On Wednesday, June 3rd, a team led by the COVID Tech Task Force is putting on the first of several free public conferences on the topic of Contact Tracing and Technology. Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, TechCrunch, Betaworks Studios, and Hangar are also part of organizing the effort.
I’ve gone extremely deep down the contact tracing and exposure notification rabbit hole. In February, I had never heard the phrase contact tracing. Today, I not only understand it well, I have a lot of perspective on the current state of contact tracing technology, along with emerging “new tech solutions” to contact tracing, and the incredible challenge of operationalizing these new technologies.
More importantly (and thankfully), several tech leaders motivated by Harper Reed recognized that the tech community that began talking about “contact tracing” in April was creating massive confusion given the long history of contact tracing. The tech folks (me included) tried to separate it from classical contact tracing by calling it “digital contact tracing.” But, this wasn’t really contact tracing at all and needed a different name. Harper labeled it Exposure Alerting which has finally found its true name as “Exposure Notification.”
Contact Tracing and Exposure Notification are different but related. And the way contact tracing is currently implemented is on a spectrum from legacy software systems to paper/whiteboard tracking. Not surprisingly, a number of tech companies and consulting firms have “contact tracing products” coming out. Some are excellent. Many either inadequate, not contact tracing, or mostly vaporware.
Two weeks ago, on the bi-monthly call that Fred Wilson and I do with several of the leaders of the Covid-19 Task Force, we suggested that they do a series of public events – as inclusive as they could – to help convene anyone who is interested around the issues of contact tracing, exposure alerting, health care, public policy, and technology. Fred wrote about this yesterday. We are both delighted that this has come together so quickly as the public forum on this is badly needed.
This event has several key speakers along with a bunch of demos of emerging products. It’ll be three hours long and live streamed on the web.
RSVP to attend. And, if you are working on a contact tracing or exposure notification application and want to be part of the demo mix, send me an email and I’ll get you connected.
Most people, unless you work either for government or an infectious disease “organization” (non-profit, hospital, health care system) probably had not heard the phrase “contact tracing” until a month or so ago.
I now hear and see the phrase “contact tracing” everywhere.
About a month ago, as I started working on Covid-related stuff, the phrase came up regularly on the private side as a partial solution to the problem of “opening things back up.” It was often phrased as “it will be hard to open anything up until we have enough testing and contact tracing.”
For about a week, I couldn’t figure out why many of the people I was interacting with seemed to dismiss my ideas and concerns about contact tracing. Then, in a conversation, someone in government explained what the government’s historical view of contact tracing was, which is a well-defined and regularly executed completely manual process.
A giant lightbulb went off in my brain as I realized two things were happening. A bunch of people who were hearing the phrase “contact tracing” figured “yup – we’ve got that under control” (meaning they already had a manual contact tracing effort in place or about to be launched). The rest were thinking “the tech people want to automate and digitize the manual contact tracing activity – that’ll never work and it’ll create huge security and data privacy issues.”
So, I, along with everyone I am working with, started calling it “Digital Contact Tracing.” That helped some, especially as we described its relationship to Manual Contact Tracing. But, there was still too much explanation of Manual Contact Tracing vs. Digital Contact Tracing. And, confused continued to abound.
The phrase “Digital Contact Tracing” started evolving. The ACLU wrote a great white paper titled Principles for Technology-Assisted-Contact-Tracing which generated a clever acronym (TACT). I also saw the phrase “Digital Contact Tracing and Alerting” being used.
Yesterday, Harper Reed put up a short post titled Digital Contact Tracing and Alerting vs Exposure Alerting that lays out the history of the concept and renames it “Exposure Alerting.”
Exposure Alerting is the correct phrase for Digital Contact Tracing. It is clearly additive to Manual Contact Tracing (or simply Contact Tracing as most of the non-technical world refers to it.)
So, from here on out, I think we should call this activity Exposure Alerting. I think we would have saved a lot of time and energy if we had come up with the right name from the beginning. But, since this is going to be with us for a very long time, let’s start now.
My partner Lindel pointed me at the Lux Capital 2019 Annual Dinner Talk. I watched it the other day and thought it was one of the best examples of a VC think piece that I’ve seen in a long time.
Lux‘s premise is that technology evolves out of the infinite arms race between deception and its detection. It touches on many contemporary ideas about truth and lies and the use of data in the pursuit of outcomes based on humans’ perceptions of truth and lies.
You don’t need to go very deep to understand how, as humans, we are regularly and continuously manipulated by the way information is presented to us. This isn’t a new phenomenon. What is new is how rapidly technology is evolving both in ways we understand as well as ways we don’t comprehend.
The optimist views this as innovations that will improve our species. The pessimist contemplates that this is a path that will diminish us, subjugate us to machines, or possibly even eliminate us.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
In November, during the week of the presidential election, I was at MIT for the Celebration of 50 Years of Entrepreneurship at MIT. The Friday night event included a keystone from Simon Johnson, an MIT professor who became famous during the financial crisis because of his superb analysis along with his almost daily blog The Baseline Scenario and his willingness to openly challenge an enormous amount of conventional thinking.
I remember hearing Simon for the first time at an MIT Sloan Dean’s Advisory meeting in the basement of a fancy hotel in NY in the middle of the financial crisis. Many of the advisory board member attendees looked like hammered dog shit as they were part of the New York financial services and real estate world. Simon gave a clear eyed, extremely compelling pep talk that challenged everyone to ask questions and think hard, rather than just retreat into gloom.
On the Friday night after the election in 2016 on the six floor of E-52, Simon gave another impassioned talk. As he wrapped up, he addressed the elephant in the room, which this time corresponded with Trump, a Republican Congress, and a huge swath of red on an electoral map where a bunch of people, including me, had previously expected blue.
One question really stuck with me.
“How do you make technology work for those who are not working? Especially for those who are not working because of technology.”
This is not the first time we’ve had to deal with this as a species, or a country. The transition from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution is a simple historical analogy. There are others, but Simon asked another question after making the analogy.
“Is this time different?”
I don’t know the answer to the questions but they slapped me in the face and made me sit up.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations, mostly with Amy, about the next 20+ years. I believe humans are in for the biggest transformation (and subsequent challenges) that we’ve faced so far since the origination of our species. I think it’s going to be extremely complicated, painful, and confusing to many.
Simon suggested a powerful approach and one he’s going to take. He’s going to rip up all the old models and start with a blank sheet of paper. As part of that, he’s going to start with the question, and explore. He doesn’t know where it’s going to lead him, but he’ll let it go where it will.
I’m of a similar mindset. I’m also comfortable with my first principles, like the notion that a key part of the improvement in our situation, both economic and cultural, around the world are startup communities. I believe ever more deeply than ever in the philosophy of #GiveFirst, which is the title of my 2017 book. I’m committed to the work path I’m on with Foundry Group and Techstars, the philanthropic path that Amy and I are on with the Anchor Point Foundation, and the philosophical path I’m on with many friends around the world.
While I don’t have any answers to Simon’s question, I have more questions and answers to some of those questions. And, I know how to find answers, and find more questions. So that’s what I’m going to do this year, both in the context of my existing work, and on new intellectual, functional, and philosophical paths.
You’ll see this show up in what I read, what I do, and where I travel. For example, you’ll see hints in my Goodreads book list (whether or not I do book reviews.) For example, each of the last two books I read – Interface by Neal Stephenson / J. Frederick George and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – are both relevant to this discussion.
I’m not trying to find the answer right now to anything in particular. Instead, I’m starting with a blank sheet of paper and trying to learn more, with a beginners mind.
Tell All Books are nothing new and some of the most explosive ones of all time have already come from California (in and around Hollywood). Suddenly, tell alls are focusing on high tech companies instead of movie stars. So far this year two have been published with a lot of fanfare and I bet there are several others that are under contract from major publishing houses.
The first was Dan Lyons book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble which is about his time at Hubspot. I love that the very first review on the Amazon page for the book is from the Los Angeles Times and says “Disrupted by Dan Lyons is the best book about Silicon Valley today” as it is indicative of the content of the book, which I’d categorize as ironic at best and notionally confused. Why? Because, ahem, Hubspot is in Boston, where the majority of Lyons’ book was based.
The second, which I gobbled down on Friday and Saturday, is Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez. This book actually takes place in Silicon Valley and we get to spend a lot of time at Y Combinator, Twitter, and Facebook.
Both books are classic tell alls, which is to say that they are juicy, salacious, sarcastic, nasty, critical, provocative, self-effacing, cringeworthy, and generally an effort in both education (“let me tell you how the world works”) and self-justification (“look at the injustice visited on me by how the world works.”) Each will titillate, depress, sadden, frustrate, and amuse you. Each will likely cause you to have conflicting feelings about the authors. I expect both authors view this as “the truth – at least my truth – is more important than being liked.” Or maybe they just got healthy advances from their respective publishers (Hachette and Harper).
While I have no interest in debating either Lyons’ or Martinez’s personal truth, I fell like their excessive cynicism and general loathing of most of the people they worked with undermined their stories. While big swaths of each books were fun to read, some parts of them didn’t ring true to me, especially in the case of Lyons, where I felt like I was reading the words of a sad and angry person trying to justify – in hindsight – what had happened to him. Occasionally there would be a bright spot and I’d feel like the story had turned a corner and was going to have some positive content, but in both cases they turned dark quickly again.
Having read my share of tell alls over the year, including some that were passed off as autobiographies, I mostly feel sad – sometimes for the writer and sometimes for all the people in his way. I hope that the process of writing the tell all gives some release and closure on what clearly was an unpleasant and unfulfilling life experience. Or, I’m hopeful it leads to more enlightenment, or a more satisfying role in life for the person, as it appears it has for Dan Lyons from a casual read of his blog.
I don’t know Lyons or Martinez, but I know plenty of people in each of their books. Sometimes I share their view of the people they write about. Other times I don’t. But I kept searching for some optimism somewhere in each of these books and found none. Ultimately, that is what disappointed me about each of the books.
Yesterday Hillary Clinton announced her Initiative on Technology & Innovation at Galvanize in Denver. I skimmed it quickly and was pleased with how substantive it was. I pondered what Trump’s equivalent would be and decided it is likely to be a tweet that says “Technology loves me.” Fred Wilson had a more constructive suggestion this morning, where he listed out the specific topics he felt were important to address and said that Hillary has now weighed in on them and he’d like to see Trump do the same.
I just read Hillary’s briefing carefully to understand what I agreed with, disagreed with, and thought needed more fleshing out. I didn’t fundamentally disagree with anything and was delighted to see a number of the initiatives I’ve been working on included. Regular readers of this blog will see lots of congruency with my efforts around National Center for Woman and Information Technology, Startup Communities, Startup Visa, Global EIR Coalition, Techstars Foundation, Net Neutrality, Open Internet, and Patent Reform.
Similar to my post yesterday on the agenda for the The Center for American Entrepreneurship I’m going to list the outline of the initiatives as an easily accessible overview. If this topic is interesting to you, it’s worth spending ten minutes and reading the full text of the Hillary Clinton Initiative on Technology & Innovation. And, in all seriousness, I hope Donald Trump puts out something similar so we can compare them.
Building the Tech Economy on Main Street
- Invest in Computer Science and STEM Education
- Building the Human Talent Pipeline for 21st Century Jobs
- Increase Access to Capital for Growth-Oriented Small Businesses and Startups, with a Focus on Minority, Women, and Young Entrepreneurs
- Attract and Retain the Top Talent from Around the World
- Invest in Science and Technology R&D and Make Tech Transfer Easier
- Ensure Benefits are Flexible, Portable, and Comprehensive as Work Changes
Investing In World-Class Digital Infrastructure
- Close the Digital Divide
- Launch a “Model Digital Communities” Grant Program
- Connect More Anchor Institutions to High-Speed Internet
- Deploy 5G Wireless and Next Generation Wireless Systems
Advancing America’s Global Leadership in Tech & Innovation
- Fight for an Open Internet Abroad
- Promote Multi-Stakeholder Internet Governance
- Grow American Technology Exports
- Promote Cyber-Security at Home and Abroad
- Safeguard the Free Flow of Information Across Boarders
- Update Procedures Concerning Cross-Border Requests for Data by Law Enforcement
Setting Rules of the Road to Promote Innovation While Protecting Privacy
- Reduce Barriers to Entry and Promote Healthy Competition
- Defend Net Neutrality
- Improve the Patent System to Reward Innovators
- Effective Copyright Policy
- Commercial Data Privacy
- Protect Online Privacy as well as Security
Smarter and More Innovative Government
- Make Government Simpler and More User Friendly
- Open up More Government Data for Public Uses
- Harden Federal Networks to Improve Cybersecurity
- Facilitate Citizen Engagement in Government Innovation
- Use Technology to Improve Outcomes and Drive Government Accountability
Sunspring, the first known screenplay written by an AI, was produced recently. It is awesome. Awesomely awful. But it’s worth watching all ten minutes of it to get a taste of the gap between a great screenplay and something an AI can currently produce.
It is intense as ArsTechnica states, but that’s not because of the screenplay. It’s because of the incredible acting by Thomas Middleditch and Elisabeth Gray, who turned an almost illiterate script into an incredible five minute experience. Humphrey Ker, on the other hand, appears to just be a human prop.
AI has a very long way to go. But it’s going to get there very fast because it understands exponential curves.
Since I’ve had dealing with email on my mind recently, I thought I’d write about how to deal with email after a long vacation. Over the years, I’ve heard over and over again from people who never going on vacation or getting off the grid explaining that they can’t imagine doing this because they would be more stressed out when they return to all the email they have to respond to. I don’t think it has to be that way.
For context, I’m a huge believer on completely going off the grid for vacation. Amy and I have been taking a weekly vacation off the grid for 15 years. No phone, no email. Just the two of us. Given the pace of our lives and the amount of time we spend apart, it’s an awesome way to reconnect. There’s nothing quite like spending a week with your beloved on a periodic basis to remember why you love each other.
Whenever I’m off the grid for a week, I always come back to loads of email. I used to organize my trips from Saturday to Saturday so I’d have Sunday to go through all my email and catch up. That works, but ruins the last Sunday of the vacation. Then I shifted to Monday, so I basically scheduled nothing on Monday and just went through all my email during the day while getting back in the flow of things. That made for a shitty Monday and usually damaged my calm that had resulted from my week off the grid.
When Amy and I took a one month sabbatical in November, I tried something different. Here is my vacation reminder from that trip.
I’m on sabbatical and completely off the grid until 12/8/14.
I will not be reading this email. When I return, I’m archiving everything and starting with an empty inbox.
If this is urgent and needs to be dealt with by someone before 12/8, please send it to my assistant Mary (email@example.com). She’ll make sure it gets to the right person.
If you want me to see it, please send it again after 12/8.
My partners covered for me when I was gone and dealt with anything that was important. The three of them had each taken a month off before my sabbatical so we had a nice rhythm around this.
At the last minute I chickened out on archiving everything without looking at it. Instead, I just scanned through my inbox, archiving messages without responding to them. I didn’t save anything, even if it asked me to do something. I archived it just like I said I was going to. But I had some context around what was going on. It took me about three hours to get through the 3,200 emails I had waiting for me. Not surprisingly, when you don’t send any emails, you get a lot less.
On Monday morning (12/8) when I came back to the office, I had an empty inbox except for the emails that had come in since I did the scan (which I did on 12/6 – we traveled home on 12/7). It was unbelievably liberating. I sat down with each of my partners and went through things that had happened when I was away in companies I was on the board of. That took less than 15 minutes per partner. At lunch, I got caught up on the overall portfolio.
By Tuesday I was back in the flow of things and felt very calm and relaxed. My vacation mellow wasn’t harshed at all.
This approach works for any length of time. Amy and I took a five day off-the-grid vacation for Valentines Day week. Same drill, although this time I responded to a few emails that came in when I reappeared and did my scan. But I set the expectation that I wasn’t going to look at anything, so plenty of “resends” happened on Monday and Tuesday, which meant that folks who really wanted to interact with me took responsibility for it.
There’s something about taking control of how email interacts with you that is very satisfying. I’ve heard the complaint, over and over again, that email allows other people to interrupt your world. That’s part of the beauty of a low barrier to communication (e.g. just send something to firstname.lastname@example.org and it gets to me.) But it’s also a huge burden, especially if you want to engage back.
I’m always looking for other approaches to try on this, so totally game to hear if you have special magic ones.
We started talking about sci-fi and Greg said “Are you into Ingress?” I responded “Is that the Google real-world / augmented reality / GPS game?” Greg said yes and I explained that I’d played with it a little when it first came out several years ago since a few friends in Boulder were into it but I lost track of it since there wasn’t an iOS app.
Greg pulled out his iPhone 6+ giant thing and started showing me. Probably not surprising to anyone, I grabbed my phone, downloaded it, created an account using the name the AIs have given me (“spikemachine”), and started doing random things.
Greg went down the hall and grabbed Brendan Ribera, also from Madrona Labs, who is a Level 8 superstar Ingres master-amazing-player. Within a few minutes we were on the Ingress Map looking at stuff that was going on around the world.
By this point my mind was blown and all I wanted to do was get from basic-beginner-newbie-no-clue-Ingre player to Level 2. With Brendan as my guide I quickly started to get the hang of it. A few hacks and XMPs later I was Level 2.
I asked Greg, Ben, and Branden if they had read Daemon by Daniel Suarez. None of them had heard of it so I went on a rant about Rick Klau’s discovery of the book and Leinad Zeraus, the evolution of this crazy thing into Daniel Suarez’s bestseller and the rest of my own wonderful romp through the writings of Daniel Suarez, William Herting, and Ramez Naam. It wasn’t merely my love of near-term sci-fi, but my discovery of what I believe is the core of the next generation of amazing near-term sci-fi writers. And, as a bonus to them having to listen to me, I bought each of them a Kindle version of Daemon.
Ingres completely feels like Daemon to me. There is plenty of chatter on the web about speculation of similarities and inspirations of Daemon on Ingress. I have no idea what the real story is, but since we are all suspending disbelief in both near-term sci-fi as well as Ingress, I’m going with the notion that they are linked even more than us puny humans realize.
This morning as I was walking through Sea-Tac on my way to my plane, I hacked a few portals, got a bunch of new stuff, and XMPed away whenever a resistance portal came into range. I’m still a total newbie, but I’m getting the hang of it. And yes, I’m part of the enlightenment as it offends me to the core of my soul that people would resist the future, although it seems to be more about smurfs vs. frogs.
Strong AI has been on my mind a lot lately. We use weak AI all the time and the difference between then two has become more apparent as the limitations, in a particular context, of an application of weak AI (such as Siri) becomes painfully apparent in daily use.
When I was a student at MIT in the 1980s, computer science and artificial intelligence were front and center. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert were the gods of MIT LCS and just looking at what happened in 1983, 1984, and 1985 at what is now CSAIL (what used to be LCS/AI) will blow your mind. The MIT Media Lab was created at the same time – opening in 1985 – and there was a revolution at MIT around AI and computer science. I did a UROP in Seymour Papert’s lab my freshman year (creating Logo on the Coleco Adam) and took 6.001 before deciding to do Course 15 and write commercial software part-time while I was in school. So while I didn’t study at LCS or the Media Lab, I was deeply influenced by what was going on around me.
Since then, I’ve always been fascinated with the notion of strong AI and the concept of the singularity. I put myself in the curious observer category rather than the active creator category, although a number of the companies I’ve invested in touch on aspects of strong AI while incorporating much weak AI (which many VCs are currently calling machine learning) into what they do. And, several of the CEOs I work with, such as John Underkoffler of Oblong, have long histories working with this stuff going back to the mid-1980s through late 1990s at MIT.
When I ask people what the iconic Hollywood technology film about the future of computing is, the most common answer I get is Minority Report. This is no surprise to me as it’s the one I name. If you are familiar with Oblong, you probably can make the link quickly to the idea that John Underkoffler was the science and tech advisor to Spielberg on Minority Report. Ok – got it – MIT roots in Minority Report – that makes sense. And it’s pretty amazing for something done in 2002, which was adapted from something Philip K. Dick wrote in 1956.
Now, fast forward to 2014. I watched three movies in the last year purportedly about strong AI. The most recent was Her, which Amy, Jenny Lawton, and I watched over the weekend, although we had to do it in two nights because we were painfully bored after about 45 minutes. The other two were Transcendence and Lucy.
All three massively disappointment me. Her was rated the highest and my friends seemed to like it more, but I found the portrayal of the future, in which strong AI is called OS 1, to be pedantic. Samantha (Her) had an awesome voice (Scarlett Johansson) but the movie was basically a male-fantasy of a female strong AI. Lucy was much worse – once again Scarlett Johansson shows up, this time as another male fantasy as she goes from human to super-human to strong AI embodied in a sexy body to black goo that takes over, well, everything. And in Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays the sexy strong character that saves the femme fatale love interest after dying and uploading his consciousness, which then evolves into a nefarious all-knowing thing that the humans have to stop – with a virus.
It’s all just a total miss in contrast to Minority Report. As I was muttering with frustration to Amy about Her, I wondered what the three movies were based on. In trolling around, they appear to be screenplays rather than adaptations of science fiction stories. When I think back to Philip K. Dick in 1956 to John Underkoffler in 2000 to Stephen Spielberg in 2002 making a movie about 2054, that lineage makes sense to me. When I think about my favorite near term science fiction writers, including William Hertling and Daniel Suarez, I think about how much better these movies would be if they were adaptations of their books.
The action adventure space opera science fiction theme seems like it’s going to dominate in the next year of Hollywood sci-fi movies, if Interstellar, The Martian (which I’m very looking forward to) and Blackhat are any indication of what is coming. That’s ok because they can be fun, but I really wish someone in Hollywood would work with a great near-term science fiction writer and a great MIT (or Stanford) AI researcher to make the “Minority Report” equivalent for strong AI and the singularity.