making processes.
As you know, my company consists of only one person: myself. That’s both boon & bane of my work. On one hand it means I can contribute expertise surgically into larger contexts, on the other it means limited impact when working by myself.
So I tend (and actively aim) to work in collaborations—they allow to build alliances for greater impact. One of those turned into ThingsCon, the global community of IoT practitioners fighting for a more responsible IoT. Another, between my company, ThingsCon and Mozilla, led to research into the potential of a consumer trustmark for the Internet of Things (IoT).
January isn’t quite over, but since I’ll be traveling starting this weekend, I wanted to drop these #monthnotes now. A lot of time this month went into prepping an upcoming project which is likely to take up the majority of my time in 2018. More on that soon.
Capacity planning: This year my work capacity is slightly reduced since I want to make sure to give our new family member the face time he deserves. That said, this year’s capacity is largely accounted for, which is extra nice given it’s just January, and it’s for a thing I’m genuinely excited about. That said, I think it’s important to work on a few things in parallel because there’s always potential that unfolds from cross-pollination; so I’m up for a small number of not-huge projects in addition to what’s already going on, particularly in the first half of the year. Get in touch.
On Sunday, I’m off to San Francisco for a work week with the good folks at Mozilla because reasons and a number of meetings in the Bay Area. (Full disclosure: my partner works at Mozilla). Last year I’ve done some work with Mozilla and ThingsCon exploring the idea of a trustmark for IoT (our findings).
Should you be in SF next week, ping me and we can see if we can manage a coffee.
IoT, trust & voice: More and more, I’m coming around to the idea that voice is the most important—or at least most imminent—manifestation of IoT regarding user data. Voice, and how it relates to trust, is what I’ll be focusing on a lot of my work in 2018.
User profiling in smart homes: Given my focus on voice & trust in IoT this year, I was very happy that Berlin tech & policy think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung invited me to a workshop on user profiling in smart homes. It was all Chatham House rules and I don’t want to dive into specifics at this point, but smart homes and voice assistants are worth a deep dive when it comes to trust—and trustworthiness—in IoT.
Not least because (as I’ve been hammering home for a long time) the connected home and the smart city are two areas that most clearly manifest a lot of the underlying tensions and issues around IoT at scale: Connected homes, because traditionally the home was considered a private space (that is, if you look at the last 100 years in the West), and embedded microphones in smart homes means it’s not anymore. And smart cities, because in public space there is no opt-out: Whatever data is collected, processed, and acted on in public space impacts all citizens, if they want it or not. These are fundamental changes with far reaching consequences for policy, governance, and democracy.
Worth your time: A few pointers to articles and presentations I found worthwhile:
TechCrunch has a bit of a top-level explainer of GDPR, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation that goes into effect in May this year. It’s being widely lauded in Europe (except by the usual suspects, like ad-land), and been unsurprisingly criticized in Silicon Valley as disruptive regulation. (See what I did there?) So it came as a pleasant surprise to me that TechCrunch of all places finds GDPR to be a net positive. Worth 10 minutes of your time! [TechCrunch: WTF is GDPR?]
noyb.eu—My Privacy is none of your Business: Max Schrems, who became well-known in European privacy circles after winning privacy-related legal battles including one against Facebook and one that brought down the US/EU Safe Harbor Agreement, is launching a non-profit: They aim to enforce European privacy protection through collective enforcement, which is now an option because of GDPR. They’re fundraising for the org. The website looks crappy as hell very basic, but I’d say it’s a legit endeavor and certainly an interesting one.
On Business Models & Incentives: Some thoughts on how picking the wrong business model—and hence creating harmful incentives for an organization to potentially act against its own customers—is dangerous and can be avoided.
Note: Every quarter or so I write our client newsletter. This time it touched on some aspects I figured might be useful to this larger audience, too, so I trust you’ll forgive me cross-posting this bit from the most recent newsletter.
Some questions I’ve been pondering and that we’ve been exploring in conversations with our peer group day in, day out.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but gives you a hint about my headspace?—?experience shows that this can serve as a solid early warning system for industry wide debates, too.
Questions we’ve had on our collective minds:
1. What’s the relationship between (digital) technology and ethics/sustainability?
There’s a major shift happening here, among consumers and industry, but I’m not yet 100% sure where we’ll end up. That’s a good thing, and makes for interesting questions. Excellent!
2. The Internet of Things (IoT) has one key challenge in the coming years: Consumer trust.
Between all the insecurities and data leaks and bricked devices and “sunsetted” services and horror stories about hacked toys and routers and cameras and vibrators and what have you, I’m 100% convinced that consumer trust?—?and products’ trustworthiness?—?is the key to success for the next 5 years of IoT. (We’ve been doing lots of work in that space, and hope to continue to work on this in 2018.)
3. Artificial Intelligence (AI): What’s the killer application? Maybe more importantly, which niche applications are most interesting?
It seems safe to assume that as deploying machine learning gets easier and cheaper every day we’ll see AI-like techniques thrown at every imaginable niche. Remember when everyone and their uncle had to have an app? It’s going to be like that but with AI. This is going to be interesting, and no doubt it’ll produce spectacular successes as well as fascinating failures.
4. What funding models can we build the web on, now that surveillance tech (aka “ad tech”) has officially crossed over to the dark side and is increasingly perceived as no-go?
These are all interesting, deep topics to dig into. They’re all closely interrelated, too, and have implications on business, strategy, research, policy. We’ll continue to dig in.
But also, besides these larger, more complex questions there are smaller, more concrete things to explore:
What are new emerging technologies? Where are exciting new opportunities?
What will happen due to more ubiquitous autonomous vehicles, solar power, crypto currencies? What about LIDAR and Li-Fi?
How will the industry adapt to the European GDPR? Who will be the first players to turn data protection and scarcity into a strength, and score major wins? I’m convinced that going forward, consumer and data protection offer tremendous business opportunities.
If these themes resonate, or if you’re asking yourself “how can we get ahead in 2018 without compromising user rights”, let’s chat.
Want to work together? I’m starting the planning for 2018. If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, please get in touch.
PS: I write another newsletter, too, in which I share regular project updates, thoughts on the most interesting articles I come across, and where I explore areas around tech, society, culture & business that I find relevant. To watch my thinking unfolding and maturing, this is for you. You can subscribe here.
When Congress questioned representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter, it became official: We need to finally find an answer to a debate that’s been bubbling for months (if not years) about the role of the tech companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, or GAFAM—and their platforms.
The question is summed up by Ted Cruz’s line of inquiry (and here’s a person I never expected to quote) in the Congressional hearing: “Do you consider your sites to be neutral public fora?” (Some others echoed versions of this question.)
Platform or media?
Simply put, the question boils down to this: Are GAFAM tech companies or media companies? Are they held to standards (and regulation) of “neutral platform” or “content creator”? Are they dumb infrastructure or pillars of democracy?
These are big questions to ask, and I don’t envy the companies for their position in this one. As a neutral platform they get a large degree of freedom, but have to take responsibility for the hate speech and abuse on their platform. As a media company they get to shape the conversation more actively, but can’t claim the extreme point of view of free speech they like to take. You can’t both be neutral and “bring humanity together” as Mark Zuckerberg intends. As Ben Thompson points out on Stratechery (potentially paywalled), neutrality might be the “easier” option:
the “safest” position for the company to take would be the sort of neutrality demanded by Cruz — a refusal to do any sort of explicit policing of content, no matter how objectionable. That, though, was unacceptable to the company’s employee base specifically, and Silicon Valley broadly
I agree this would be easier. (I’m not so sure that the employee preference is the driving force, but that’s another debate and it certainly plays a role.) Also, let’s not forget that each of these companies plays a global game, and wherever they operate they have to meet legal requirements. Where are they willing to draw the line? Google famously didn’t enter the Chinese market a few years ago, presumably because they didn’t want to meet the government’s censorship requirements. This was a principled move, and I would expect not an easy one for a big market. But where do you draw the line? US rules on nudity? German rules on censoring Nazi glorification and hate speech? Chinese rules on censoring pro-democracy reporting or on government surveillance?
For GAFAM, the position has traditionally been clear cut and quite straightforward, which we can still (kind of, sort of) see in the Congressional hearing:
“We don’t think of it in the terms of ‘neutral,'” [Facebook General Counsel Colin] Stretch continued, pointing out that Facebook tries to give users a personalized feed of content. “But we do think of ourselves as — again, within the boundaries that I described — open to all ideas without regard to viewpoint or ideology.” (Source: Recode)
[Senator John] Kennedy also asked Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, whether the company is a “newspaper” or a neutral tech platform. Salgado replied that Google is a tech company, to which Kennedy quipped, “that’s what I thought you’d say.” (Source: Business Insider)
Now that’s interesting, because while they claim to be “neutral” free speech companies, Facebook and the others have of course been hugely filtering content by various means (from their Terms of Service to community guidelines), and shaping the attention flow (who sees what and when) forever.
This aspect isn’t discussed much, but worth noting nonetheless: How Facebook and other tech firms deal with content has been based to a relatively large degree by United States legal and cultural standards. Which makes sense, given that they’re US companies, but doesn’t make a lot of sense given they operate globally. To name just two examples from above that highlight how legal and cultural standards differ from country to country, take pictures of nudity (largely not OK in the US, largely OK in Germany) versus positively referencing the Third Reich (largely illegal in Germany, largely least legal in the US).
Big tech platforms are a new type of media platform
Here’s the thing: These big tech platforms aren’t neutral platforms for debate, nor are they traditional media platforms. They are neither neither dumb tech (they actively choose and frame and shape content & traffic) nor traditional media companies that (at least notionally) primarily engage in content creation. These big tech platforms are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply. Hence, they require new ways of thinking and analysis, as well as new approaches to regulation.
(As an personal, rambling aside: Given we’ve been discussing the transformational effects of digital media and especially social media for far over a decade now, how do we still even have to have this debate in 2017? I genuinely thought that we had at least sorted out our basic understanding of social media as a new hybrid by 2010. Sigh.)
We might be able to apply existing regulatory—and equally important: analytical—frameworks. Or maybe we can find a way to apply existing ones in new ways. But, and I say this expressly without judgement, these are platforms that operate at a scale and dynamism we haven’t seen before. They are of a new quality, they display qualities and combinations of qualities and characteristics we don’t have much experience with. Yet, on a societal level we’ve been viewing them through the old lenses of either media (“a newspaper”, “broadcast”) or neutral platforms (“tubes”, “electricity”). And it hasn’t worked yet, and will continue not to work, because it makes little sense.
That’s why it’s important to take a breath and figure out how to best understand implications, and shape the tech, the organizations, the frameworks within which they operate.
It might turn out, and I’d say it’s likely, that they operate within some frameworks but outside others, and in those cases we need to adjust the frameworks, the organizations, or both. To align the analytical and regulatory frameworks with realities, or vice versa.
This isn’t an us versus them situation like many parties are insinuating: It’s not politics versus tech as actors on both the governmental and the tech side sometimes seem to think. It’s not tech vs civil society as some activists claim. It’s certainly not Silicon Valley against the rest of the world, even though a little more cultural sensitivity might do SV firms a world of good. This is a question of how we want to live our lives, govern our lives, as they are impacted by the flow of information.
It’s going to be tricky to figure this out as there are many nation states involved, and some supra-national actors, and large global commercial actors and many other, smaller but equally important players. It’s a messy mix of stakeholders and interests.
But one thing I can promise: The solution won’t be just technical, not just legal, nor cultural. It’ll be a slow and messy process that involves all three fields, and a lot of work. We know that the status quo isn’t working for too many people, and we can shape the future. So that soon, it’ll work for many more people—maybe for all.
AI-driven automation will continue to create wealth and expand the American economy in the coming years, but, while many will benefit, that growth will not be costless and will be accompanied by changes in the skills that workers need to succeed in the economy, and structural changes in the economy. Aggressive policy action will be needed to help Americans who are disadvantaged by these changes and to ensure that the enormous benefits of AI and automation are developed by and available to all.
This cuts right to the chase: Artificial intelligence (AI) will create wealth, and it will replace jobs. AI will change the future of work, and the economy.
AI will change the future of work, and the economy.
For the record: In other areas, Germany is making good progress. Take autonomous driving, for example. Germany just adopted an action plan on automated driving that regulates key points of how autonomous vehicles should behave on the street—and regulates it well! Key points include that autonomous driving is worth promoting because it causes fewer accidents, dictates that damage to property must take precedence over personal injury (aka life has priority), and that in unavoidable accident situations there may not be any discrimination between individuals based on age, gender, etc. It even includes data sovereignty for drivers. Well done!
On the other hand, for the Internet of Things (IoT) Germany squandered opportunities in that IoT is framed almost exclusively as industrial IoT under the banner of Industrie 4.0. This is understandable given Germany’s manufacturing-focused economy, but it excludes a huge amount of super interesting and promising IoT. It’s clearly the result of successful lobbying but at the expense at a more inclusive, diverse portfolio of opportunities.
So where do we stand with artificial intelligence in Germany? Honestly, in terms of policy I cannot tell.
So where do we stand with artificial intelligence in Germany? Honestly, in terms of policy I cannot tell.
Update: The Federal Ministry of Education and Research recently announced an initiative to explore AI: Plattform Lernende Systeme (“platform living systems”). Thanks to Christian Katzenbach for the pointer!
AI & the future of work
The White House AI report talks a lot about the future of work, and of employment specifically. This makes sense: It’s one of the key aspects of AI. (Some others are, I’d say, opportunity for the creation of wealth on one side and algorithmic discrimination on the other.)
How AI will impact the work force, the economy, and the role of the individual is something we can only speculate about today.
In a recent workshop with stipendiaries of the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation on the future of work we explored how digital, AI, IoT and adjacent technologies impact how we work, and how we think about work. It was super interesting to see this diverse group of very, very capable students and young professionals bang their heads against the complexities in this space. Their findings mirrored what experts across the field also have been finding: That there are no simple answers, and most likely we’ll see huge gains in some areas and huge losses in others.
Like all automation before, depending on the context we’ll see AI either displace human workers or increase their productivity.
The one thing I’d say is a safe bet is this: Like all automation before, depending on the context we’ll see AI either displace human workers or increase their productivity. In other words, some human workers will be super-powered by AI (and related technologies), whereas others will fall by the wayside.
Over on Ribbonfarm, Venkatesh Rao phrases this very elegantly: Future jobs will either be placed above or below the API: “You either tell robots what to do, or are told by robots what to do.” Which of course conjures to mind images of roboticized warehouses, like this one:
Just to be clear, this is a contemporary warehouse in China. Amazon runs similar operations. This isn’t the future, this is the well-established present.
Future jobs will either be placed above or below the API: “You either tell robots what to do, or are told by robots what to do.”
I’d like to stress that I don’t think a robot warehouse is inherently good or bad. It depends on the policies that make sure the humans in the picture do well.
Education is key
So where are we in Europe again? In Germany, we still try to define what IoT and AI means. In China it’s been happening for years.
This picture shows a smart lamp in Shenzhen that we found in a maker space:
What does the lamp do? It tracks if users are nearby, so it can switch itself off when nobody’s around. It automatically adjusts light the temperature depending on the light in the room. As smart lamps go, these features are okay: Not horrible, not interesting. If it came out of Samsung or LG or Amazon I wouldn’t be surprised.
So what makes it special? This smart lamp was built by a group of fifth graders. That’s right: Ten and eleven year olds designed, programmed, and built this. Because the curriculum for local students includes the skills that enable them to do this. In Europe, this is unheard of.
I think the gap in skills regarding artificial intelligence is most likely quite similar. And I’m not just talking about the average individual: I’m talking about readiness at the government level, too. Our governments aren’t ready for AI.
Our governments aren’t ready for AI.
It’s about time we start getting ready for AI, IoT, and robotics. Always a fast mover, Estonia considers a law to legalize AI, and they smartly kick off this process with a multi-stakeholder process.
What to do?
In Germany, the whole discussion is still in its earliest stages. Let’s not fall into the same trap as we did for IoT: Both IoT and AI are more than just industry. They are both broader and deeper than the adjective industrial implies.
The White House report can provide some inspiration, especially around education policy.
We need to invest in what OECD calls the active labor market policies, i.e. training and skill development for adults. We need to update our school curricula to get youths ready for the future with both hands-on applicable skills (coding, data analysis, etc.) and with the larger contextual meta skills to make smart decisions (think humanities, history, deep learning).
We need to reform immigration to allow for the best talent to come to Europe more easily (and allow for voting rights, too, because nobody feels at home where they pay taxes with no representation).
Without capacity building, we’ll never see the digital transformation we need to get ready for the 21st century.
Zooming out to the really big picture, we need to start completely reforming our social security systems for an AI world that might not deliver full employment ever again. This could include Universal Basic Income, or maybe rather Universal Basic Services, or a different approach altogether.
This requires capacity building on the side of our government. Without capacity building, we’ll never see the digital transformation we need to get ready for the 21st century.
But I know one thing: We need to kick off this process today.
Doing some research-related reading this morning had me go down a bit of a rabbit hole that led to this Twitter thread. The points hold up, I think, so here it is in easier-to-read-and-reference format:
Smart Cities are often framed as part of industrial #iot. I think we need to frame it as empowerment tech for citizens instead.
This industrial #iot framing is only natural: Most vendors of smart city tech come from that background. But I think it’s not healthy. A technology that impacts, by definition, all citizens needs to be framed, regulated & designed accordingly. Meaning: If there’s not opt-out (and there isn’t, in public space), we need to make sure this works for everyone, can be understood & queried.
We need strong democratic oversight on smart city technologies and the algorithms, processes, vendors powering them. Which is why we need to follow the principles that made the early open web so strong & resilient: decentralization, open source, etc.
Only if we reframe our thinking of smart cities from industrial to citizen centric can these technologies unfold their positive potential.
This echoes the position we developed for a report for the German federal government a while ago as part of research into how to best make smart cities work for citizens. The findings of that report are summarized here.
Vom Hobby-Basteln bis hin zur Smart City: Das Internet of Things (#IoT) hat zunehmend Berührungspunkte mit allen Bereichen unseres Lebens. Aber wer bestimmt was erlaubt ist, was mit unseren Daten passiert, und ob es OK ist, unter die Haube zu gucken? IoT sitzt an der Schnittstelle vieler Technologie-, Governance- und Regulierungsbereiche—und schafft dadurch gleich eine ganze Reihe von Spannungsfeldern.
Due to technical issues with the video projection, my slides weren’t shown for the first few minutes. Apologies. On the plus side, the organizers had kindly put a waving cat on the podium for me. ?
It’s a rare talk in that I gave it in German, something I’m hardly used to these days.
In it, I argue that IoT poses a number of particular challenges that we need to address (incl. the level of complexity and blurred lines across disciplines and expertise; power dynamics; and transparency). I outline inherent tensions and propose a few approaches on how to tackle them, especially around increasing transparency and legibility of IoT products.
I conclude with a call for Europe to actively take a global leadership role in the area of consumer and data protection, analog to Silicon Valley’s (claimed/perceived) leadership in disruptive innovation as well as funding/scaling of digital products, and to Shenzhen’s hardware manufacturing leadership.