The Technocratic Oath

mdSilicon Valley moves fast. A major reason for the success of technology companies in the Valley is speed. The combination of talent, funding and experience found in the region gives many startups significant first-mover advantage as well as the ability to scale quickly.

And importantly, there is a pervasive obsession with speed. Companies launch “minimum viable products” that will “fail fast”. Facebook auspiciously encouraged staff to “move fast and break things”. The most important imperative is to get the product to market, receive feedback, fix bugs, and iterate.

This approach works great when you are launching, for example, software to link your phone to your car stereo.

But what about the major platforms that at current scale have major societal impact? What if “breaking things” represents major social disruption? It’s great if Facebook supports small businesses and enables photo sharing, but what if it also facilitates election tampering, hate speech, or in the case of Myanmar, genocide?

As Tom Wheeler describes in his latest book From Gutenberg to Google: The History of our Future, the greatest impact of new technologies generally isn’t their direct influence, but secondary and tertiary influences. Gutenberg knew that the printing press would facilitate communications, but didn’t know that it would facilitate the Protestant Reformation.

So how should technology companies, with their growing societal influence, think about their responsibilities?

Actually we know the answer: Primum non nocere.

Every medical student learns the Hippocratic Oath, an important part of which invokes “First, do no harm”. From day one students are taught that innovation in medicine needs to be coupled with responsibility for the well-being of the patient.

Thank goodness it is such. Could we imagine, for example, a major pharmaceutical company launching a new cancer drug that only worried about a “minimum viable product”? Aspired to “fail fast”? Sought to “move fast and break things”? It’s unthinkable. If a new ointment cures your rash but makes your skin fall off as a side effect, that isn’t good. Physicians understand that.

As such, medicine has both a culture and approach of considering secondary and tertiary effects of innovation at every step. Products are tested rigorously for side effects. The government spends billions monitoring drug safety. If problems are discovered, drugs or products are immediately recalled.

It is now apparent that technology innovation needs to be equally cautious. Sometimes the stakes are low: if my phone doesn’t link effectively to my car stereo, it’s not the end of the world. But when companies reach the scale and influence where they can facilitate crime, abet violence, or undermine democracy, the secondary and tertiary impact of their products absolutely need to be considered at every stage. This impact needs to be monitored. And just as with a rogue drug, dangerous technology innovations need to be recalled.

It’s time for the technology sector to take a page from medicine and agree to a “Technocratic Oath”.

What should it be?

For starters, it should include the words first penned twenty five centuries ago: “First do no harm.”

Loon Receives SoftBank Investment

hapsLoon, the internet balloon company, has received a $125 million investment from HAPSMobile, an affiliate of SoftBank. HAPSMobile is developing stratospheric drones to be used as internet platforms. The drones, with a wingspan of 78 meters, plan to fly at altitude of 20 kilometers for six months at a time.

HAPSMobile and Loon seek to use compatible (or identical) communications equipment on their respective platforms. They also plan to coordinate on ground system equipment, as well as joint policy efforts with governments to allow balloon and drone communications platforms.

The two companies may also coordinate with OneWeb, the low earth orbit satellite company. In theory satellites could communicate with balloons or drones, which in turn can communications directly with consumers, obviating the need for specialized consumer antennas. OneWeb is in part funded by SoftBank.

Media Implications of Broadband Everywhere

Broadband-Everywhere-header

Broadband in the next few years will be reaching the half of the planet’s population that doesn’t have it yet — and that changes everything.

Media organizations may be interested in a new paper I wrote as a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School titled Broadband Everywhere: Media Implications of Internet Access for the Next Three Billion.

Media markets are currently expanding faster than at any time in history. That offers many opportunities for media organizations who are prepared.

Government Programs for Expanding Internet

mex2While the global reach of the internet is increasing through wireless, satellite, and other technologies, the local usage of the internet is often spurred by government programs. Regional efforts can target underserved communities and provide training and content development for new users.

In Mexico, for example, where access to the internet is enshrined in the constitution, Mexico Conectado is a government program providing connectivity through parks and public building in order to bridge the digital divide and provide better government services.

A similar government program in Colombia, Vive Digital, has promoted millions of new internet connections through expansion of broadband and distribution of computers.

In Australia, nbn has built a wholesale local access broadband network with government support to serve disadvantaged communities.

Many countries have prepare forward-looking internet plans. A key component is often direct government support for connectivity and training.

Why 5G Won’t Help Poor Regions

5gDeveloping countries often “leapfrog” technologies. Many regions, for example, can skip landlines and go straight to cellular. Many regions can skip the electrical grid and go straight to solar.

Will this “leapfrog” also happen direct to the latest cellular technology, 5G?

No.

Previous standards — 2G, 3G, 4G — all placed equipment on cell towers typically spaced no closer than a mile apart (and often much farther — cellphones can reach towers tens of miles away). Even at this density, however, the economics for building out a network often don’t work for serving rural areas in developing countries (or even in developed countries in many cases).

5G, unlike its predecessors, requires much denser installation of cell stations — around 500 feet apart in urban regions. This is about 100 times denser than previous standards. The benefit is that 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, connect 100 times as many devices, and be five times quicker to connect.

By the way, placing hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of new cell stations in neighborhoods is unleashing many battles. These are on top of the raging technology battles already underway in defining the 5G standards.

While the poor half of the planet mostly has 2G, is converting to 3G, and aspires to 4G, new 5G standards are poorly suited poor, rural areas. This is another example of the barriers that cellular will have in serving the poorest — and a further reason that alternative connectivity through satellites, balloons, or other means will be necessary.

Fake News is About to Get Way Worse

fakeVideos play a major role in fake news. Online video content can be repurposed from other tragedies to foment outrage (or even from video games). Fake videos can employ actors. In the US, tragedies are often followed by proliferating conspiracy videos.

Unfortunately, the fake video problem is about to get a lot worse.

New tools are allowing individuals to quickly, cheaply, and effectively substitute faces in videos in ways which are extremely believable. The videos, termed “deepfakes”, are popular in specialty communities on Reddit and elsewhere, but are about to become much more mainstream.

Those wishing to sow dissent or chaos now have a new, incredibly powerful tool at their disposal. What happens when an authentic appearing video appears of Donald Trump screaming for a nuclear attack?

Unfortunately, the tools to identify fake videos aren’t keeping up with the technology to produce them. Experts in identifying fakes still need to magnify images frame by frame to analyze shadow patterns, for example.

Educating people about the new technology will be necessary — although unfortunately this will have the side effect of questioning the veracity of all video.

A Quick Primer on Global Wealth

yachtWealth across the planet is distributed very unevenly. So is access to broadband. These two facts are related: broadband now tracks to areas with more wealth. In the future, when broadband is everywhere, we will have the opportunity to serve the poorest parts of the planet in ways heretofore impossible.

How unevenly distributed is wealth?

In 2017, Oxfam produced a report “An Economy for the 99%” which included a staggering statistic: The richest eight men in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet (around 3.6 billion people).

(For those keeping track at home, the richest eight men in early 2017 were Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim Helu, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg — combined wealth of around $425 billion.)

Oxfam’s calculations are based on the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data Book 2016

While all eight of the richest men could fairly be described as “self-made”, that isn’t true for the majority of billionaires (9 out of 10 of whom are men), according to Oxfam analysis. Over half of the world’s billionaires inherited their wealth or work in industries prone to cronyism and corruption.

82% of the wealth created in 2016 went to the top 1%.

Digital Welcome Wagon

wagonWelcome Wagon: a welcoming service that provides information about a community to new residents.

— Collins English Dictionary

As the next several billion people come online, what would an appropriate Digital Welcome Wagon look like for them?

Currently, most people are handed a smartphone with some pre-loaded apps (determined by both the manufacturer and the service provider) and maybe some literature about their service plan. In some parts of the world this is supplemented with information about Facebook Basics. That’s about it.  (When I recently started a new service in Nicaragua, I also got instructions about how Facebook and WhatsApp don’t charge for data, and also immediately started receiving multiple text messages with “upsells” for more data, music services, and discounts at Pizza Hut.)

What would an ideal new online experience be for a new smartphone user? How about:

  • A welcome video in an appropriate language from a credible person to greet the new user;
  • A quick tutorial on five really useful basic services to know about (such as phone, texting, camera, weather information, calendar);
  • A curated list of one or two outstanding sites for news, health, education, finance, and government services;
  • What to do if you need help;
  • Simple tutorials for more information, including how to avoid problems with fake news, fraud, or other issues.

Ideally this would be developed and managed by either governmental or international organizations as to not favor any given corporation.

We’re soon being joined online by a few billion fellow humans. Let’s welcome them!

Fake News in Developing Countries

ukraineFake news is a terrible problem in the US. In many other countries it is much worse:

  • According to Freedom House, only 13% of the world’s population live in countries with a free press;
  • In many developing countries, citizens have lower media literacy than those in rich countries;
  • In developing countries, there can be a blind trust of information via new technologies;
  • Many people get information from social networks on Facebook or WhatsApp, immediatly trusting what others have to say;
  • There often is a paucity of credible news sources or professional journalism to counterbalance rumor;
  • Many forces use social media maliciously, often with the backing of the state (such as Russian efforts in Ukraine).

To combat fake news in developing countries, it is necessary to take the same steps required in developed countries.

Even more, however, is necessary.

Often an independent, trained local media will need to be built up from nothing. Internews programs in Afghanistan, for example, have covered the country with professional, local radio broadcasting in regional languages.

Low-tech options for citizen journalism exist. CGNet Swara, for example, lets anyone call in and record a report by cell phone. Submissions are reviewed and curated into a newsfeed for the community.

Media literacy programs become even more important. In Ukraine, for example, media training programs for youth are now included in the national curriculum.

And many organizations need to participate in fact-checking. In Kenya, for example, Safaricom (the mobile phone company and Kenya’s largest corporation) spends 50% of its communications team resources combatting fake news.

Fake news is a major challenge in developing countries. With the rapid expansion of broadband, problems are poised to become even more difficult.

Compendium of Solutions for Fake News

fakeThanks to a perfect storm of political rancor, social media algorithms, and malicious actors, fake news has become a major challenge for American democracy.

Many researchers and journalists have proposed policies and interventions to combat fake news, including those as summarized in recent overviews by Brookings, BBC, the New York TimesForbes, and the Washington Post.

Here are commonly proposed solutions:

News Industry

The news industry needs to do all possible to define and promote honest, fair, professional journalism. Providing more background information and transparency enhances legitimacy of the industry.

Simultaneously, the industry needs to quickly and effectively identify and debunk fake news (easier said than done). The way fake news is corrected often matters: for example, researchers have shown that video often works better than text, repeating the fake news can unintentionally reinforce it, and partisan voices correcting the news (Republicans debunking conservative news, Democrats debunking liberal news) is most effective.

Government

The government needs to value and promote a free and fair press. Government programs should be careful not to censor nor constrain journalists, and should include programs to support and protect quality journalism. Since journalism and government are often (by design) at odds, support for journalism needs to be codified in law.

In addition, government bodies should identify and censure organizations promoting fake news. In the case of hostile activities by foreign actors, government should aggressively identify and sanction malicious entities working to undermine American trust in the media.

Technology Companies

Technology companies, especially social media companies, need to be strict and consistent in enforcing rules about malicious or fake accounts, such as in Twitter’s recent purge of thousands of accounts. In addition, companies require improved systems and algorithms for accurate and fair identification and removal of fake news. Technology firms have made great progress in combatting spam and demarcating pornography online. Similar progress is required for fake news.

Simultaneously, technology companies need to review their business models, particularly with respect to online advertising, to make sure that those purveying fake news are not financially rewarded for information going viral.

There are other specific steps which would also be useful. For example, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggests requiring social media companies to provide an API to their news algorithms. This would protect both IP and user personal identification, but allow third parties to monitor how the platform might be used for malicious intent.

Educational Institutions

Educational institutions — from kindergarten through university — need to expose students to the challenges of fake news, and train students to be sophisticated and informed consumers of news. This can happen in classes specifically designed for news literacy, but also any class demanding research, analysis, and presentation of ideas.

Individuals

Individuals need to recognize that the news environment is hostile, there are objectively better and worse sources of information, and it is everyone’s responsibility to enhance their own media literacy. Two good initial steps are to work to diversify the news sources you rely on, and to understand the skepticism and effort required to be an honest, productive consumer of news.