AI training and social network content moderation services bring TaskUs a $250 million windfall

TaskUs, the business process outsourcing service that moderates content, annotates information and handles back office customer support for some of the world’s largest tech companies, has raised $250 million in an investment from funds managed by the New York-based private equity giant, Blackstone Group. It’s been ten years since TaskUs was founded with a $20,000 investment […]

TaskUs, the business process outsourcing service that moderates content, annotates information and handles back office customer support for some of the world’s largest tech companies, has raised $250 million in an investment from funds managed by the New York-based private equity giant, Blackstone Group.

It’s been ten years since TaskUs was founded with a $20,000 investment from its two co-founders, and the new deal, which values the decade-old company at $500 million before the money even comes in, is proof of how much has changed for the service in the years since it was founded.

The Santa Monica-based company, which began as a browser-based virtual assistant company — “You send us a task and we get the task done,” recalled TaskUs chief executive Bryce Maddock — is now one of the main providers in the growing field of content moderation for social networks and content annotation for training the algorithms that power artificial intelligence services around the world.

“What I can tell you is we do content moderation for almost every major social network and it’s the fastest growing part of our business today,” Maddock said.

From a network of offices spanning the globe from Mexico to Taiwan and the Philippines to the U.S., the thirty two year-old co-founders Maddock and Jaspar Weir have created a business that’s largest growth stems from snuffing out the distribution of snuff films; child pornography; inappropriate political content and the trails of human trafficking from the user and advertiser generated content on some of the world’s largest social networks.

(For a glimpse into how horrific that process can be, take a look at this article from Wiredwhich looked at content moderation for the anonymous messaging service, Whisper.)

Maddock estimates that while the vast majority of the business was outsourcing business process services in the company’s early days (whether that was transcribing voice mails to texts for the messaging service PhoneTag, or providing customer service and support for companies like HotelTonight) now about 40% of the business comes from content moderation.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Indeed, it was the growth in new technology services that attracted Blackstone to the business, according to Amit Dixit, Senior Managing Director at Blackstone.

“The growth in ride sharing, social media, online food delivery, e-commerce and autonomous driving is creating an enormous need for enabling business services,” said Dixit in a statement. “TaskUs has established a leadership position in this domain with its base of marquee customers, unique culture, and relentless focus on customer delivery.”

While the back office business processing services remain the majority of the company’s revenue, Maddock knows that the future belongs to an increasing automation of the company’s core services. That’s why part of the money is going to be invested in a new technology integration and consulting business that advises tech companies on which new automation tools to deploy, along with shoring up the company’s position as perhaps the best employer to work for in the world of content moderation and algorithm training services.

It’s been a long five year journey to get to the place it’s in now, with glowing reviews from employees on Glassdoor and social networks like Facebook, Maddock said. The company pays well above minimum wage in the market it operates in (Maddock estimates at least a 50% premium); and provides a generous package of benefits for what Maddock calls the “frontline” teammates. That includes perks like educational scholarships for one child of employees that have been with the company longer than one year; healthcare plans for the employee and three beneficiaries in the Philippines; and 120 days of maternity leave.

And, as content moderation is becoming more automated, the TaskUs employees are spending less time in the human cesspool that attempts to flood social networks every day.

“Increasingly the work that we’re doing is more nuanced. Does this advertisement have political intent. That type of work is far more engaging and could be seen to be a little bit less taxing,” Maddock said.

But he doesn’t deny that the bulk of the hard work his employees are tasked with is identifying and filtering the excremental trash that people would post online.

“I do think that the work is absolutely necessary. The alternative is that everybody has to look at this stuff. it has to be done in a way thats thoughtful and puts the interests of the people who are on the frontlines at the forefront of that effort,” says Maddock. “There have been multiple people who have been involved in sex trafficking, human trafficking and pedophilia that have been arrested directly because of the work that TaskUs is doing. And the consequence of someone not doing that is a far far worse world.”

Maddock also said that TaskUs now shields its employees from having to perform content moderation for an entire shift. “What we have tried to do universally is that there is a subject matter rotation so that you are not just sitting and doing that work all day.”

And the company’s executive knows how taxing the work can be because he said he does it himself. “I try to spend a day a quarter doing the work of our frontline teammates. I spend half my time in our offices,” Maddock said.

Now, with the new investment, TaskUs is looking to expand into additional markets in the UK, Europe, India, and Latin America, Maddock said.

“So far all we’ve been doing is hiring as fast as we possibly can,” said Maddock. “At some point in the future, there’s going to be a point when companies like ours will see the effects of automation,” he added, but that’s why the company is investing in the consulting business… so it can stay ahead of the trends in automation.

Even with the threat that automation could pose to the company’s business, TaskUs had no shortage of other suitors for the massive growth equity round, according to one person familiar with the company. Indeed, Goldman Sachs and Softbank were among the other bidders for a piece of TaskUs, the source said.

Currently, the company has over 11,000 employees (including 2,000 in the U.S.) and is looking to expand.

“We chose to partner with Blackstone because they have a track record of building category defining businesses. Our goal is to build TaskUs into the world’s number one provider of tech enabled business services.  This partnership will help us dramatically increase our investment in consulting, technology and innovation to support our customer’s efforts to streamline and refine their customer experience,” said Maddock in a statement.

The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2018, subject to regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions.

Say hello to Android 9 Pie

The nickname for Android 9 is “Pie.” It’s not the most inspired of Android names, but it’ll do. What really matters at the end of the day are the new features in Pie — and there are plenty of those. If you are a Pixel owner, you’ll be happy to hear that Pie will start […]

The nickname for Android 9 is “Pie.” It’s not the most inspired of Android names, but it’ll do. What really matters at the end of the day are the new features in Pie — and there are plenty of those.

If you are a Pixel owner, you’ll be happy to hear that Pie will start rolling out as an over-the-air update today. The same goes for every other device that was enrolled in the Android Beta (that includes any Sony Mobile, Xiaomi, HMD Global, Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Essential devices that got the betas) and qualifying Android One devices. Everybody else, well, you know the drill. Wait until your manufacturer launches it for you… which should be the end of the year for some — and never for quite a few others.

Overall, Pie is a solid upgrade. The only real disappointment here is that Pie won’t launch with Android’s new digital wellness features by default. Instead, you’ll have to sign up for a beta and own a Pixel device. That’s because these new features won’t officially launch until the fall (Google’s hardware event, which traditionally happens in early October, seems like a good bet for the date).

Let’s talk about the features you’ll get when you update to Android 9 Pie, though. The most obvious sign that you have updated to the new version is the new system navigation bar, which replaces the standard three-icon navigation bar that has served Android users well for the last couple of iterations. The new navigation bar replaces the three icons (back, home, overview) that are virtually always on screen with a more adaptive system and a home button that now lets you swipe to switch between apps (instead of tapping on the overview button). You can also now swipe up on the home button and see full-screen previews of the apps you used recently, as well as the names of a few apps that Google thinks you’ll want to use. A second up-swipe and you get to the usual list of all of your installed apps.

In day-to-day use, I’m not yet 100 percent convinced that this new system is any better than the old one. Maybe I just don’t like change, but the whole swiping thing does not strike me as very efficient, and if you leave your finger on the home button for a split-second longer than Google expects, it’ll launch the Assistant instead of letting you swipe between apps. You get used to it, though, and you can get back to the old system if you want to.

Google’s suggestions for apps you’ll like and want to use when you swipe up feel like a nice tech demo but aren’t all that useful in day-to-day use. I’m sure Google uses some kind of machine learning to power these suggestions, but I’d rather use that area as an extended favorites bar where I can pin a few additional apps. It’s not that Android’s suggestions were necessarily wrong and that these weren’t apps I wanted to use, it’s mostly that the apps it suggested were already on my home screen anyway. I don’t think I ever started an app from there while using the last two betas.

But that’s enough grumbling, because it’s actually all of the little things that make Android 9 Pie better. There’s stuff like the adaptive battery management, which makes your battery last longer by learning which apps you use the most. And that’s great (though I’m not sure how much influence it has had on my daily battery life), but the new feature that actually made me smile was a new popup that tells you that you have maybe 20 percent of battery left and that this charge should last until 9:20pm. That’s actually useful.

Google also loves to talk about its Adaptive Brightness feature that also learns about how you like your screen brightness based on your surroundings, but what actually made a difference for me was that Google now blends out the whole settings drawer when you change the setting so that you can actually see what difference those changes make. It’s also nice to have the volume slider pop up right next to the volume buttons now.

Talking about sound: Your phone now plays a pleasant little sound when you plug in the charger. It’s the little things that matter, after all.

The other new machine learning-powered feature is the smart text selection tool that recognizes the meaning of the text you selected and then allows you to suggest relevant actions like opening Google Maps or bringing up the share dialog for an address. It’s nifty when it works, but here, too, what actually makes the real difference in daily usage is that the text selection magnifier shows you a larger, clearer picture of what you’re selecting (and it sits right on top of what you are selecting), which makes it far easier to pick the right text (and yes, iOS pretty much does the same thing).

And now we get to the part where I wish I could tell you all about the flagship Digital Wellness features in Pie (because pie and wellness go together like Gwyneth Paltrow and jade eggs), but we’ll have to wait a few days for that. Here’s what we know will be available: a dashboard for seeing where you spend time on your device; an app timer that lets you set limits on how long you can use Instagram, for example, and then grays out the icon of that app; and a Wind Down feature that switches on the night-light mode, turns on Do Not Disturb and fades the screen to grayscale before it’s bedtime.

The one wellness feature you can try now if you are on Pie already is the new Do Not Disturb tool that lets you turn off all visual interruptions. To try out everything else, you’ll have to sign up for the beta here.

Another feature that’s only launching in the fall is “slices” (like slices of pie…). I was looking forward to this one as it’ll allow developers to highlight parts of their apps (maybe to start playing a song or hail a car) in the Android Pie search bar when warranted. Maybe Google wasn’t ready yet — or maybe its partners just hadn’t built enough slices yet, but either way, we won’t see these pop up in Android Pie until later this year.

And that’s Android 9 Pie. It’s a nice update for sure, and while Google loves to talk about all of the machine learning and intelligence it’s baking into Android, at the end of the day, it’s the small quality of life changes that actually make the biggest difference.

Everything old is new again as demand response comes to real estate with Blueprint Power

Real estate developers and their properties are getting an opportunity to cash in on power management and surplus energy production thanks to a new company called Blueprint Power. It’s a new twist on an old idea dating back to the first clean tech boom based on ideas of demand response and power management. Companies like […]

Real estate developers and their properties are getting an opportunity to cash in on power management and surplus energy production thanks to a new company called Blueprint Power.

It’s a new twist on an old idea dating back to the first clean tech boom based on ideas of demand response and power management.

Companies like EnerNOC and Comverge, pitched ways for manufacturers to make money by reducing power consumption during times of peak demand and getting paid for it by energy companies. In the wake of the massive blackout that hit the U.S. in the early 2000s and decades of concerns around failing energy infrastructure in the U.S., the notion of having some way to respond more flexibly to changes in demand from the grid seemed to make sense.

Now, as more residential and commercial buildings install actually renewable generation capacity and have more robust digital networks, these buildings can themselves become power generators or local points for gird power management — all in an effort to make the grid more responsive, according to a statement from Blueprint.

The company’s pitch was able to compel investors including Congruent Ventures, MetaProp Partners, Fred Wilson and Brad Burnham to throw $3.5 million to the company.

The company’s founding investors, Lennar and Fifth Wall Ventures also returned with new investors including Hanwha Energy subsidiary, 174 Power ; Urban.us, and URBAN-X (an accelerator backed by BMW and the Mini Cooper.

According to a statement from the company, the business uses by monitoring onsite demand and measuring the output from onsite renewable power assets like solar panels, any energy storage devices, waste heat product, fuel cells and load balancing or controllable load features.

Additional software to monitor pricing allows the company to dynamically pitch energy sources to the various markets that would need it.

“Until very recently, buildings were not able to proactively sell excess energy capacity in the same way that traditional power plants do,” said Robyn Beavers, the chief executive of Blueprint Power, and a former vice president of innovation at Lennar and an assistant to the founders of Google Inc. — the search engine giant that is now a subsidiary of Alphabet .  “Now in states like New York they can. We are helping buildings connect to and transact in these markets in a scalable way.”

BMW’s Alexa integration gets it right

BMW will in a few days start rolling out to many of its drivers support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The fact that BWM is doing this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about its plans to bring Alexa — and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and the Google […]

BMW will in a few days start rolling out to many of its drivers support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The fact that BWM is doing this doesn’t come as a surprise, given that it has long talked about its plans to bring Alexa — and potentially other personal assistants like Cortana and the Google Assistant — to its cars. Ahead of its official launch in Germany, Austria, the U.S. and U.K. (with other countries following at a later date), I went to Munich to take a look at what using Alexa in a BMW is all about.

As Dieter May, BMW’s senior VP for digital products told me earlier this year, the company has long held that in-car digital assistants have to be more than just an “Echo Dot in a cup holder,” meaning that they have to be deeply integrated into the experience and the rest of the technology in the car. And that’s exactly what BMW has done here — and it has done it really well.

What maybe surprised me the most was that we’re not just talking about the voice interface here. BMW is working directly with the Alexa team at Amazon to also integrate visual responses from Alexa. Using the tablet-like display you find above the center console of most new BMWs, the service doesn’t just read out the answer but also shows additional facts or graphs when warranted. That means Alexa in a BMW is a lot more like using an Echo Show than a Dot (though you’re obviously not going to be able to watch any videos on it).

In the demo I saw, in a 2015 BMW X5 that was specifically rigged to run Alexa ahead of the launch, the display would activate when you ask for weather information, for example, or for queries that returned information from a Wikipedia post.

What’s cool here is that the BMW team styled these responses using the same design language that also governs the company’s other in-car products. So if you see the weather forecast from Alexa, that’ll look exactly like the weather forecast from BMW’s own Connected Drive system. The only difference is the “Alexa” name at the top-left of the screen.

All of this sounds easy, but I’m sure it took a good bit of negotiation with Amazon to build a system like this, especially because there’s an important second part to this integration that’s quite unique. The queries, which you start by pushing the usual “talk” button in the car (in newer models, the Alexa wake word feature will also work), are first sent to BMW’s servers before they go to Amazon. BMW wants to keep control over the data and ensure its users’ privacy, so it added this proxy in the middle. That means there’s a bit of an extra lag in getting responses from Amazon, but the team is working hard on reducing this, and for many of the queries we tried during my demo, it was already negligible.

As the team told me, the first thing it had to build was a way to switch that can route your queries to the right service. The car, after all, already has a built-in speech recognition service that lets you set directions in the navigation system, for example. Now, it has to recognize that the speaker said “Alexa” at the beginning of the query, then route it to the Alexa service. The team also stressed that we’re talking about a very deep integration here. “We’re not just streaming everything through your smartphone or using some plug-and-play solution,” a BMW spokesperson noted.

“You get what you’d expect from BMW, a deep integration, and to do that, we use the technology we already have in the car, especially the built-in SIM card.”

One of the advantages of Alexa’s open ecosystem is its skills. Not every skill makes sense in the context of the car, and some could be outright distracting, so the team is curating a list of skills that you’ll be able to use in the car.

It’s no secret that BMW is also working with Microsoft (and many of its cloud services run on Azure). BMW argues that Alexa and Cortana have different strengths, though, with Cortana being about productivity and a connection to Office 365, for example. It’s easy to imagine a future where you could call up both Alexa and Cortana from your car — and that’s surely why BMW built its own system for routing voice commands and why it wants to have control over this process.

BMW tells me that it’ll look at how users will use the new service and tune it accordingly. Because a lot of the functionality runs in the cloud, updates are obviously easy and the team can rapidly release new features — just like any other software company.

Google Assistant’s news feeds are getting smarter

News is far and away the feature I use the most with Google Assistant. Every morning, I ask the Assistant “what’s in the news,” and it dutifully cycles through some pre-recorded news briefs from NPR, CNN and the like. It does the job, but it’s not much for specificity. Google, however, is introducing tools to […]

News is far and away the feature I use the most with Google Assistant. Every morning, I ask the Assistant “what’s in the news,” and it dutifully cycles through some pre-recorded news briefs from NPR, CNN and the like. It does the job, but it’s not much for specificity.

Google, however, is introducing tools to help developers target specific content based on queries. Per the example given in a new blog post, publishers can highlight a snippet of a story that will be read aloud when a user makes a request along the lines of “Hey Google, what’s the latest news on NASA?”Assistant will then read that portion aloud. The link to the full article is sent to the user’s mobile device and once done, Assistant will ask if they want another.

It’s interesting to watch companies like Google and Amazon play around with these news reads. It seems no one has quite figured out the ideal length for an audible news digests, but it appears to fall somewhere between a headline and full story. Or maybe it’s something more akin to bullet points, which the option to read on if the user wants more information.

Organizations like NPR and CNN do appear to have something of a head start, since a smart speaker briefing isn’t entirely dissimilar from get your information from cable news or public radio. Short, distilled snippets certainly seem like the way to go. As more people use the service and the AIs become more advanced, it will be easier to tailor that information to specific users.

At the very least, this should provide a way to further customize those feeds — not to mention giving Google even more insight into what its users are searching for. The feature will only be available for U.S. English speakers at launch.