Free societies face emerging, existential threats from technology

Bilal Zuberi Contributor Share on Twitter Bilal Zuberi is a partner at Lux Capital, and is on the boards of Evolv Technology, CyPhy Technologies, and Nozomi Networks, among others. Silicon Valley is currently, and correctly, under fire for the failure of leading platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to protect against the spread of […]

Silicon Valley is currently, and correctly, under fire for the failure of leading platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to protect against the spread of disinformation, hate speech and efforts to disrupt our elections. I don’t know why these companies behaved as they did.

But whatever the reason – naiveté, excessive focus on near-term profits, or simply a lack of proper attention on mind-numbingly complex problems – it’s clear they have to do a better job of making sure technology makes our world safer, freer and more stable rather than the opposite.

But it’s not just these big companies that need to up their game. As venture capitalists, we need to do more to find, fund and help a new generation of technology companies that build the infrastructure and applications to deal with technology-based threats to stability and security. Yes, Facebook and Twitter must deal with unintended consequences of their massive platforms. But if history is any guide, it will be new companies that come up with the bold new visions and business models to address fundamental, once-in-a-generation challenges.

I don’t use the word fundamental lightly. Just think about all security failures you now take for granted, that once would have been unthinkable. Our PCs and other devices are patched every few hours or days, rather than every few months. We are routinely warned by merchants—sometimes even credit agencies!—to change our passwords because they’ve been hacked. We are relieved, rather than annoyed, when the credit card company calls to verify our recent purchases.

We feel abused when we read how our online identity has been monetized without our knowledge or used to micro-target us with ads by groups seeking to polarize our politics. And there are deeper-seated concerns, like the nagging fear of a terror attack or a lone-wolf gunman when we enter an airport or let our teenage kid go to a concert. Our physical and cyber selves feel threatened on a regular basis. Like it or not, we are too often under attack, as individuals, consumers and as citizens. But like the proverbial frog in a pot, we don’t seem to notice the rising water temperature.

If we stick with the status quo, that water is only going to get hotter. We already know the Russians (and the Iranians, and the North Koreans) are again targeting U.S. voting systems in advance of the midterm elections, and the Russians also have the ability to shut down large parts of our electric grid. It hasn’t happened yet, but will Americans start worrying about congregating in public spaces, whether it is to protest, attend large rallies, or go to concerts? I grew up in Pakistan, where horrific gun and bomb attacks on civilians are more common. I can’t help fear the same scourge will come to our shores.

If this sounds like scare-mongering, so be it. There is no getting around the fact that more people have more ways to do large-scale damage than ever before. Thankfully there are technologists and entrepreneurs working diligently to find ways to defend us from such harm.

Our portfolio company Evolv Technology, for example, is using advanced sensors and AI in weapons detection systems that can screen hundreds of people per hour  without making them slow down or empty their pockets and purses. Companies like ShieldAI, Convexxum, Echodyne and others are using machine vision and advanced radars/lidar technologies to prevent people from being put in harm’s way by drone-type attacks.

A drone flying and filming over Dubai

Funding such companies can be different than the deals Silicon Valley VCs are used to.  In most cases, these firms must collaborate with trusted government actors, intelligence agencies and enforcement organizations–not to mention comply with their regulations. To be successful, they need to share information with other companies, including competitors.

But I’m betting the trouble will be well worth it. History tells us that companies that overcome big obstacles to create new markets often enjoy years of rapid growth, and few competitors.

Most of all, I believe a nervous world is ready to reward companies that make it feel safer. Just as Uber and Airbnb caught the front edge of the sharing economy boom, companies whose mission is aligned with a change in the societal zeitgeist can create huge value.

Investors are already doing their part. DCVC recently invested in Fortem Technologies, and Shasta Ventures in AirSpace, which make Star Wars-ish systems of AI-based drones whose only role is to automatically detect, identify, and slam into drones that wander into unauthorized airspace — say, over a private estate, or a factory.

General Catalyst invested in Mark43, which makes a cloud platform to help police departments and their detectives investigate crimes more quickly and effectively.

While these mission-oriented companies may not provide the fastest or steepest ramp to riches, the best of these mission-oriented companies will create technology that affects each of us every day, and businesses that will be resilient to economic cycles, fads and fashion. For investors, it’s a twofer of enlightened self-interest — both as investors, and as citizens. To paraphrase JFK, we should invest in such companies “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Disruptive technology and organized religion

At a recent Vatican-sponsored conference, I learned that disruptive technology and organized religion have more in common than not.

More or less since Nietzsche declared God “dead” nearly 140 years ago, popular wisdom has held that science and religion are irreparably misaligned. However, at a recent conference hosted by the Vatican, I learned that even in the era of artificial intelligence and gene splicing, religious institutions and leaders still have much to contribute to society as both moral compass and source of meaning.

In April this year, the Vatican launched Unite to Cure: A Global Health Care Initiative at the Fourth International Vatican Conference. This international event gathered some of the world’s leading scientists, physicians and ethicists — along with leaders of faith, government officials, businesspeople and philanthropists. The goal was to engage about the cultural, religious and societal implications of breakthrough technologies that improve human health, prevent disease and protect the environment. I had the privilege of participating as a board member of the XPRIZE Foundation.

We are living at a phenomenal point in human history. It’s a moment when our machines are flirting with godlike powers. AI and ever-accelerating innovations in medical technology are enabling humans to live longer than ever. Yet with increased machine capabilities and human longevity come heavy questions of morality and spirituality.

When bodies live longer, so do the souls inside of them. What are the spiritual implications for people who are given an additional 30 or even 50 years of life? Is enhanced longevity meddling with creation, or a complement to it?

As technology disrupts the way we relate to the few remaining physical and spiritual mysteries of humanity, it also disrupts the way we embrace religion.

It is here, at this nexus of technology and spirituality, that the Vatican wisely decided to bring together thinkers from both science and faith.

It was humbling to sit inside the tiny and unconventional country that we call Vatican City, surrounded by the world’s leading scientists, ethicists, venture capitalists and faith leaders. We talked about regenerative medicine, aging reversal, gene editing and cell therapy. We discussed how humanity is shifting from medicine that repairs and remediates toward a system that overtly changes our physical composition. We discussed the incredible augmentations available to the disabled — for example 3D-printed prosthetic limbs. How long before the able-bodied begin to exploit these enhancements to augment their own competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded world? To what extent, if any, should society attempt to control this paradigm shift?

One of the more interesting discussions surrounded how to ensure that humans don’t just live longer, but also better.

What exactly does “living better” entail? Does it imply physical comfort, spiritual well-being, financial security? At this moment in history, we have more instant and unlimited information than the kings and queens of ancient Greece or the Middle Ages could have ever imagined. That technological power is allowing more and more people to become enormously wealthy, at a speed and magnitude that would have been unthinkable for anyone other than a monarch just a century ago.

But are these people living “better”?

In as much as longer-living humans use their accrued wealth to support and encourage the creation of projects as audacious and ambitious as — for example — the Coliseum, I believe the answer is yes. If longevity and riches encourage the average human being to create change on a scale that matches the enormous potential of our exponential times — all the more so.

Yet, others in the room had a different take. For many religious leaders, “better” meant a more sharply defined relationship with God. For some scientists, “better” meant a life that creates fewer emissions and embraces better and smarter technology.

It was astounding, really. In one of the most hallowed spots on earth for the Catholic Church, sharing oxygen and ideas with cardinals and future saints, stood the world’s leading researchers, scientists and corporate leaders, who hold in their hands the technology to extend human life. Together with the clergy of the world’s great monotheistic religions, we held an open dialogue about how to improve the heart and soul of human life while the technology we create continues to advance beyond our ancestors’ wildest imaginations.

As technology disrupts the way we relate to the few remaining physical and spiritual mysteries of humanity, it also disrupts the way we embrace religion. In this conference, the Vatican very correctly leveraged the opportunity for organized religions to disrupt themselves by thinking about how they can be meaningful contributors to the conversation on spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the future.

Document editor Coda adds third-party integrations with G Suite, Slack, Twilio and more

Coda, the smart collaborative document editor that breaks down the barriers between documents, spreadsheets, databases and presentations, is today launching one of its most important updates since its launch in 2017. With this update, users will be able to pull in data from third-party sources and send out messages to their teams on Slack or by […]

Coda, the smart collaborative document editor that breaks down the barriers between documents, spreadsheets, databases and presentations, is today launching one of its most important updates since its launch in 2017. With this update, users will be able to pull in data from third-party sources and send out messages to their teams on Slack or by SMS and email. With this, the company’s take on building living documents that are essentially small apps is now really taking shape.

“Coda is a new type of documents,” Coda co-founder and CEO Shishir Mehrotra told me. “It combines the best of documents, spreadsheets, presentations, applications into a new surface. The goal is to allow anybody to build a doc as powerful as an app.” That means you can use your inventory spreadsheet to build a small inventory management app, for example, that lives entirely in a tabbed Coda document. Mehrotra noted that many businesses essentially run on documents and spreadsheets, but they don’t have the ability to use that data to its full extent.

One part of these new integrations, which Coda calls “Coda Packs,” is that you now have the ability to extend your spreadsheets with data that you typically would have had to pull in by hand — something few people are likely to do. That may be stock, sports or weather data, but also open GitHub requests, Intercom tickets and data from your Google Calendar. But there also is a second set of integrations that now let you push out information to Slack and Twilio . In addition to these, Coda supports Figma, Greenhouse, Instagram, YouTube, Walmart Shopping and Wikipedia.

What’s cool here is that Coda lets you build buttons that can combine dozens of different actions. Maybe you have a spreadsheet about an upcoming event with the phone numbers of a dozen friends and want to text them all a reminder? You can now build a button that talks to Twilio and sends an SMS to all of those who haven’t RSVPed yet. And with the weather integrations, you can tell them what the temperature will be.

I’m typically rather skeptical when I see a company that tries to reimagine a well-established concept like a text editor or spreadsheet. And who knows if Coda will be a commercial success. But I can see how the overall concept makes sense (especially thanks to the ability to add a formula anywhere in a document). It’s worth noting, though, that Microsoft is also moving in this direction with the ability to pull third-party data into Excel (though mostly under the guise of artificial intelligence). What Microsoft doesn’t really do as smoothly as Coda is combine all the different document types in one.

UK health minister sets out tech-first vision for future care provision

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” […]

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” apps and services — to support tech-enabled “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.

How such a major IT upgrade program would be paid for is not clearly set out in the policy document. But the government writes that it is “committed to working with partners” to deliver on its grand vision.

“Our ultimate objective is the provision of better care and improved health outcomes for people in England,” Hancock writes in the ‘future of healthcare’ policy document. “But this cannot be done without a clear focus on improving the technology used by the 1.4 million NHS staff, 1.5 million-strong social care workforce and those many different groups who deliver and plan health and care services for the public.”

The minister is proposing that NHS digital services and IT systems will have to meet “a clear set of open standards” to ensure interoperability and updatability.

Meaning that existing systems that don’t meet the incoming standards will need to be phased out and ripped out over time.

The tech itself that NHS trusts and clinical commissioners can choose to buy will not be imposed upon them from above. Rather the stated intent is to encourage “competition on user experience and better tools for everyone”, says Hancock.

In a statement, the health and social care secretary said: “The tech revolution is coming to the NHS. These robust standards will ensure that every part of the NHS can use the best technology to improve patient safety, reduce delays and speed up appointments.

“A modern technical architecture for the health and care service has huge potential to deliver better services and to unlock our innovations. We want this approach to empower the country’s best innovators — inside and outside the NHS — and we want to hear from staff, experts and suppliers to ensure our standards will deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world.”

The four stated priorities for achieving the planned transformation are infrastructure (principally but not only related to patient records); digital services; innovation; and skills and culture:

“Our technology infrastructure should allow systems to talk to each other safely and securely, using open standards for data and interoperability so people have confidence that their data is up to date and in the right place, and health and care professionals have access to the information they need to provide care,” the document notes.  

The ‘tech for health’ vision — which lacks any kind of timeframe whatsoever — loops in an assortment of tech-fuelled case studies, from applying AI for faster diagnoses (as DeepMind has been trying) to Amazon Alexa skills being used as a memory aid for social care. And envisages, as a future success metric, that “a healthy person can stay healthy and active (using wearables, diet-tracking apps) and can co-ordinate with their GP or other health professional about targeted preventative care”.

The ‘techiness’ of the vision is unsurprising, given Hancock was previously the UK’s digital minister and has made no secret of his love of apps. Even having an app of his own developed to connect with his constituents (aka the eponymous Matt Hancock App — albeit running into some controversy for problems with the app’s privacy policy).

Hancock has also been a loud advocate for (and a personal user of) London-based digital healthcare startup Babylon Health, whose app initially included an AI diagnostic chatbot, in addition to offering video and text consultations with (human) doctors and specialists.

The company has partnered with the NHS for a triage service, and to offer a digital alternative to a traditional primary care service via an app that offers remote consultations (called GP at Hand).

But the app has also faced criticism from healthcare professionals. The AI chatbot component specifically has been attacked by doctors for offering incorrect and potentially dangerous diagnosis advice to patients. This summer Babylon pulled the AI element out of the app, leaving the bot to serve unintelligent triage advice — such as by suggesting people go straight to A&E even with just a headache. (Thereby, said its critics, piling pressure on already over-stretched NHS hospital services.)

All of which underlines some of the pitfalls of scrambling too quickly to squash innovation and healthcare together.

The demographic cherrypicking that can come inherently bundled with digital healthcare apps which are most likely to appeal to younger users (who have fewer complex health problems) is another key criticism of some of these shiny, modern services — with the argument being they impact non-digital NHS primary care services by saddling the bricks-and-mortar bits with more older, sicker patients to care for while the apps siphon off (and monetize) mostly the well, tech-savvy young.

Hancock’s pro-tech vision for upgrading the UK’s healthcare service doesn’t really engage with that critique of modern tech services having a potentially unequal impact on a free-at-the-point-of-use, taxpayer-funded health service.

Rather, in a section on “inclusion”, the vision document talks about the need to “design for, and with, people with different physical, mental health, social, cultural and learning needs, and for people with low digital literacy or those less able to access technology”. But without saying exactly how that might be achieved, given the overarching thrust being to reconfigure the NHS to be mobile-first, tech-enabled and tech-fuelled. 

“Different people may need different services and some people will never use digital services themselves directly but will benefit from others using digital services and freeing resources to help them,” runs the patter. “We must acknowledge that those with the greatest health needs are also the most at risk of being left behind and build digital services with this in mind, ensuring the highest levels of accessibility wherever possible.”

So the risk is being acknowledged — yet in a manner and context that suggests it’s simultaneously being dismissed, or elbowed out of the way, in the push for technology-enabled progress.

Hancock also appears willing to tolerate some iterative tech missteps — again towards a ‘greater good’ of modernizing the tech used to deliver NHS services so it can be continuously responsive to user needs, via updates and modular plugins, all greased by patient data being made reliably available via the envisaged transformation.

Though there is a bit of a cautionary caveat for healthcare startups like Babylon too. At least if they make actual clinical claims, with the document noting that: “We must be careful to ensure that we follow clinical trials where the new technology is clinical but also to ensure we have appropriate assurance processes that recognise when an innovation can be adopted faster. We must learn to adopt, iterate and continuously improve innovations, and support those who are working this way.”

Another more obvious contradiction is Hancock’s claim that “privacy and security” is one of four guiding principles for the vision (alongside “user need; interoperability and openness; and inclusion”), yet this is rubbing up against active engagement with the idea of sensitive social care data being processed by and hosted by a commercial ecommerce giant like Amazon, for example.

The need for patient trust and buy in gets more than passing mention, though. And there’s a pledge to introduce “a healthtech regulatory sandbox working with the ICO, National Data Guardian, NICE and other regulators” to provide support and an easier entry route for developers wanting to build health apps to sell in to the NHS, with the government also saying it will take other steps to “simplify the landscape for innovators”.

“If data is to be used effectively to support better health and care outcomes, it is essential that the public has trust and confidence in us and can see robust data governance, strong safeguards and strict penalties in place for misuse,” the policy document notes. 

Balancing support for data-based digital innovation, including where data-thirsty technologies like AI are concerned, with respect for the privacy of people’s highly sensitive health data will be a tricky act for the government to steer, though. Perhaps especially given Hancock is so keenly rushing to embrace the market.

“We need to build nationally only those few services that the market can’t provide and that must be done once and for everyone, such as a secure login and granular access to date,” runs the ministerial line. “This may mean some programmes need to be stopped.”

Although he also writes that there is a “huge role” for the NHS, care providers and commissioners to “develop solutions and co-create them with industry”.

Some of our user needs are unique, like carers in a particular geographical location or patients using assistive technologies. Or sometimes we can beat something to market because we know what we need and are motivated to solve the problem first.

“In those circumstances where industry won’t see the economies of scale they need to invest, we must be empowered to build our own digital services, often running on our data and networks. We will do that according to the government’s Digital Service Standard, and within the minimal rules we set for our infrastructure.”

“We also want to reassure those who are currently building products that we have no intention or desire to close off the market – in fact we want exactly the opposite,” the document also notes. “We want to back innovations that can improve our health and care system, wherever they can be found – and we know that some of the best innovations are being driven by clinicians and staff up and down the country.”

Among the commercial entities currently building products targeted at the NHS is Google -owned DeepMind, which got embroiled in a privacy controversy related to a data governance failure by the NHS Trust it worked with to co-develop an app for the early detection of a kidney condition.

DeepMind’s health data ambitions expand beyond building alert apps or even crafting diagnostic AIs to also wanting to build out and own healthcare app delivery infrastructure (aka, a fast healthcare interoperability resource, or FHIR) — which, in the aforementioned project, was bundled into the app contract with the Royal Free NHS Trust, locking the trust into sending data to DeepMind’s servers by prohibiting it from connecting to other FHIR servers. So not at all a model vision of interoperability.

Earlier this year DeepMind’s own independent reviewer panel warned there was a risk of the company gaining excessive monopoly power. And Hancock’s vision for health tech seems to be proposing to outlaw such contractual lock ins. Though it remains to be seen whether the guiding principle will stand up to the inexorable tech industry lobbying.

We will set national open standards for data, interoperability, privacy and confidentiality, real-time data access, cyber security and access rules,” the vision grandly envisages.

Open standards are not an abstract technical goal. They permit interoperability between different regions and systems but they also, crucially, permit a modular approach to IT in the NHS, where tools can be pulled and replaced with better alternatives as vendors develop better products. This, in turn, will help produce market conditions that drive innovation, in an ecosystem where developers and vendors continuously compete on quality to fill each niche, rather than capturing users.”

Responding to Hancock’s health tech plan, Sam Smith, coordinator of patient data privacy advocacy group medConfidential, told us: “There’s not much detail in here. It’s not so much ‘jam tomorrow’, as ‘jam… sometime’ — there’s no timeline, and jam gets pretty rancid after not very long. He says “these are standards”, but they’re just a vision for standards — all the hard work is left to be done.”

On the privacy plus AI front, Smith also picks up on Hancock’s vision including suggestive support for setting up “data trusts to facilitate the ethical sharing of data between organisations”, with the document reiterating the government’s plan to launch a pilot later this year. 

“Hancock says “we are supportive” of stripping the NHS of its role in oversight of commercial exploitation of data. Who is the “we” in that as it should be a cause for widespread concern. If Matt thinks the NHS will never get data right, what does he know that the public don’t?” said Smith on this.

He also points out at previous grand scheme attempts to overhaul NHS IT — most notably the uncompleted NHS National Programme for IT, which in the early 2000s tried and failed to deliver a top-down digitization of the service — taking a decade and sinking billions in the process.

“The widely criticised National Programme for IT also started out with similar lofty vision,” he noted. “This is yet another political piece saying what “good looks like”, but none of the success criteria are about patients getting better care from the NHS. For that, better technology has to be delivered on a ward, and in a GP surgery, and the many other places that the NHS and social care touch. Reforming procurement and standards do matter, and will help, but it helps in the same way a good accountant helps — and that’s not by having a vision of better accounting.”

On the vision’s timeframe, a Department of Health spokesman told us: “Today marks the beginning of a conversation between technology experts across the NHS, regulatory bodies and industry as we refine the standards and consider timeframes and details. The iterated standards document will be published in December once we receive feedback and the mandate will be rolled out gradually.

“We have been clear that we will phase out any system which does not meet these standards, will not procure systems which do not comply and will look to end contracts with suppliers who do not meet the standards.”

UK health minister sets out tech-first vision for future care provision

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” […]

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” apps and services — to support tech-enabled “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.

How such a major IT upgrade program would be paid for is not clearly set out in the policy document. But the government writes that it is “committed to working with partners” to deliver on its grand vision.

“Our ultimate objective is the provision of better care and improved health outcomes for people in England,” Hancock writes in the ‘future of healthcare’ policy document. “But this cannot be done without a clear focus on improving the technology used by the 1.4 million NHS staff, 1.5 million-strong social care workforce and those many different groups who deliver and plan health and care services for the public.”

The minister is proposing that NHS digital services and IT systems will have to meet “a clear set of open standards” to ensure interoperability and updatability.

Meaning that existing systems that don’t meet the incoming standards will need to be phased out and ripped out over time.

The tech itself that NHS trusts and clinical commissioners can choose to buy will not be imposed upon them from above. Rather the stated intent is to encourage “competition on user experience and better tools for everyone”, says Hancock.

In a statement, the health and social care secretary said: “The tech revolution is coming to the NHS. These robust standards will ensure that every part of the NHS can use the best technology to improve patient safety, reduce delays and speed up appointments.

“A modern technical architecture for the health and care service has huge potential to deliver better services and to unlock our innovations. We want this approach to empower the country’s best innovators — inside and outside the NHS — and we want to hear from staff, experts and suppliers to ensure our standards will deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world.”

The four stated priorities for achieving the planned transformation are infrastructure (principally but not only related to patient records); digital services; innovation; and skills and culture:

“Our technology infrastructure should allow systems to talk to each other safely and securely, using open standards for data and interoperability so people have confidence that their data is up to date and in the right place, and health and care professionals have access to the information they need to provide care,” the document notes.  

The ‘tech for health’ vision — which lacks any kind of timeframe whatsoever — loops in an assortment of tech-fuelled case studies, from applying AI for faster diagnoses (as DeepMind has been trying) to Amazon Alexa skills being used as a memory aid for social care. And envisages, as a future success metric, that “a healthy person can stay healthy and active (using wearables, diet-tracking apps) and can co-ordinate with their GP or other health professional about targeted preventative care”.

The ‘techiness’ of the vision is unsurprising, given Hancock was previously the UK’s digital minister and has made no secret of his love of apps. Even having an app of his own developed to connect with his constituents (aka the eponymous Matt Hancock App — albeit running into some controversy for problems with the app’s privacy policy).

Hancock has also been a loud advocate for (and a personal user of) London-based digital healthcare startup Babylon Health, whose app initially included an AI diagnostic chatbot, in addition to offering video and text consultations with (human) doctors and specialists.

The company has partnered with the NHS for a triage service, and to offer a digital alternative to a traditional primary care service via an app that offers remote consultations (called GP at Hand).

But the app has also faced criticism from healthcare professionals. The AI chatbot component specifically has been attacked by doctors for offering incorrect and potentially dangerous diagnosis advice to patients. This summer Babylon pulled the AI element out of the app, leaving the bot to serve unintelligent triage advice — such as by suggesting people go straight to A&E even with just a headache. (Thereby, said its critics, piling pressure on already over-stretched NHS hospital services.)

All of which underlines some of the pitfalls of scrambling too quickly to squash innovation and healthcare together.

The demographic cherrypicking that can come inherently bundled with digital healthcare apps which are most likely to appeal to younger users (who have fewer complex health problems) is another key criticism of some of these shiny, modern services — with the argument being they impact non-digital NHS primary care services by saddling the bricks-and-mortar bits with more older, sicker patients to care for while the apps siphon off (and monetize) mostly the well, tech-savvy young.

Hancock’s pro-tech vision for upgrading the UK’s healthcare service doesn’t really engage with that critique of modern tech services having a potentially unequal impact on a free-at-the-point-of-use, taxpayer-funded health service.

Rather, in a section on “inclusion”, the vision document talks about the need to “design for, and with, people with different physical, mental health, social, cultural and learning needs, and for people with low digital literacy or those less able to access technology”. But without saying exactly how that might be achieved, given the overarching thrust being to reconfigure the NHS to be mobile-first, tech-enabled and tech-fuelled. 

“Different people may need different services and some people will never use digital services themselves directly but will benefit from others using digital services and freeing resources to help them,” runs the patter. “We must acknowledge that those with the greatest health needs are also the most at risk of being left behind and build digital services with this in mind, ensuring the highest levels of accessibility wherever possible.”

So the risk is being acknowledged — yet in a manner and context that suggests it’s simultaneously being dismissed, or elbowed out of the way, in the push for technology-enabled progress.

Hancock also appears willing to tolerate some iterative tech missteps — again towards a ‘greater good’ of modernizing the tech used to deliver NHS services so it can be continuously responsive to user needs, via updates and modular plugins, all greased by patient data being made reliably available via the envisaged transformation.

Though there is a bit of a cautionary caveat for healthcare startups like Babylon too. At least if they make actual clinical claims, with the document noting that: “We must be careful to ensure that we follow clinical trials where the new technology is clinical but also to ensure we have appropriate assurance processes that recognise when an innovation can be adopted faster. We must learn to adopt, iterate and continuously improve innovations, and support those who are working this way.”

Another more obvious contradiction is Hancock’s claim that “privacy and security” is one of four guiding principles for the vision (alongside “user need; interoperability and openness; and inclusion”), yet this is rubbing up against active engagement with the idea of sensitive social care data being processed by and hosted by a commercial ecommerce giant like Amazon, for example.

The need for patient trust and buy in gets more than passing mention, though. And there’s a pledge to introduce “a healthtech regulatory sandbox working with the ICO, National Data Guardian, NICE and other regulators” to provide support and an easier entry route for developers wanting to build health apps to sell in to the NHS, with the government also saying it will take other steps to “simplify the landscape for innovators”.

“If data is to be used effectively to support better health and care outcomes, it is essential that the public has trust and confidence in us and can see robust data governance, strong safeguards and strict penalties in place for misuse,” the policy document notes. 

Balancing support for data-based digital innovation, including where data-thirsty technologies like AI are concerned, with respect for the privacy of people’s highly sensitive health data will be a tricky act for the government to steer, though. Perhaps especially given Hancock is so keenly rushing to embrace the market.

“We need to build nationally only those few services that the market can’t provide and that must be done once and for everyone, such as a secure login and granular access to date,” runs the ministerial line. “This may mean some programmes need to be stopped.”

Although he also writes that there is a “huge role” for the NHS, care providers and commissioners to “develop solutions and co-create them with industry”.

Some of our user needs are unique, like carers in a particular geographical location or patients using assistive technologies. Or sometimes we can beat something to market because we know what we need and are motivated to solve the problem first.

“In those circumstances where industry won’t see the economies of scale they need to invest, we must be empowered to build our own digital services, often running on our data and networks. We will do that according to the government’s Digital Service Standard, and within the minimal rules we set for our infrastructure.”

“We also want to reassure those who are currently building products that we have no intention or desire to close off the market – in fact we want exactly the opposite,” the document also notes. “We want to back innovations that can improve our health and care system, wherever they can be found – and we know that some of the best innovations are being driven by clinicians and staff up and down the country.”

Among the commercial entities currently building products targeted at the NHS is Google -owned DeepMind, which got embroiled in a privacy controversy related to a data governance failure by the NHS Trust it worked with to co-develop an app for the early detection of a kidney condition.

DeepMind’s health data ambitions expand beyond building alert apps or even crafting diagnostic AIs to also wanting to build out and own healthcare app delivery infrastructure (aka, a fast healthcare interoperability resource, or FHIR) — which, in the aforementioned project, was bundled into the app contract with the Royal Free NHS Trust, locking the trust into sending data to DeepMind’s servers by prohibiting it from connecting to other FHIR servers. So not at all a model vision of interoperability.

Earlier this year DeepMind’s own independent reviewer panel warned there was a risk of the company gaining excessive monopoly power. And Hancock’s vision for health tech seems to be proposing to outlaw such contractual lock ins. Though it remains to be seen whether the guiding principle will stand up to the inexorable tech industry lobbying.

We will set national open standards for data, interoperability, privacy and confidentiality, real-time data access, cyber security and access rules,” the vision grandly envisages.

Open standards are not an abstract technical goal. They permit interoperability between different regions and systems but they also, crucially, permit a modular approach to IT in the NHS, where tools can be pulled and replaced with better alternatives as vendors develop better products. This, in turn, will help produce market conditions that drive innovation, in an ecosystem where developers and vendors continuously compete on quality to fill each niche, rather than capturing users.”

Responding to Hancock’s health tech plan, Sam Smith, coordinator of patient data privacy advocacy group medConfidential, told us: “There’s not much detail in here. It’s not so much ‘jam tomorrow’, as ‘jam… sometime’ — there’s no timeline, and jam gets pretty rancid after not very long. He says “these are standards”, but they’re just a vision for standards — all the hard work is left to be done.”

On the privacy plus AI front, Smith also picks up on Hancock’s vision including suggestive support for setting up “data trusts to facilitate the ethical sharing of data between organisations”, with the document reiterating the government’s plan to launch a pilot later this year. 

“Hancock says “we are supportive” of stripping the NHS of its role in oversight of commercial exploitation of data. Who is the “we” in that as it should be a cause for widespread concern. If Matt thinks the NHS will never get data right, what does he know that the public don’t?” said Smith on this.

He also points out at previous grand scheme attempts to overhaul NHS IT — most notably the uncompleted NHS National Programme for IT, which in the early 2000s tried and failed to deliver a top-down digitization of the service — taking a decade and sinking billions in the process.

“The widely criticised National Programme for IT also started out with similar lofty vision,” he noted. “This is yet another political piece saying what “good looks like”, but none of the success criteria are about patients getting better care from the NHS. For that, better technology has to be delivered on a ward, and in a GP surgery, and the many other places that the NHS and social care touch. Reforming procurement and standards do matter, and will help, but it helps in the same way a good accountant helps — and that’s not by having a vision of better accounting.”

On the vision’s timeframe, a Department of Health spokesman told us: “Today marks the beginning of a conversation between technology experts across the NHS, regulatory bodies and industry as we refine the standards and consider timeframes and details. The iterated standards document will be published in December once we receive feedback and the mandate will be rolled out gradually.

“We have been clear that we will phase out any system which does not meet these standards, will not procure systems which do not comply and will look to end contracts with suppliers who do not meet the standards.”

Applied gets $2M to make hiring fairer — using algorithms, not AI

London-based startup Applied has bagged £1.5M (~$2M) in seed funding for a fresh, diversity-sensitive approach to recruitment that deconstructs and reworks the traditional CV-bound process, drawing on behavioural science to level the playing field and help employers fill vacancies with skilled candidates they might otherwise have overlooked. Fairer hiring is the pitch. “If you’re hiring for […]

London-based startup Applied has bagged £1.5M (~$2M) in seed funding for a fresh, diversity-sensitive approach to recruitment that deconstructs and reworks the traditional CV-bound process, drawing on behavioural science to level the playing field and help employers fill vacancies with skilled candidates they might otherwise have overlooked.

Fairer hiring is the pitch. “If you’re hiring for a product lead, for example, it’s true that loads and loads of product leads are straight, white men with beards. How do we get people to see well what is it actually that this job entails?” founder and CEO Kate Glazebrook tells us. “It might actually be the case that if I don’t know any of the demographic background I discover somebody who I would have otherwise overlooked.”

Applied launched its software as a service recruitment platform in 2016, and Glazebrook says so far it’s been used by more than 55 employers to recruit candidates for more than 2,000 jobs. While more than 50,000 candidates have applied via Applied to date.

The employers themselves are also a diverse bunch, not just the usual suspects from the charitable sector, with both public and private sector organizations, small and large, and from a range of industries, from book publishing to construction, signed up to Applied’s approach. “We’ve been pleased to see it’s not just the sort of thing that the kind of employers you would expect to care about care about,” says Glazebrook.

Applied’s own investor Blackbird Ventures, which is leading the seed round, is another customer — and ended up turning one investment associate vacancy, advertised via the platform, into two roles — hiring both an ethnic minority woman and a man with a startup background as a result of “not focusing on did they have the traditional profile we were expecting”, says Glazebrook.

“They discovered these people were fantastic and had the skills — just a really different set of background characteristics than they were expecting,” she adds.

Other investors in the seed include Skip Capital, Angel Academe, Giant Leap and Impact Generation Partners, plus some unnamed angels. Prior investors include the entity Applied was originally spun out of (Behavioural Insights Team, a “social purpose company” jointly owned by the UK government, innovation charity Nesta, and its own employees), as well as gender advocate and businesswoman Carol Schwartz, and Wharton Professor Adam Grant.

Applied’s approach to recruitment employs plenty of algorithms — including for scoring candidates (its process involves chunking up applications and also getting candidates to answer questions that reflect “what a day in the job actually looks like”), and also anonymizing applications to further strip away bias risks, presenting the numbered candidates in a random order too.

But it does not involve any AI-based matching. If you want to make hiring fairer, AI doesn’t look like a great fit. Last week, for example, Reuters reported how in 2014 ecommerce giant Amazon built and then later scrapped a machine learning based recruitment tool, after it failed to rate candidates in a gender-neutral way — apparently reflecting wider industry biases.

“We’re really clear that we don’t do AI,” says Glazebrook. “We don’t fall into the traps that [companies like] Amazon did. Because it’s not that we’re parsing existing data-sets and saying ‘this is what you hired for last time so we’ll match candidates to that’. That’s exactly where you get this problem of replication of bias. So what we’ve done instead is say ‘actually what we should do is change what you see and how you see it so that you’re only focusing on the things that really matter’.

“So that levels the playing field for all candidates. All candidates are assessed on the basis of their skill, not whether or not they fit the historic profile of people you’ve previously hired. We avoid a lot of those pitfalls because we’re not doing AI-based or algorithmic hiring — we’re doing algorithms that reshape the information you see, not the prediction that you have to arrive at.”

In practice this means Applied must and does take over the entire recruitment process, including writing the job spec itself — to remove things like gendered language which could introduce bias into the process — and slicing and dicing the application process to be able to score and compare candidates and fill in any missing bits of data via role-specific skills tests.

Its approach can be thought of as entirely deconstructing the CV — to not just remove extraneous details and bits of information which can bias the process (such as names, education institutions attended, hobbies etc) but also to actively harvest data on the skills being sought, with employers using the platform to set tests to measure capacities and capabilities they’re after.

“We manage the hiring process right from the design of an inclusive job description, right through to the point of making a hiring decision and all of the selection that happens beneath that,” says Glazebrook. “So we use over 30 behavioural science nudges throughout the process to try and improve conversion and inclusivity — so that includes everything from removal of gendered language in jobs descriptions to anonymization of applications to testing candidates on job preview based assessments, rather than based on their CVs.”

“We also help people to run more evidence-based structured interviews and then make the hiring decision,” she adds. “From a behavioral science standpoint I guess our USP is we’ve redesigned the shortlisting process.”

The platform also provides jobseekers with greater visibility into the assessment process by providing them with feedback — “so candidates get to see where their strengths and weaknesses were” — so it’s not simply creating a new recruitment blackbox process that keeps people in the dark about the assessments being made about them. Which is important from an algorithmic accountability point of view, even without any AI involved. Because vanilla algorithms can still sum up to dumb decisions.

From the outside looking in, Applied’s approach might sound highly manual and high maintenance, given how necessarily involved the platform is in each and every hire, but Glazebrook says in fact it’s “all been baked into the tech” — so the platform takes the strain of the restructuring by automating the hand-holding involved in debiasing job ads and judgements, letting employers self-serve to step them through a reconstructed recruitment process.

“From the job description design, for example, there are eight different characteristics that are automatically picked out, so it’s all self-serve stuff,” explains Glazebrook, noting that the platform will do things like automatically flag words to watch out for in job descriptions or the length of the job ad itself.

“All with that totally automated. And client self-serve as well, so they use a library of questions — saying I’m looking for this particular skill-set and we can say well if you look through the library we’ll find you some questions which have worked well for testing that skill set before.”

“They do all of the assessment themselves, through the platform, so it’s basically like saying rather than having your recruiting team sifting through paper forms of CVs, we have them online scoring candidates through this redesigned process,” she adds.

Employers themselves need to commit to a new way of doing things, of course. Though Applied’s claim is that ultimately a fairer approach also saves time, as well as delivering great hires.

“In many ways, one of the things that we’ve discovered through many customers is that it’s actually saved them loads of time because the shortlisting process is devised in a way that it previously hasn’t been and more importantly they have data and reporting that they’ve never previously had,” she says. “So they now know, through the platform, which of the seven places that they placed the job actually found them the highest quality candidates and also found people who were from more diverse backgrounds because we could automatically pull the data.”

Applied ran its own comparative study of its reshaped process vs a traditional sifting of CVs and Glazebrook says it discovered “statistically significant differences” in the resulting candidate choices — claiming that over half of the pool of 700+ candidates “wouldn’t have got the job if we’d been looking at their CVs”.

They also looked at the differences between the choices made in the study and also found statistically significant differences “particularly in educational and economic background” — “so we were diversifying the people we were hiring by those metrics”.

“We also saw directional evidence around improvements in diversity on disability status and ethnicity,” she adds. “And some interesting stuff around gender as well.”

Applied wants to go further on the proof front, and Glazebrook says it is now automatically collecting performance data while candidates are on the job — “so that we can do an even better job of proving here is a person that you hired and you did a really good job of identifying the skill-sets that they are proving they have when they’re on the job”.

She says it will be feeding this intel back into the platform — “to build a better feedback loop the next time you’re looking to hire that particular role”.

“At the moment, what is astonishing, is that most HR departments 1) have terrible data anyway to answer these important questions, and 2) to the extent they have them they don’t pair those data sets in a way that allows them to prove — so they don’t know ‘did we hire them because of X or Y’ and ‘did that help us to actually replicate what was working well and jettison what wasn’t’,” she adds.

The seed funding will go on further developing these sorts of data science predictions, and also on updates to Applied’s gendered language tool and inclusive job description tool — as well as on sales and marketing to generally grow the business.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Nick Crocker, general partner at Blackbird Ventures said: “Our mission is to find the most ambitious founders, and support them through every stage of their company journey. Kate and the team blew us away with the depth of their insight, the thoughtfulness of their product, and a mission that we’re obsessed with.”

In another supporting statement, Owain Service, CEO of BI Ventures, added: “Applied uses the latest behavioural science research to help companies find the best talent. We ourselves have recruited over 130 people through the platform. This investment represents an exciting next step to supporting more organisations to remove bias from their recruitment processes, in exactly the same way that we do.”

Roborace to replace F1 racing drivers with robots at Disrupt

Formula E is so 2017. This year, it’s all about Roborace, an upcoming F1-style competition. And the big new thing is that it’s all about self-driving cars. I’m excited to announce that Roborace CEO Lucas DiGrassi will come to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin to talk about this crazy idea. DiGrassi may sound like a familiar name […]

Formula E is so 2017. This year, it's all about Roborace, an upcoming F1-style competition. And the big new thing is that it's all about self-driving cars. I'm excited to announce that Roborace CEO Lucas DiGrassi will come to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin to talk about this crazy idea.

DiGrassi may sound like a familiar name already as he's also a racing driver. He has competed in Formula One, Formula E and the World Endurance Championship. He’s also the current Formula E Champion. Clearly, DiGrassi is much better at parallel parking than I’ll ever be.

Racing has always been a great way to break new grounds for car manufacturers. Many of the technologies that you can find in your current car were first developed for endurance and Formula One competitions.

And it seems logical that the next radical step involves removing the driver altogether. Roborace will be a competition with self-driving cars that run using electric motors. Cars will compete on the Formula E tracks.

Teams will share the same chassis, powertrain, sensors and Nvidia Drive PX 2 system on a chip. You can find radars, lidars and other sensors on each car. But, of course, each team will be able to customize their AI-powered algorithm to beat competitors.

Right now, Roborace is testing the racing format alongside Formula E events. Sometimes, it involves putting an actual human being in a development car called a “DevBot”.

I’m incredibly excited about meeting DiGrassi and talking about this new competition. And if you want to meet him too, you should buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.

Lucas DiGrassi

CEO, Roborace

Lucas DiGrassi is the CEO of Roborace, the world's first competition for human and artificial intelligent racing, making autonomous technology exciting and inspirational for a new generation of spectators.

Lucas is also a racing driver who has competed in Formula One, Formula E and the World Endurance Championship and is the current Formula E Champion.

He has been instrumental in building and growing the Formula E series over the past six years having joined as Special Advisor for the FE CEO Alejandro Agag back in 2012.

He is now bringing his business experience and extensive knowledge of racing, to Roborace, helping grow it into an established competition and cooperation of human and AI intelligence.

Paperspace scores $13M investment for AI-fueled application development platform

Paperspace wants to help developers build artificial intelligence and machine learning applications with a software/hardware development platform powered by GPUs and other powerful chips. Today, the Winter 2015 Y Combinator grads announced a $13 million Series A. Battery Ventures led the round with participation from SineWave Ventures, Intel Capital and Sorenson Ventures. Existing investor Initialized […]

Paperspace wants to help developers build artificial intelligence and machine learning applications with a software/hardware development platform powered by GPUs and other powerful chips. Today, the Winter 2015 Y Combinator grads announced a $13 million Series A.

Battery Ventures led the round with participation from SineWave Ventures, Intel Capital and Sorenson Ventures. Existing investor Initialized Capital also participated. Today’s investment brings the total amount to $19 million raised.

Dharmesh Thakker, a general partner with Battery Ventures sees Paperspace as being in the right place at the time. As AI and machine learning take off, developers need a set of tools and GPU-fueled hardware to process it all. “Major silicon, systems and Web-scale computing providers need a cloud-based solution and software ‘glue’ to make deep learning truly consumable by data-driven organizations, and Paperspace is helping to provide that,” Thakker said in a statement.

Paperspace provides its own GPU-powered servers to help in this regard, but co-founder and CEO Dillon Erb says they aren’t trying to compete with the big cloud vendors. They offer more than a hardware solution to customers. Last spring, the company released Gradient, a serverless tool to make it easier to deploy and manage AI and machine learning workloads.

By making Gradient a serverless management tool, customers don’t have to think about the underlying infrastructure. Instead, Paperspace handles all of that for them providing the resources as needed. “We do a lot of GPU compute, but the big focus right now and really where the investors are buying into with this fundraise, is the idea that we are in a really unique position to build out a software layer and abstract a lot of that infrastructure away [for our customers],” Erb told TechCrunch.

He says that building some of the infrastructure was an important early step, but they aren’t trying to compete with the cloud vendors. They are trying to provide a set of tools to help developers build complex AI and machine learning/deep learning applications, whether it’s on their own infrastructure or on the mainstream cloud providers like Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

What’s more, they have moved beyond GPUs to support a range of powerful chips being developed to support AI and machine learning workloads. It’s probably one of the reasons that Intel joined as an investor in this round.

He says the funding is definitely a validation of something they set out to work on when they first started this in 2014 and launched out of Y Combinator in 2015. Back then he had to explain what a GPU was in his pitch decks. He doesn’t have to do that anymore, but there is still plenty of room to grow in this space.

“It’s really a greenfield opportunity, and we want to be the go-to platform that you can start building out into the intelligent applications without thinking about infrastructure.” With $13 million in hand, it’s safe to say that they are on their way.

Gartner picks digital ethics and privacy as a strategic trend for 2019

Analyst Gartner, best known for crunching device marketshare data; charting technology hype cycles; and churning out predictive listicles of emergent capabilities at software’s cutting edge has now put businesses on watch that as well as dabbling in the usual crop of nascent technologies organizations need to be thinking about wider impacts next year — on both […]

Analyst Gartner, best known for crunching device marketshare data; charting technology hype cycles; and churning out predictive listicles of emergent capabilities at software’s cutting edge has now put businesses on watch that as well as dabbling in the usual crop of nascent technologies organizations need to be thinking about wider impacts next year — on both individuals and society.

Call it a sign of the times but digital ethics and privacy has been named as one of Gartner’s top ten strategic technology trends for 2019. That, my friends, is progress of a sort. Albeit, it also underlines how low certain tech industry practices have sunk that ethics and privacy is suddenly making a cutting-edge trend agenda, a couple of decades into the mainstream consumer Internet.

The analyst’s top picks do include plenty of techie stuff too, of course. Yes blockchain is in there. Alongside the usual string of caveats that the “technologies and concepts are immature, poorly understood and unproven in mission-critical, at-scale business operations”.

So too, on the software development side, is AI-driven development — with the analyst sneaking a look beyond the immediate future to an un-date-stamped new age of the ‘non-techie techie’ (aka the “citizen application developer”) it sees coming down the pipe, when everyone will be a pro app dev thanks to AI-driven tools automatically generating the necessary models. But that’s definitely not happening in 2019.

See also: Augmented analytics eventually (em)powering “citizen data science”.

On the hardware front, Gartner uses the umbrella moniker of autonomous things to bundle the likes of drones, autonomous vehicles and robots in one big mechanical huddle — spying a trend of embodied AIs that “automate functions previously performed by humans” and work in swarming concert. Again, though, don’t expect too much of these bots quite yet — collectively, or, well, individually either.

It’s also bundling AR, VR and MR (aka the mixed reality of eyewear like Magic Leap One or Microsoft’s Hololens) into immersive experiences — in which “the spaces that surround us define ‘the computer’ rather than the individual devices. In effect, the environment is the computer” — so you can see what it’s spying there.

On the hardcore cutting edge of tech there’s quantum computing to continue to tantalize with its fantastically potent future potential. This tech, Gartner suggests, could be used to “model molecular interactions at atomic levels to accelerate time to market for new cancer-treating drugs” — albeit, once again, there’s absolutely no timeline suggested. And QC remains firmly lodged in an “emerging state”.

One nearer-term tech trend is dubbed the empowered edge, with Gartner noting that rising numbers of connected devices are driving processing back towards the end-user — to reduce latency and traffic. Distributed servers working as part of the cloud services mix is the idea, supported, over the longer term, by maturing 5G networks. Albeit, again, 5G hasn’t been deployed at any scale yet. Though some rollouts are scheduled for 2019.

Connected devices also feature in Gartner’s picks of smart spaces (aka sensor-laden places like smart cities, the ‘smart home’ or digital workplaces — where “people, processes, services and things” come together to create “a more immersive, interactive and automated experience”); and so-called digital twins; which isn’t as immediately bodysnatcherish as it first sounds, though does refer to “digital representation of a real-world entity or system” driven by an estimated 20BN connected sensors/endpoints which it reckons will be in the wild by 2020

But what really stands out in Gartner’s list of developing and/or barely emergent strategic tech trends is digital ethics and privacy — given the concept is not reliant on any particular technology underpinning it; yet is being (essentially) characterized as an emergent property of other already deployed (but unnamed) technologies. So is actually in play — in a way that others on the list aren’t yet (or aren’t at the same mass scale).

The analyst dubs digital ethics and privacy a “growing concern for individuals, organisations and governments”, writing: “People are increasingly concerned about how their personal information is being used by organisations in both the public and private sector, and the backlash will only increase for organisations that are not proactively addressing these concerns.”

Yes, people are increasingly concerned about privacy. Though ethics and privacy are hardly new concepts (or indeed new discussion topics). So the key point is really the strategic obfuscation of issues that people do in fact care an awful lot about, via the selective and non-transparent application of various behind-the-scenes technologies up to now — as engineers have gone about collecting and using people’s data without telling them how, why and what they’re actually doing with it.

Therefore, the key issue is about the abuse of trust that has been an inherent and seemingly foundational principle of the application of far too much cutting edge technology up to now. Especially, of course, in the adtech sphere.

And which, as Gartner now notes, is coming home to roost for the industry — via people’s “growing concern” about what’s being done to them via their data. (For “individuals, organisations and governments” you can really just substitute ‘society’ in general.)

Technology development done in a vacuum with little or no consideration for societal impacts is therefore itself the catalyst for the accelerated concern about digital ethics and privacy that Gartner is here identifying rising into strategic view.

It didn’t have to be that way though. Unlike ‘blockchain’ or ‘digital twins’, ethics and privacy are not at all new concepts. They’ve been discussion topics for philosophers and moralists for scores of generations and, literally, thousands of years. Which makes engineering without consideration of human and societal impacts a very spectacular and stupid failure indeed.

And now Gartner is having to lecture organizations on the importance of building trust. Which is kind of incredible to see, set alongside bleeding edge science like quantum computing. Yet here we seemingly are in kindergarten…

It writes: “Any discussion on privacy must be grounded in the broader topic of digital ethics and the trust of your customers, constituents and employees. While privacy and security are foundational components in building trust, trust is actually about more than just these components. Trust is the acceptance of the truth of a statement without evidence or investigation. Ultimately an organisation’s position on privacy must be driven by its broader position on ethics and trust. Shifting from privacy to ethics moves the conversation beyond ‘are we compliant’ toward ‘are we doing the right thing.”

The other unique thing about digital ethics and privacy is that it cuts right across all other technology areas in this trend list.

You can — and should — rightly ask what does blockchain mean for privacy? Or quantum computing for ethics? How could the empowered edge be used to enhance privacy? And how might smart spaces erode it? How can we ensure ethics get baked into AI-driven development from the get-go? How could augmented analytics help society as a whole — but which individuals might it harm? And so the questions go on.

Or at least they should go on. You should never stop asking questions where ethics and privacy are concerned. Not asking questions was the great strategic fuck-up condensed into Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’ anti-humanitarian manifesto of yore. Y’know, the motto it had to ditch after it realized that breaking all the things didn’t scale.

Because apparently no one at the company had thought to ask how breaking everyone’s stuff would help it engender trust. And so claiming compliance without trust, as Facebook now finds itself trying to, really is the archetypal Sisyphean struggle.

TravelPerk grabs $44M to take its pain-free SaaS for business travel global

Only six months ago Barcelona-based TravelPerk bagged a $21M Series B, off the back of strong momentum for a software as a service platform designed to take a Slack-like chunk out of the administrative tedium of arranging and expensing work trips. Today the founders’ smiles are firmly back in place: TravelPerk has announced a $44M Series […]

Only six months ago Barcelona-based TravelPerk bagged a $21M Series B, off the back of strong momentum for a software as a service platform designed to take a Slack-like chunk out of the administrative tedium of arranging and expensing work trips.

Today the founders’ smiles are firmly back in place: TravelPerk has announced a $44M Series C to keep stoking growth that’s seen it grow from around 20 customers two years ago to approaching 1,500 now. The business itself was only founded at the start of 2015.

Investors in the new round include Sweden’s Kinnevik; Russian billionaire and DST Global founder Yuri Milner, and Tom Stafford, also of DST. Prior investors include the likes of Target Global, Felix Capital, Spark Capital, Sunstone, LocalGlobe and Amplo.

Commenting on the Series C in a statement, Kinnevik’s Chris Bischoff, said: “We are excited to invest in TravelPerk, a company that fits perfectly into our investment thesis of using technology to offer customers more and much better choice. Booking corporate travel is unnecessarily time-consuming, expensive and burdensome compared to leisure travel. Avi and team have capitalised on this opportunity to build the leading European challenger by focusing on a product-led solution, and we look forward to supporting their future growth.”

TravelPerk’s total funding to date now stands at almost $75M. It’s not disclosing the valuation that its latest clutch of investors are stamping on its business but, with a bit of a chuckle, co-founder and CEO Avi Meir dubs it “very high”.

Gunning for growth — to West and East

TravelPerk contends that a $1.3tr market is ripe for disruption because legacy business travel booking platforms are both lacking in options and roundly hated for being slow and horrible to use. (Hi Concur!)

Helping business save time and money using a slick, consumer-style trip booking platform that both packs in options and makes business travellers feel good about the booking process (i.e. rather than valueless cogs in a soul-destroying corporate ROI machine) is the general idea — an idea that’s seemingly catching on fast.

And not just with the usual suspect, early adopter, startup dog food gobblers but pushing into the smaller end of the enterprise market too.

“We kind of stumbled on the realization that our platform works for bigger companies than we thought initially,” says Meir. “So the users used to be small, fast-growing tech companies, like GetYourGuide, Outfittery, TypeForm etc… They’re early adopters, they’re tech companies, they have no fear of trying out tech — even for such a mission critical aspect of their business… But then we got pulled into bigger companies. We recently signed FarFetch for example.”

Other smaller sized enterprises that have signed up include the likes of Adyen, B&W, Uber and Aesop.

Companies small and big are, seemingly, united in their hatred of legacy travel booking platforms. And feeling encouraged to check out TravelPerk’s alternative thanks to the SaaS being free to use and free from the usual contract lock ins.

TravelPerk’s freemium business model is based on taking affiliate commissions on bookings. While, down the road, it also has its eye on generating a data-based revenue stream via paid-tier trip analytics.

Currently it reports booking revenues growing at 700% year on year. And Meir previously told us it’s on course to do $100M GMV this year — which he confirms continues to be the case.

It also says it’s on track to complete bookings for one million travellers by next year. And claims to be the fastest growing software as a service company in Europe, a region which remains its core market focus — though the new funding will be put towards market expansion.

And there is at least the possibility, according to Meir, that TravelPerk could actively expand outside Europe within the next 12 months.

“We definitely are looking at expansion outside of Europe as well. I don’t know yet if it’s going to be first US — West or East — because there are opportunities in both directions,” he tells TechCrunch. “And we have customers; one of our largest customers is in Singapore. And we do have a growing amount of customers out of the US.”

Doubling down on growth within Europe is certainly on the slate, though, with a chunk of the Series C going to establish a number of new offices across the region.

Having more local bases to better serve customers is the idea. Meir notes that, perhaps unusually for a startup, TravelPerk has not outsourced customer support — but kept customer service in house to try to maintain quality. (Which, in Europe, means having staff who can speak the local language.)

He also quips about the need for a travel business to serve up “human intelligence” — i.e. by using tech tools to slickly connect on-the-road customers with actual people who can quickly and smartly grapple with and solve problems; vs an automated AI response which is — let’s face it — probably the last thing any time-strapped business traveller wants when trying to get orientated fast and/or solve a snafu away from home.

“I wouldn’t use [human intelligence] for everything but definitely if people are on the road, and they need assistance, and they need to make changes, and you need to understand what they said…” argues Meir, going on to say ‘HI’ has been his response when investors asked why TravelPerk’s pitch deck doesn’t include the almost-impossible-to-avoid tech buzzword: “AI”.

“I think we are probably the only startup in the world right now that doesn’t have AI in the pitch deck somewhere,” he adds. “One of the investors asked about it and I said ‘well we have HI; it’s better’… We have human intelligence. Just people, and they’re smart.”

Also on the cards (it therefore follows): More hiring (the team is at ~150 now and Meir says he expects it to push close to 300 within 18 months); as well as continued investment on the product front, including in the mobile app which was a late addition, only arriving this year.

The TravelPerk mobile app offers handy stuff like a one-stop travel itinerary, flight updates and a chat channel for support. But the desktop web app and core platform were the team’s first focus, with Meir arguing the desktop platform is the natural place for businesses to book trips.

This makes its mobile app more a companion piece — to “how you travel” — housing helpful additions for business travellers, as nice-to-have extras. “That’s what our app does really well,” he adds. “So we’re unusually contrarian and didn’t have a mobile app until this year… It was a pretty crazy bet but we really wanted to have a great web app experience.”

Much of TravelPerk’s early energy has clearly gone into delivering on the core product via nailing down the necessary partnerships and integrations to be able to offer such a large inventory — and thus deliver expanded utility vs legacy rivals.

As well as offering a clean-looking, consumer-style interface intended to do for business travel booking feels what Slack has done for work chat, the platform boasts a larger inventory than traditional players in the space, according to Meir — by plugging into major consumer providers such as Booking.com and Expedia.

The inventory also includes Airbnb accommodation (not just traditional hotels). While other partners on the flight side include include Kayak and Skyscanner.

“We have not the largest bookable inventory in the world,” he claims. “We’re way larger than old school competitors… We went through this licensing process which is almost as difficult as getting a banking license… which give us the right to sell you the same product as travel agencies… Nobody in the world can sell you Kayak’s flights directly from their platform — so we have a way to do that.”

TravelPerk also recently plugged trains into its directly bookable options. This mode of transport is an important component of the European business travel market where rail infrastructure is dense, highly developed and often very high speed. (Which means it can be both the most convenient and environmentally friendly travel option to use.)

“Trains are pretty complex technically so we found a great partner,” notes Meir on that, listing major train companies including in Germany, Spain and Italy as among those it’s now able to offer direct bookings for via its platform.

On the product side, the team is also working on integrating travel and expenses management into the platform — to serve its growing numbers of (small) enterprise customers who need more than just a slick trip booking tool.

Meir says getting pulled to these bigger accounts is steering its European expansion — with part of the Series C going to fund a clutch of new offices around the region near where some of its bigger customers are based. Beginning in London, with Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris slated to follow soon.

Picking investors for the long haul

What does the team attribute TravelPerk’s momentum to generally? It comes back to the pain, says Meir. Business travellers are being forced to “tolerate” horrible legacy systems. “So I think the pain-point is so visible and so clear [it sells itself],” he argues, also pointing out this is true for investors (which can’t have hurt TravelPerk’s funding pitch).

“In general we just built a great product and a great service, and we focused on this consumer angle — which is something that really connects well with what people want in this day and age,” he adds. “People want to use something that feels like Slack.”

For the Series C, Meir says TravelPerk was looking for investors who would be comfortable supporting the business for the long haul, rather than pushing for a quick sale. So they are now articulating the possibility of a future IPO.

And while he says TravelPerk hadn’t known much about Swedish investment firm Kinnevik prior to the Series C, Meir says he came away impressed with its focus on “global growth and ambition”, and the “deep pockets and the patience that comes with it”.

“We really aligned on this should be a global play, rather than a European play,” he adds. “We really connected on this should be a very, big independent business that goes to the path of IPO rather than a quick exit to one of the big players.

“So with them we buy patience, and also the condition, when offers do come onto the table, to say no to them.”

Given it’s been just a short six months between the Series B and C, is TravelPerk planning to raise again in the next 12 months?

“We’re never fundraising and we’re always fundraising I guess,” Meir responds on that. “We don’t need to fundraise for the next three years or so, so it will not come out of need, hopefully, unless something really unusual is happening, but it will come more out of opportunity and if it presented a way to grow even faster.

“I think the key here is how fast we grow. And how good a product we certify — and if we have an opportunity to make it even faster or better then we’ll go for it. But it’s not something that we’re actively doing it… So to all investors reading this piece don’t call me!” he adds, most likely inviting a tsunami of fresh investor pitches.

Discussing the challenges of building a business that’s so fast growing it’s also changing incredibly rapidly, Meir says nothing is how he imagined it would be — including fondly thinking it would be easier the bigger and better resourced the business got. But he says there’s an upside too.

“The challenges are just much, much bigger on this scale,” he says. “Numbers are bigger, you have more people around the table… I would say it’s very, very difficult and challenging but also extremely fun.

“So now when we release a feature it goes immediately into the hands of hundreds of thousands of travellers that use it every month. And when you fundraise… it’s much more fun because you have more leverage.

“It’s also fun because — and I don’t want to position myself as the cynical guy — the reality is that most startups don’t cure cancer, right. So we’re not saving the world… but in our little niche of business travel, which is still like $1.3tr per year, we are definitely making a dent.

“So, yes, it’s more challenging and difficult as your grow, and the problems become much bigger, but you can also deliver the feedback to more people.”