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Naomi Klein: How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic | News

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For a few fleeting moments during the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday 6 May, the sombre grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.

“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it … We realise that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a panel to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life.

“The first priorities of what we’re trying to do,” Schmidt said, “are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband … We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.” Lest there be any doubt that the former Google chair’s goals were purely benevolent, his video background featured a framed pair of golden angel wings.

Just one day earlier, Cuomo had announced a similar partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop “a smarter education system”. Calling Gates a “visionary”, Cuomo said the pandemic has created “a moment in history when we can actually incorporate and advance [Gates’s] ideas … all these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why, with all the technology you have?” he asked, apparently rhetorically.

It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the Screen New Deal. Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.

Anuja Sonalker, the CEO of Steer Tech, a Maryland-based company selling self-parking technology, recently summed up the new virus-personalised pitch. “There has been a distinct warming up to humanless, contactless technology,” she said. “Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”

It’s a future in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces, but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails. Of course, for many of us, those same homes were already turning into our never-off workplaces and our primary entertainment venues before the pandemic, and surveillance incarceration “in the community” was already booming. But in the future that is hastily being constructed, all of these trends are poised for a warp-speed acceleration.

This is a future in which, for the privileged, almost everything is home delivered, either virtually via streaming and cloud technology, or physically via driverless vehicle or drone, then screen “shared” on a mediated platform. It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards (under guise of virus control), and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence”, but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centres, content-moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation. It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.

Eric Schmidt, via video call, joins the media briefing given by the New York governor Andrew Cuomo on 6 May 2020.



Eric Schmidt, via video call, joins the media briefing given by the New York governor Andrew Cuomo on 6 May 2020. Photograph: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because, pre-Covid, this precise app-driven, gig-fuelled future was being sold to us in the name of friction-free convenience and personalisation. But many of us had concerns. About the security, quality and inequity of telehealth and online classrooms. About driverless cars mowing down pedestrians and drones smashing packages (and people). About location tracking and cash-free commerce obliterating our privacy and entrenching racial and gender discrimination. About unscrupulous social media platforms poisoning our information ecology and our kids’ mental health. About “smart cities” filled with sensors supplanting local government. About the good jobs these technologies wiped out. About the bad jobs they mass produced.

And most of all, we had concerns about the democracy-threatening wealth and power accumulated by a handful of tech companies that are masters of abdication – eschewing all responsibility for the wreckage left behind in the fields they now dominate, whether media, retail or transportation.

That was the ancient past, also known as February. Today, a great many of those well-founded concerns are being swept away by a tidal wave of panic, and this warmed-over dystopia is going through a rush-job rebranding. Now, against a harrowing backdrop of mass death, it is being sold to us on the dubious promise that these technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Thanks to Cuomo and his various billionaire partnerships (including one with Michael Bloomberg for testing and tracing), New York state is being positioned as the gleaming showroom for this grim future – but the ambitions reach far beyond the borders of any one state or country.

And at the dead centre of it all is Eric Schmidt.


Well before Americans understood the threat of Covid-19, Schmidt had been on an aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, pushing precisely the Black Mirror vision of society that Cuomo has just empowered him to build. At the heart of this vision is seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants – with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military all outsourcing (at a high cost) many of their core functions to private tech companies.

It’s a vision Schmidt has been advancing in his roles as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which advises the US Department of Defense on increased use of artificial intelligence in the military, and as chair of the powerful National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, which advises Congress on “advances in artificial intelligence, related machine learning developments and associated technologies”, with the goal of addressing “the national and economic security needs of the United States, including economic risk”. Both boards are crowded with powerful Silicon Valley CEOs and top executives from companies including Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and of course, Schmidt’s former colleagues at Google.

As chair, Schmidt – who still holds more than $5.3bn in shares of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), as well as large investments in other tech firms – has essentially been running a Washington-based shakedown on behalf of Silicon Valley. The main purpose of the two boards is to call for exponential increases in government spending on research into artificial intelligence and on tech-enabling infrastructure such as 5G – investments that would directly benefit the companies in which Schmidt and other members of these boards have extensive holdings.

First in closed-door presentations to lawmakers, and later in public-facing opinion articles and interviews, the thrust of Schmidt’s argument has been that since the Chinese government is willing to spend limitless public money building the infrastructure of high-tech surveillance, while allowing Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei to pocket the profits from commercial applications, the US’s dominant position in the global economy is on the precipice of collapsing.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) recently got access, through a freedom of information (FOI) request, to a presentation made by Schmidt’s NSCAI in May 2019. Its slides make a series of alarmist claims about how China’s relatively lax regulatory infrastructure and its bottomless appetite for surveillance are causing it to pull ahead of the US in a number of fields, including “AI for medical diagnosis”, autonomous vehicles, digital infrastructure, “smart cities”, ride-sharing and cashless commerce.

The reasons given for China’s competitive edge are myriad, ranging from the sheer volume of consumers who shop online; “the lack of legacy banking systems in China”, which has allowed it to leapfrog over cash and credit cards and unleash “a huge e-commerce and digital services market” using digital payments; and a severe doctor shortage, which has led the government to work closely with tech companies such as Tencent to use AI for “predictive” medicine. The slides note that in China, tech companies “have the authority to quickly clear regulatory barriers, while American initiatives are mired in HIPPA compliance and FDA approval”.

A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance.



A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance. Photograph: NSCAI

More than any other factor, however, the NSCAI points to China’s willingness to embrace public-private partnerships in mass surveillance and data collection as a reason for its competitive edge. The presentation touts China’s “Explicit government support and involvement eg facial recognition deployment”. It argues that “surveillance is one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for Al” and further, that “mass surveillance is a killer application for deep learning”.

A slide titled “State Datasets: Surveillance = Smart Cities” notes that China, along with Google’s main Chinese competitor, Alibaba, are racing ahead.

A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance.



A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance. Photograph: NSCAI

This is notable because Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been pushing this precise vision through its Sidewalk Labs division, choosing a large portion of Toronto’s waterfront as its “smart city” prototype. But the Toronto project was just shut down after two years of ceaseless controversy relating to the enormous amounts of personal data that Alphabet would collect, a lack of privacy protections, and questionable benefits for the city as a whole.

Five months after this presentation, in November, NSCAI issued an interim report to Congress further raising the alarm about the need for the US to match China’s adaptation of these controversial technologies. “We are in a strategic competition,” states the report, obtained via FOI by Epic. “AI will be at the centre. The future of our national security and economy are at stake.”

Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet affiliate, planned to build a neighbourhood ‘from the internet up’ on Toronto’s lakefront. But the project has been shut down after two years of controversy



Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet affiliate, planned to build a neighbourhood ‘from the internet up’ on Toronto’s lakefront. But the project has been shut down after two years of controversy Photograph: AFP via Getty

By late February, Schmidt was taking his campaign to the public, perhaps understanding that the budget increases his board was calling for could not be approved without a great deal more buy-in. In a New York Times article headlined “I used to Run Google. Silicon Valley Could Lose to China”, Schmidt called for “unprecedented partnerships between government and industry” and, once again sounding the yellow peril alarm, wrote:

“AI will open new frontiers in everything from biotechnology to banking, and it is also a defense department priority … If current trends continue, China’s overall investments in research and development are expected to surpass those of the United States within 10 years, around the same time its economy is projected to become larger than ours.

Unless these trends change, in the 2030s we will be competing with a country that has a bigger economy, more research and development investments, better research, wider deployment of new technologies and stronger computing infrastructure … Ultimately, the Chinese are competing to become the world’s leading innovators, and the United States is not playing to win.”

The only solution, for Schmidt, was a gush of public money. Praising the White House for requesting a doubling of research funding in AI and quantum information science, he wrote: “We should plan to double funding in those fields again as we build institutional capacity in labs and research centres … At the same time, Congress should meet the president’s request for the highest level of defence R & D funding in over 70 years, and the defense department should capitalise on that resource surge to build breakthrough capabilities in AI, quantum, hypersonics and other priority technology areas.”

That was exactly two weeks before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, and there was no mention that a goal of this vast, hi-tech expansion was to protect American health. Only that it was necessary to avoid being outcompeted by China. But, of course, that would soon change.

In the two months since, Schmidt has put these pre-existing demands – for massive public expenditures on high-tech research and infrastructure, for a slew of “public-private partnerships” in AI, and for the loosening of myriad privacy and safety protections – through an aggressive rebranding exercise. Now all of these measures (and more) are being sold to the public as our only possible hope of protecting ourselves from a novel virus that will be with us for years to come.

And the tech companies to which Schmidt has deep ties, and which populate the influential advisory boards he chairs, have all repositioned themselves as benevolent protectors of public health and munificent champions of “everyday hero” essential workers (many of whom, like delivery drivers, would lose their jobs if these companies get their way). Less than two weeks into New York state’s lockdown, Schmidt wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that both set the new tone and made clear that Silicon Valley had every intention of leveraging the crisis for a permanent transformation.

“Like other Americans, technologists are trying to do their part to support the front-line pandemic response …

But every American should be asking where we want the nation to be when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. How could the emerging technologies being deployed in the current crisis propel us into a better future? … Companies like Amazon know how to supply and distribute efficiently. They will need to provide services and advice to government officials who lack the computing systems and expertise.

We should also accelerate the trend toward remote learning, which is being tested today as never before. Online, there is no requirement of proximity, which allows students to get instruction from the best teachers, no matter what school district they reside in …

The need for fast, large-scale experimentation will also accelerate the biotech revolution … Finally, the country is long overdue for a real digital infrastructure … If we are to build a future economy and education system based on tele-everything, we need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure. The government must make a massive investment – perhaps as part of a stimulus package – to convert the nation’s digital infrastructure to cloud-based platforms and link them with a 5G network.”

Indeed, Schmidt has been relentless in pursuing this vision. Two weeks after that article appeared, he described the ad-hoc home schooling programming that teachers and families across the country had been forced to cobble together during this public health emergency as “a massive experiment in remote learning”.

The goal of this experiment, he said, was “trying to find out: how do kids learn remotely? And with that data we should be able to build better remote and distance learning tools which, when combined with the teacher … will help kids learn better.” During this same video call, hosted by the Economic Club of New York, Schmidt also called for more telehealth, more 5G, more digital commerce and the rest of the preexisting wish list. All in the name of fighting the virus.

His most telling comment, however, was this: “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” He added that people should “be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now, and have really helped us out”.


Schmidt’s words are a reminder that until very recently, public pushback against these companies was surging. Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.

In short, democracy – inconvenient public engagement in the designing of critical institutions and public spaces – was turning out to be the single greatest obstacle to the vision Schmidt was advancing, first from his perch at the top of Google and Alphabet, and then as chair of two powerful boards advising US Congress and the Department of Defense. As the NSCAI documents reveal, this inconvenient exercise of power by members of the public and by tech workers inside these mega-firms has, from the perspective of men such as Schmidt and the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, maddeningly slowed down the AI arms race, keeping fleets of potentially deadly driverless cars and trucks off the roads, protecting private health records from becoming a weapon used by employers against workers, preventing urban spaces from being blanketing with facial recognition software, and much more.

Now, in the midst of the carnage of this ongoing pandemic, and the fear and uncertainty about the future it has brought, these companies clearly see their moment to sweep out all that democratic engagement. To have the same kind of power as their Chinese competitors, who have the luxury of functioning without being hampered by intrusions of either labour or civil rights.

Schoolchildren walking below surveillance cameras in Akto in China’s Xinjiang region.



Schoolchildren walking below surveillance cameras in Akto in China’s Xinjiang region. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

All of this is moving very fast. The Australian government has contracted with Amazon to store the data for its controversial coronavirus tracking app. The Canadian government has contracted with Amazon to deliver medical equipment, raising questions about why it bypassed the public postal service. And in just a few short days in early May, Alphabet has spun up a new Sidewalk Labs initiative to remake urban infrastructure with $400m in seed capital. Josh Marcuse, the executive director of the Defense Innovation Board chaired by Schmidt, announced that he was leaving that job to work full-time at Google as head of strategy and innovation for global public sector, meaning that he will be helping Google to cash in on some of the many opportunities he and Schmidt have been busily creating with their lobbying.


To be clear, technology is most certainly a key part of how we must protect public health in the coming months and years. The question is: will that technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be rolled out in state-of-exception frenzy, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come? Questions such as these, for instance: if we are indeed seeing how critical digital connectivity is in times of crisis, should these networks, and our data, really be in the hands of private players such as Google, Amazon and Apple? If public funds are paying for so much of it, should the public also own and control it? If the internet is essential for so much in our lives, as it clearly is, should it be treated as a nonprofit public utility?

And while there is no doubt that the ability to teleconference has been a lifeline in this period of lockdown, there are serious debates to be had about whether our more lasting protections are distinctly more human. Take education. Schmidt is right that overcrowded classrooms present a health risk, at least until we have a vaccine. So how about hiring double the number of teachers and cutting class size in half? How about making sure that every school has a nurse?

That would create much-needed jobs in a depression-level unemployment crisis, and give everyone in the learning environment more elbow room. If buildings are too crowded, how about dividing the day into shifts, and having more outdoor education, drawing on the plentiful research that shows that time in nature enhances children’s capacity to learn?

Introducing those kinds of changes would be hard, to be sure. But they are not nearly as risky as giving up on the tried-and-true technology of trained humans teaching younger humans face-to-face, in groups where they learn to socialise with one another to boot.

Upon learning of New York state’s new partnership with the Gates Foundation, Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers union, was quick to react: “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counsellors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” he said. A coalition of parents’ groups also pointed out that if they had indeed been living an “experiment in remote learning” (as Schmidt put it), then the results were deeply worrying: “Since the schools were shut down in mid-March, our understanding of the profound deficiencies of screen-based instruction has only grown.”


In addition to the obvious class and race biases against children who lack internet access and home computers (problems that tech companies are eager to be paid to solve with massive tech buys), there are big questions about whether remote teaching can serve many kids with disabilities, as required by law. And there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.

The issue is not whether schools must change in the face of a highly contagious virus for which we have neither cure nor inoculation. Like every institution where humans gather in groups, they will change. The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what those changes should look like, and who they should benefit – private tech companies or students?

The same questions need to be asked about health. Avoiding doctor’s offices and hospitals during a pandemic makes good sense. But telehealth misses a huge amount. So we need to have an evidence-based debate about the pros and cons of spending scarce public resources on telehealth – rather than on more trained nurses, equipped with all the necessary protective equipment, who are able to make house calls to diagnose and treat patients in their homes. And, perhaps most urgently, we need to get the balance right between virus tracking apps, which, with the proper privacy protections, have a role to play, and the calls for a “community health corps” that would put millions of Americans to work, not only doing contact-tracing, but making sure that everyone has the material resources and support they need to quarantine safely.

A teacher in Maryland, US, handing out computers to students for remote learning.



A teacher in Maryland, US, handing out computers to students for remote learning. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In each case, we face real and hard choices between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as it stands, we are very unlikely to do both. The refusal to transfer anything like the needed resources to states and cities in successive federal bailouts means that the coronavirus health crisis is now slamming headlong into a manufactured austerity crisis. Public schools, universities, hospitals and transit are facing existential questions about their futures. If tech companies win their ferocious lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G and driverless vehicles – their Screen New Deal – there simply won’t be any money left over for urgent public priorities, never mind the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs. On the contrary: the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures.

Tech provides us with powerful tools, but not every solution is technological. And the trouble with outsourcing key decisions about how to “reimagine” our states and cities to men such as Bill Gates and Schmidt is that they have spent their lives demonstrating the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix.

For them, and many others in Silicon Valley, the pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that they feel has been unjustly denied. And Andrew Cuomo, by putting the former Google chair in charge of the body that will shape the state’s reopening, appears to have just given him something close to free rein.

Republished with permission from The Intercept. Sign up for The Intercept’s Newsletter here.

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Stop app | Technology News,The Indian Express

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Written by Pranav Mukul
, Karishma Mehrotra
, Aashish Aryan
, Sandeep Singh
|

Updated: July 5, 2020 7:12:27 am


TikTok ban, Chinese app, TikTokers complain, Mumbai news, Indian express news Last year, TikTok surpassed Facebook to reach 611 million downloads in India, according to Sensor Tower, a market analysis firm. (Representational)

Until recently, the most fascinating story about Valsad was its Freddie Mercury connection — the British rock musician traced his lineage to this South Gujarat town that’s now a chemical industry hub. But when the town shut down in response to the Covid pandemic, Sanjay Rathod, a 29-year old who washed cars for a living, found himself out of work. He filled his long, vacant hours practising his dances moves and recording them on his smartphone, one with a broken screen and an inexpensive data pack. Soon, his videos were up on TikTok — and a new star was born. In a little over three months, Rathod, who went by the screen name ‘Armaan’, had earned 7 million followers on the video sharing app.

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Last week, amidst a tense border standoff with China, the Centre banned the app along with 58 others for posing “emergent threats” to the country’s national security. While TikTok’s reach — with over 120 million active users in India — made it the most visible symbol of the government’s action against China, the other apps too had a deep presence in India. According to technology market research firm Counterpoint, almost one out of every three smartphone users in India had one or more of these apps on their devices.

Tailored for the first-time Indian Internet user, these apps are among hundreds that make up China’s digital presence in India, and which have been gradually edging out American competitors from the country’s top downloads since 2018.

In 2018, 44 of the 100 most downloaded Internet applications in India were made by Chinese companies, a huge jump from 18 such apps in 2017, according to a report in the Observer Research Foundation.

Last year, TikTok surpassed Facebook to reach 611 million downloads in India, according to Sensor Tower, a market analysis firm.

Tech as strategic goal

But this is more than just an app story. From hardware to software, Chinese companies have dominated the digital technologies space in India over the last few years, with more than a little push from the Chinese establishment.

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The Communist Party of China (CPC) has consistently viewed technology as the next frontier through which to establish its supremacy in the global market, with its ‘Digital Silk Road’ policy — announced in a white paper in 2015 — an attempt at expanding its digital footprints to 65 countries.

In 2016, the country’s National Cyber Security Strategy adopted the phrase “strong Internet power” as a strategic objective.

Numerous other strategies, such as the Internet Plus strategy of 2015 and the National Informatization Development Strategy of 2006-2020, explicitly call for the country’s largest companies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to push out products to international markets.

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In India, the ground for this aggressive push from Chinese companies was laid in July 2014, when Xiaomi, often called the ‘Apple of China’, made its entry, followed by a flurry of Chinese brands such as Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus, Realme etc. The influx of these Chinese companies peaked in 2016 when Reliance Jio launched its cheap data offerings, starting with its free Internet package that disrupted the telecom sector.

Latest data by the International Data Corporation shows that among the top five smartphone sellers in the country, four are Chinese with Xiaomi topping the charts with a market share of 31.2%, followed by Vivo at 21% (see box).

This rapid increase in imports of electronic goods worried the Central government, which in April 2017 notified a phased manufacturing plan to ramp up domestic production of smartphones.

“The import of electronic goods was of the order of $53 billion (approximately Rs 3,44,500 crore) in 2017-18. With the demand for electronics hardware expected to rise rapidly to about $400 billion (approximately Rs 26,00,000 crore) by 2025, India cannot afford to bear a huge foreign exchange outgo on import of electronics alone,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology detailed in its National Electronics Policy of 2017.

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The efforts to make India a manufacturing hub for electronics resulted in dozens of Chinese companies and their contract manufacturers setting up base in Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.

Chinese equipment vendors such as Huawei and ZTE also have a significant presence in the telecom equipment space in India. India telecom companies have depended on technologies by these Chinese equipment makers to take on European giants such as Ericsson and Nokia, a partnership that has helped bring down costs.

Thus, while the smartphones were being assembled in the country, most of the high-value components such as printed circuit boards, memory devices, storage units, processors, were — and continue to be — imported, much of it from China.

This has been mainly because of the scale of Chinese manufacturing that has enabled companies to offer cheap, low-cost products. Most of the Chinese products would technologically follow premium brands such as Apple and Samsung, often resulting in a $100-device with functionalities and design of a $1000+ one.

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Even Indian brands such as Micromax had initially resorted to importing semi-knocked-down mobile phone units from China to assemble them locally and sell at a competitively lower price. The Gurugram-headquartered company, which is now struggling to maintain its ground, once led the Indian mobile phone market, beating global behemoths such as Samsung and Nokia. But this was before the entry of Chinese players, who together accounted for 114 million of the 158 million smartphones shipped to India in 2019.

Source: IDC Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, May 2020 *All except Samsung are Chinese brands

In addition to flooding the digital market with affordable products, the Chinese also pushed the purchase of these products through micro-financing. For example, smartphone brand Oppo has jumped onto the financial services bandwagon in India, launching Oppo Kash. Realme and Xiaomi are the other smartphone makers that offer credit, investment and other financial products through their apps PaySa and Mi Credit respectively. These players are also engaged in providing services such as smartphone screen insurance, personal loan, business loan, free credit report and even mutual fund investments.

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India’s financial technology sector hasn’t remained untouched either. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is the largest investor in payment app Paytm. Zestmoney, which has raised Rs 236 crore till date in the form of equity, counts Xiaomi among its investors.

The software presence

Once they had flooded the hardware market, Chinese companies launched a blitzkrieg on the software side as well. The three Chinese giants, search engine Baidu, online marketplace Alibaba and WeChat developer Tencent — also known as the BAT trinity — have invested in a bunch of startups in India, including unicorns (startups worth at least $1 billion) such as Swiggy, Zomato, Ola, Snapdeal, BigBasket and Byju’s among several others.

Of the 30 unicorns in the country, more than half have major investments from Chinese firms. Twelve of these count marquee investors Alibaba and Tencent among their backers.

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Simultaneously, hundreds of utilities app were launched on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play, and a concerted push from the Chinese companies led to some of these becoming the most popular ones in their respective categories. These included CamScanner, which was used even by senior officials in the Indian government to scan and share documents on their mobile phones. The app was among the 59 banned last week.

Dev Lewis is among those who have witnessed the early days of this Chinese “gold rush” for the Indian digital space. Keenly aware of their own saturated user bases, Chinese companies big and small were eager to harness India’s data revolution.

In 2016, with a fresh diploma in Chinese language and literature under his belt, Lewis had his first job interview in Beijing at a little-known company called NewsDog. NewsDog was one of the forerunners in Chinese apps built exclusively for India.

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Now a fellow with Digital Asia Hub, a Yenching scholar at Peking University and researcher of India-China technology relations, Lewis says, “I remember the founder said something on the lines of, ‘I know nothing about India, but I know it’s the only other market like China. I missed the bus in China; I want to go for India’. It was a new gold rush.”

Characterised as ultra-experimentative and iterative, Chinese companies apply the Shenzhen manufacturing model — quick-to-market and quick-to-fix — for its products. ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has been called an “app factory”, with at least 21 products since its founding in 2012.

Another Indian, who requested anonymity, recalls her time in 2017 working at ByteDance in Beijing, where she was tasked with looking at international products for the company (the company had no products in India then). In November that year, ByteDance bought another Chinese-company, Musical.ly, which had a growing Indian base. In August 2018, it merged the company with TikTok.

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“These companies consider themselves global, not Chinese. They believe that whatever success they have in China can be replicated in a lot of other markets,” says the product strategist.

Chinese developers working on apps such as TikTok or NewsDog were quick to comprehend India’s highly-stratified market with divisions of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. “The themes of migration from smaller cities to bigger cities, from lower middle class to upper middle class — those are stories the Chinese can relate to.” Something worked and TikTok became a household name in India.

Given the app’s reach in India, global brands such as PepsiCo and Reckitt Benckiser, which makes Dettol, jumped on to the bandwagon, their video campaigns garnering views in billions on TikTok.

An expanding footprint

The increasing popularity of these apps also prompted the companies running them to invest heavily in their India operations. To begin with, to meet India’s data localisation norms, major companies with China links, including Tencent, Alibaba Group and ByteDance announced the setting up of data centres within India.

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Last year, ByteDance, which is based in Cayman Islands, announced an investment of $1 billion in India over a period of three years.

Through all this, there were concerns, much of those surrounding China’s far-reaching Internet laws, which experts interpret to mean that these apps and companies could be forced to give data to their government. They say that both the 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counter-Espionage law can be leveraged by the Chinese government to seek data from companies that run out of India and other countries.

Despite these concerns, experts say China’s disproportionate presence in India’s app economy has allowed the Indian government a bargaining chip, albeit a low-hanging one, in these times of tension.

“This (ban) is just a stopgap measure… to convey that the Chinese should stop what they are doing, otherwise India has levers in other respects,” says Arun Mohan Sukumar, who is pursuing a PhD at Tufts University on international rule-making in cyberspace. “Whether they have the Digital Road or the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), China just can’t ignore India. Half the population is still waiting to be connected to the Internet. No matter what our growth prospects, the digital economy will mature.”

Read | Ladakh through a bifocal lens: a short zoom-in, zoom-out history

The bargaining chip may be pure signalling. To be sure, the Chinese-owned MiPay, MiCredit, and RealMe Paysa handle much more sensitive financial data, and have not been touched by this ban. Yet, the ban serves to highlight the growing diplomatic dimension of these digital routes into India.

“Data privacy has become the new national security. It’s natural that India would view Huawei differently from an Ericsson or a Nokia. Technology is not neutral. When you strip everything down, it’s a question of who do you trust more — the Chinese, the Americans, the Europeans,” said Lewis, the researcher of India-China technology relations.

While the Indian government has chosen to crack down on Chinese apps for now, the technology space offers plenty of fodder for diplomatic negotiations.

On the heels of the 2017 Doklam incident, the Defence Ministry asked armed forces personnel to uninstall 42 Chinese apps. More recently, Chinese tech company Huawei has been entangled in geopolitical concerns, as other members of the ‘Quad’ grouping (Japan, Australia, and US) have decided to ban the company from 5G infrastructure. India is yet to follow suit.

Speaking at the 2015 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted in China Daily as saying, “Cyberspace should not become a battlefield for countries competing against one another.”

But now, it seems, a new front has opened. A virtual one.

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Pandemic offers solution to tech industry’s big Brexit problem

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The pandemic taught Britain’s technology executives that business can still happen even if everyone’s working from home. That lesson is providing a source of relief as the nation’s year-end departure from the European Union looms.

A range of senior members of the industry say that having to fabricate remote workforces almost overnight in response to the coronavirus has transformed how they’ll approach recruitment after Brexit. A rough consensus on this is emerging: executives will be kept local to headquarters, but most other roles will not.

This approach may lessen the need for work visas, something that could be a huge benefit to an industry where almost a fifth of its workers are born outside of Britain. Though remote working has limits, the prospect of being able to attract and keep a scattered workforce suggests the tech industry, and perhaps other service businesses such as recruiting, are in a stronger position to survive Brexit than they may have expected before the spread of Covid-19.

Previously, video-game developer Codemasters Group Holdings Plc “didn’t like to have people working from far away,” said Frank Sagnier, chief executive officer. Now, remote working isn’t an issue in staffing considerations, and the company has a lot more flexibility to recruit the talent it needs.

“If it’s difficult through visas and Brexit laws that are going to come out, we certainly now know we can do it without having to transfer anyone,” he said. “That makes a big difference for us. It’s a big relief.”

The Leave campaign’s promise to end free movement from the EU alarmed business executives who have relied on unfettered access to staff on the continent for decades. Negotiators have yet to agree on the terms of a new trading relationship with the EU.

Already from January, a points-based immigration system will take effect in Britain. Workers wanting a visa must prove they can speak English, have a verified job offer and meet a points threshold based on their specific skills, qualifications and prospective salaries.

Pandemic Revelation

For Paul Sulyok, CEO of digital software retailer Green Man Gaming, his company’s pandemic experience was a revelation. It had about 100 staff based in London when the pandemic hit, and some asked to go back to their home countries in Europe. They worked “very successfully” from those locations, and the company has remotely hired a number of people from outside the capital, including someone in Belgium.

“It’s opened my eyes and those of senior management,” Sulyok said. Asked if this will affect his plans for the business once the post-Brexit visa rules are applied, he said, “it’s fundamentally changed how we look at how we can, and how we want, to grow the company.”

It’s not just digital businesses that found a Brexit benefit from the lockdown. Venture capital firm Northzone, which made lucrative early bets on companies such as Spotify Technology SA, iZettle AB and Trustpilot AS, recently began recruiting for a new intern.

“For the first time in our history we listed it as a remote job,” said Paul Murphy, a partner at the London-based firm. “This means we don’t have to worry about visas,” he said.

And Romanie Thomas, CEO of recruitment platform Juggle Jobs, said her startup had a physical office prior to the pandemic but has since moved to a fully remote environment: “For our software engineers in particular, we’re now sourcing all over the globe.”

In-person conversations

Nearly one in five — 18% — of the 3 million jobs the U.K. tech sector supported as recently as 2017 were held by foreigners, according to data compiled by Frontier Economics for TechUK, an industry body. Many of those work for the British arms of U.S. internet giants, and could benefit if their leaders relax their stance on home working.

Facebook Inc., which employs about 4,000 people in the U.K., could have half of its employees working remotely over the next five to 10 years, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in May. There were “very clear benefits” to this, including being able to “access talent pools outside of traditional tech hubs in big cities.”

But this comes with its own complications.

“For key roles, you probably still need to find ways to make that personal connection,” Johann Button, VP of Slack Inc.’s business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said last month at Bloomberg’s Sooner Than You Think conference.

Since the pandemic started, Slack adapted by interviewing more people for key roles than it would have done before, which resulted in the company appointing at least one person “who we’d never met in person.”

Afterward, the new employee and their manager “went for a walk for an hour in a local park while maintaining social distancing,” Button said. “Having that in-person conversation, that’s what it took for both sides to really get comfortable.”

Britain’s appeal

Russ Shaw, founder of industry body Tech London Advocates, cautions that other sources of friction posed by a combination of Covid-19 and Brexit will remain a threat to the U.K.’s attractiveness as a whole.

“As countries such as Estonia increasingly set up Digital Nomad Visas, it will be even more difficult to attract foreign tech workers to move to the U.K.,” he said. “They can access the same employment benefits alongside a lower cost of living elsewhere.”

Still, at the most senior levels, a move to Britain may be the best option.

This is evident when examining the types of people applying for a Global Talent Visa in digital technology through Tech Nation, an industry body used by the Home Office to endorse applications. These allow entrepreneurs to live in the U.K. and work in its technology industry initially five years, with extensions and later permanent residencies possible.

Tech Nation’s CEO, Gerard Grech, said about a third of applications are made by startup founders attracted to the U.K. in part for the speed at which a business can be set up in the country. Application numbers fell during the start of the pandemic, but are already returning to pre-crisis levels, indicating that Covid hasn’t deterred people from wanting to come to Britain to start companies.

“In some of the countries that they come from, they can’t even open a bank account,” he said.

Written by Nate Lanxon.



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Interview: Snap’s hardware head on Spectacles 3, future of augmented reality

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Written by Anuj Bhatia
| New Delhi |

Updated: July 4, 2020 7:43:31 pm


snapchat, spectacles 3, snap spectacles, spectacles smart glasses, snap hardware head Steen Strand, AR smart glasses, smart glass Snap’s Spectacles 3 pack an all-new design, dual HD cameras and 3D AR features. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

Steen Strand, who leads Snap’s secretive hardware unit, SnapLab, has one of the most challenging, yet exciting, jobs in the tech world. After all, he along with his team, has been tasked with creating new experiences designed around smart eyewear, a new genre of products with augmented reality at their center.

Strand, who joined Snap Inc in 2018 as the director of product design within the company’s hardware division and later took the role as head of hardware development, is responsible for giving a new direction to Spectacles, a pair of smart glasses designed to let you record pictures and videos from a first-person point of view.

The Spectacles 3, the latest smart glasses from the company behind the popular Snapchat social media platform, can shoot 3D video and photos through two cameras and let users add 3D augmented reality (AR) effects to your captured shots. They cost Rs 29,999 ($397) in India, and are targeted at elite creators and celebrities, rather than regular people.

For Strand, Spectacles 3 are positioned as both a fashion accessory as well as smart glasses. “We see them as both because we think that both of those components are so important for these products to eventually be successful,” he told indianexpress.com over a video call from Los Angeles where Snap is headquartered. “We really strive to strike that balance where we are delivering interesting functions, but we are also wrapping it up and in the emotional context and the content in the personal context that makes sense for the end-user.”

snapchat, spectacles 3, snap spectacles, spectacles smart glasses, snap hardware head Steen Strand, AR smart glasses, smart glass Steen Strand leads Snap’s secretive hardware unit called SnapLab. (Image credit: Snap Inc)

Unlike the previous two versions made of plastic, Spectacles 3 glasses are made out of metal and they are not only modern but also a bit more premium. The fact that Vogue magazine did a long piece on Spectacles 3 in its September 2019 issue and the launch of a limited-edition Gucci-branded version clearly points to the audience Snap wants to tap now.

Snapchat’s third version of Spectacles was always envisioned to have two HD cameras that capture 3D images and video, letting users apply new augmented-reality effects. “We worked on multiple prototypes, the focus of the product has always been on the depth and all of those prototypes were formulated to have two cameras, and then the question comes, what is the most effective way to capture depth,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot of interesting metrics around that — you can play with the spacing between the cameras, you can play with the types of cameras, there are different ways of capturing depth as well, and then there’s different sensors you use.”

Snapchat Spectacles 3 review: Smart glasses for the snappy generation

While it may appear relatively simple to add two cameras to Spectacles in the first place, the actual process was a lot more complicated. “Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of complexity both in the hardware and software, because there’s a lot of work that has to be done to take those two images, then process them in order to create what we call a depth map. And that’s why we actually take those videos, transfer them into the cloud, do the processing there, and then send them back to your phone.”

“It’s a fairly complex algorithm. I think there’s something like 17 steps that we have to process the video through in order to get to a very refined accurate depth map,” he added.

But designing smart eyewear like the Spectacles 3 can be a lot more complex than other products. “A lot of the challenges with doing technology and eyewear is about how to hack all the stuff you need into a form factor that’s small, light, comfortable, and ultimately something that looks good as well,” said Strand. Clearly, technical challenges make augmented reality smart eyewear very different from smartphones.

snapchat, spectacles 3, snap spectacles, spectacles smart glasses, snap hardware head Steen Strand, AR smart glasses, smart glass Spectacles 3 are made with lightweight stainless steel frame and circular lenses. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

Fitting all the components and circuitry in a very small space can lead to some major challenges in power and thermal management. At the same time, the teams have to address software issues like “how does the product talk to your phone and to the cloud and how do we process depth information and overlay effects.”

“People’s expectation from eyewear is that it’s relatively lightweight, so you are constantly pushing against that.” Strand said learnings from earlier versions have been incorporated in the new version; for instance, the understanding of the advantages of having a camera close to your eyes.

One of the big bets made by Snap in recent years is in augmented reality, an emerging technology that overlays information and virtual objects on real-world scenes in real-time. Although AR is far from being a mainstream technology, it could have a big impact on major industries in the coming years.

AR technology is already heavily baked into the Snapchat app in the form of face filters and lenses. With more than 1,000,000 lenses created by Snapchat creators and Snap’s 239 million daily active users interacting with its AR features “nearly 30 times every day” on average, it is clear that AR has an important role to play in the company’s future direction. But then the question arises: what would Snap achieve by making its own hardware?

snapchat, spectacles 3, snap spectacles, spectacles smart glasses, snap hardware head Steen Strand, AR smart glasses, smart glass You can find a capture button to trigger photo or video shooting on either side of the temple. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

“Snapchat is very good at taking something very complex like AR and implementing it in a way that’s just fun and playful,” Strand explained. “It really sidesteps the whole burden of the technology and we are trying to do that as much as possible with Spectacles.”

Snap hasn’t had immense success with Spectacles smart glasses which were first unveiled in late 2016. In fact, Snap wrote down $40 million in late 2017 on the first model, which was priced at $130. The Spectacles 2 glasses weren’t a commercial success, either. Despite that, Snap has continued to launch new versions of Spectacles every year.

Perhaps the biggest reason why the company keeps investing in new hardware is because of Snap’s CEO Evan Spiegel’s involvement in the project from day one. “The original brief really was to provide those depth effects,” Strand recalled, adding how it soon became a “question from a design point of view…what’s the visual expression that we want to get into?” Stranded qualified: “He [Evan] is always looking for ways to express the technology in a way that goes beyond the tech that really steps into the realm of fashion.”

While Snap clearly sees its future in augmented reality and investments in hardware is a part of the game, there are others who too want to get into the augmented reality eyewear business. Apple and Facebook are rumoured to be working on AR glasses. Microsoft already sells an AR headset called HoloLens, but it’s limited to developers. Google, on the other hand, recently bought Candian start-up North that makes smart glasses. The company’s previous attempt to crack the smart glasses segment with Google Glass was a massive failure. Even Amazon is after the smart glasses market as the e-commerce giant last year announced a pair of Alexa-enabled glasses called Echo Frames.

snapchat, spectacles 3, snap spectacles, spectacles smart glasses, snap hardware head Steen Strand, AR smart glasses, smart glass Spectacles 3. (Image credit: Anuj Bhatia/Indian Express)

So, is the future of Snap also envisioned with Spectacles? “The short answer is yes. But the longer answer is, it’s not clear what the role of smartphones will be to eyewear in the future,” said Strand. “Our expectation is that each will have its own function.”

Strand does see smart glasses eventually replacing smartphones but it’s going to take a while. “We do think that the use of AR eyewear is going to go up dramatically in the future,” he said, adding that it is generally agreed that the advantages of augmented reality eyewear are compelling for a lot of different use cases. “It’s more of a question of when and what does that look like?”

Strand agrees that AR is at its inception stage but he also claimed the glasses are a better medium to experience augmented reality than regular smartphones. He cited the example of Spectacles 3 glasses which can capture high definition, depth information that you cannot achieve on smartphones.

The two cameras on Spectacles 3 lets users apply AR filters onto images and video, meaning the effects appear as if they are in the real world. But you still have to use the Snapchat app and save the clips to your device before you can apply the 3D effects. In the future, these effects that you can experience on the glasses will happen in real-time in front of your eyes.

snapchat, spectacles 3, snap spectacles, spectacles smart glasses, snap hardware head Steen Strand, AR smart glasses, smart glass The success of Spectacles 3 is crucial in bringing augmented reality (AR) to eyewear. (Image credit: Snap Inc)

At Rs 29,999, the AR eyewear is far from being ready for mainstream consumption and Strand is fully aware of it. “We could make things more mainstream if we wanted to defeature them but our approach is that we want to continue to add technology to increase the capabilities and to create this future where you truly can overlay computing on to the world around you.”

“To succeed at that and to do that at a price point that’s very accessible is going to take some time, it’s likely at least 10 years to get that horizon,” he adds.

For now, Snap is happy to serve a small subset of people with Spectacles 3 who are ready to pay that much money for the glasses that have “incremental capabilities.” Not to mention, Snap is also bringing Spectacles 2 to India at Rs 14,999, which the company hopes to be a bigger draw among the Snapchat users.

The battle to gain early supremacy in augmented reality eyewear space is still on, with no clear winner in the market yet. Snap, which has been aggressively pushing AR through the Snapchat app, does see the glasses as part of the company’s long-term plan.

“When we think about augmented reality eyewear, we have a really interesting opportunity to pull all the cool things that Snapchat is doing over to the eyes,” Strand said.

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