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The Technology 202: Start-up leaders and technology investors want to help fight the coronavirus

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Start-up leaders and tech investors are throwing their weight behind responses to the novel coronavirus, from funding potential covid-19 treatments to surfacing much-needed protective gear for health-care workers. 

“This is tech’s social awakening moment,” Roy Bahat, the head of the venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta, told me. “Some people in tech are emerging in tech as genuine heroes and others are trying their best.” 

Sam Altman, the chief executive of Open AI, tells me he’s funding nonprofits and companies developing therapeutics and vaccines to fight the virus. The former president of the prominent start-up program Y Combinator said he’s received hundreds of pitches after posting earlier this month a broad call-out for ideas to respond to the pandemic. 

Flexport, a major logistics start-up, is collecting donations to cover the costs of sourcing and shipping supplies related to the pandemic. The company last week donated 60,000 surgical masks, 34,000 gloves, 2,000 surgical gowns and 50 thermometers to San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Venture capitalists say the companies in which they’ve invested are finding unique ways to repurpose technology they already have on hand. Some 3D-printing companies, for instance, are exploring how their systems can be used to build essential medical gear and supplies. 

“I’m amazed to see people wanting to help even when they have their own internal worries to deal with,” Lux Capital partner Bilal Zuberi said. 

The flurry of activity underscores how Silicon Valley’s fight against the virus extends beyond the largest tech companies such as Facebook and Google, who have played a prominent role in the federal government’s response to the pandemic. But the crisis could also test some of the shortcomings of the start-up ecosystem. 

The ability of start-ups to move fast could be a major advantage in the race to defeat the coronavirus, but there’s pressure to ensure they’re balancing that with the safety of health-care workers and patients using the supplies and treatments they’re rushing to make. Silicon Valley investors also might be operating out of their area of expertise as they dive deeper into health care

Some in the industry think start-ups will be most effective in helping address the health-care crisis if they stick to what they know. James Birch, a start-up executive and scientist, tells me executives and investors will be most effective in aiding the response if they can focus on repurposing products they’ve already created in order to help people on the front lines. He pointed to Flexport’s effort to use its supply chain expertise to deliver masks and other essential medical supplies as a good example. 

“Companies get a little over excited by the opportunity and blinded by the idea of what they can accomplish with engineering talent,” he told me. 

Another option is to seek assistance from outside experts.  Altman tells me he’s looking to health experts in his network for guidance as he combs through proposals. 

“There’s a set of things I know a lot about, and this not one of them so I’m relying on other experts,” he told me. 

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Amazon is prioritizing deliveries to its $119-a-year Prime members as the company tries to triage a surge in orders amid the pandemic, my colleague Jay Greene reports. 

The company is also delaying delivery times for non-Prime members on non-essential items such as hair dryers or Tic Tac candies. 

But even Prime members say they’re struggling to get many items within the company’s typical two-day free shipping window. Prime Now and AmazonFresh grocery delivery spots are increasingly impossible to find, and the company temporarily shut down a program that allows customers to fill a box with household items, called Prime Pantry. 

The panic buying in recent weeks was as intense as the shopping the company typically sees on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Amazon usually spends months planning for such events, one former company executive tells Jay. 

“In this case, the thing you planned for, Cyber Monday, happened overnight,” said said David Glick, a former Amazon logistics executive. “It was a shock to the system.”

Amazon tells Jay that some orders are delayed as the company tries to balance customer demand with the safety of its workers. 

“We’ve changed our logistics, transportation, supply chain, purchasing, and third-party seller processes to prioritize stocking and delivering items that are a higher priority for our customers,” said Amazon spokeswoman Keri Bertolino. Amazon owner Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

NIBBLES: Facebook has to figure out how to police disinformation without its army of thousands of content moderators who are on paid leave during the coronavirus pandemic, my colleagues Elizabeth Dwoskin and Nitasha Tiku report. The virus could be the biggest test yet of the artificial intelligence software that Facebook and other social media platforms built to root out harassment, violence and other problematic content. 

Facebook will dedicate full-time employees to content that poses an imminent threat, such as suicide threats and child exploitation, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told reporters last week. He acknowledged the shift toward AI for other moderation could lead to “false positives” and more mistakes. 

YouTube and Twitter also announced plans to reduce the number of human moderators, potentially leading to a slower appeals process for banned content.

But researchers worry that a decrease in human moderation will allow for the proliferation of bullying and harassment, which AI is less likely to detect than other categories, according to the company’s own reports.

“They haven’t made enough leaps and bounds in artificial intelligence to take away the best tool we have: human intelligence to do the discernment,” Mary Gray, senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and co-author of “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass,” told my colleagues.

BYTES: Instacart plans to hire 300,000 new shoppers more than doubling its workforce as the coronavirus forces more Americans to stay home, Sara Ashley O’Brien at CNN reports. The new hires will be classified as independent contractors, who do not enjoy the same workplace protections as full-time employees. 

“The last few weeks have been the busiest in Instacart’s history and our teams are working around the clock to reliably and safely serve all members of our community,” Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta said in a statement. 

But already, Instacart contractors say the company hasn’t done enough to protect them from the hazards they face during the pandemic. 

Instacart responded by offering two weeks paid sick leave to workers diagnosed with the coronavirus or placed under quarantine, but many workers can’t afford to take time off when they’re sick, Sara writes. Some lawmakers have urged federal and state governments to include gig workers in their relief packages for the coronavirus, but it’s unclear whether those calls will be answered. 

Amazon and Walmart recently also announced they would increase staff because of increased consumer demand. But workers have raised concerns that the companies are offering them few benefits or protections during the public health crisis.

PUBLIC CLOUD

— More than 250 organizations yesterday called on the Federal Communications Commission to immediately require service providers to provide unlimited minutes and data to customers part of the Lifeline program, and to also prohibit companies from disconnecting those consumers. The organizations say that the program, which provides Internet and telephone services to low-income consumers, is essential to public health.  

“Millions of people in this country must stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus and it is in our country’s national interest to continue as much of our economic and civic life as possible during this time,” the organizations, which include MediaJustice and the National Fair Housing Alliance, wrote in a letter.

The FCC already waived recertification and reverification requirements for consumers, but advocates say that’s not enough to help recipients who have been forced to ration their data and minutes during the public health crisis. Advocates point out that the agency took similar emergency measures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to support wireless services.

— More news from the public sector:

PRIVATE CLOUD

— News from the private sector:

FAST FWD

– New York City is recruiting out-of-work ride-hailing drivers to help with delivery jobs related to the coronavirus, such as distributing meals to senior citizens, according to an email sent by the city Taxi and Limousine Commission, according to drivers. The jobs could provide much-needed relief to the thousands of ride-hail drivers in the city who are seeing their earnings plummet as more customers stay indoors.

The city Taxi and Limousine Commission said the drivers are “a top priority,” as they are some of the workers most vulnerable to the public health crisis. 

“As we look at all possible ways to help you and as we assess needs citywide, we ask for your assistance and participation in the City’s response,” the commission wrote in the email.

The email acknowledges that the jobs may be in limited supply initially, but could increase with demands. The jobs will be filled on a first-serve basis and pay $15 an hour, and drivers will be reimbursed for gas, mileage and tolls. That’s less than the $27.86 per hour, or $17.22 after expenses, the city requires for ride-hail drivers. Ride-hail companies do not currently pay for gas mileage or tolls.

“Drivers are ready to step up to help the city in this time of great need,” Brendan Sexton, executive director of the Independent Drivers Guild, a Machinists Union affiliate that represents ride-hail drivers in New York,  New Jersey and Connecticut, said in a statement. 

IDG recently urged the New York City Council to approve cash payments and expand unemployment insurance to gig workers in New York. The fate of gig workers in federal relief packages also remains uncertain, and drivers are demanding that ride-hailing companies do more to protect them.

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The coronavirus pandemic drove life online. It may never return.

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For many Americans, a typical day right now might look something like this: Roll out of bed and check the smartphone. Open up a laptop and file for unemployment benefits through a website. Set up an online education portal for children out of school. Check in with a doctor through a telemedicine portal. Read news on Twitter. Buy groceries through Amazon. Watch stories on Instagram. Binge on Netflix. Connect with a group of friends on a Zoom video chat.

What passes for normal life now happens almost entirely online.

The coronavirus pandemic is unlike any other global emergency in recent history. Millions of people in the U.S. and around the world are confined to their homes with no definite idea of when they will be able to resume life as they knew it. Staying home has taken on the kind of patriotic duty usually reserved for times of war.

The major question will be whether “normal life” ever returns.

“What I’ve found as a historian is that emergencies, for example like World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, they tended to accelerate rather than necessarily innovate new kinds of relationships, new kinds of ways of life,” said Robert Kargon, a professor of the history of science at Johns Hopkins University.

“My argument has been that essentially these kinds of emergencies accelerate trends that already exist in society,” he said. “We’ve already seen how the internet is impinging on all kinds of activities in terms of work, leisure and so forth, and I think this is going to intensify it and it’s going to change certain things.”

The internet has in recent decades become embedded in almost everything (try to find a product for which there’s not an internet-connected version). But it was primarily used to augment daily life for most people. Some younger people referred to themselves as “extremely online,” but for most it wasn’t the center of their lives.

During the great coronavirus lockdown of 2020, millions of Americans are extremely online. Data from internet services show massive increases in daily use. Assurances from internet services and infrastructure companies that they are able to handle so much of life’s moving online have become closely followed.

When Netflix suffered problems Wednesday, some heralded it as another step closer to apocalypse.

“In an emergency, technology can be fast-tracked,” said Amber Case, a researcher at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit in Palo Alto, California, that does long-term forecasting. She said she expects a boost of research into technologies around online education and distributed computing, and she predicts that the experience of learning more things online will have wide ripple effects offline.

“I’m hoping we’ll see a next generation of teachers who are rock stars” specializing in teaching via video, she said. “A lot of people are going to learn how to cook really, really well.”

These shifts couldn’t have happened during previous national emergencies, like the Sept. 11 attacks nearly two decades ago. Smartphones didn’t exist yet, and neither did social media, streaming services or easily accessible videoconference calling.

In the days of dial-up modems, often only one device within a home could be on the internet at a time, and it might tie up the phone line.

Joe Bak-Coleman, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University who studies collective behavior and how technology influences society, said the ability to move so much of life online is a recent development — and one that has been particularly crucial because of the nature of the response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Only in the last five years have we had technology like Skype and Zoom that allow us to do many of our jobs online,” Bak-Coleman said. “Relative to other pandemics, the ability to take our society online, at least portions of it, helps us so much.”

The kind of shift the country has gone through in the past few weeks doesn’t happen without some pain points. People are finding they need to set limits, that their connection to technology can’t be constant all day, every day, or else their brains won’t get a chance to rest.

“We’re stuck kind of in a period of teenage where we’ve all been told to go to our room,” Case said. “We have to rewrite our relationship to technology, and we’re breaking it.”

The online shift may also exacerbate inequality. Millions of Americans don’t have access to fast broadband internet. Some 44 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t have home broadband services, the Pew Research Center said last year. And in some places, high-speed broadband isn’t available at any price, because providers haven’t built the service.

“Where those networks do not exist — where Americans do not have choices for high-capacity services — social distancing is much harder on people, if not outright impossible,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement emphasizing the importance of the internet to the pandemic response.

The internet is so much of life in 2020 that the American Library Association is asking federal regulators for permission to deploy Wi-Fi hot spots using bookmobiles so they can support neighborhoods that have relied on libraries that are now closed.

Data from internet and entertainment services paint a stark picture of a country pushed online.

HBO said Tuesday that time spent on its streaming service HBO Now was up more than 40 percent from its four-week average, and competitors like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix also are seeing big increases in traffic, according to data from the research firm SimilarWeb.

“Escapism and forgetting what’s going on for a second is also what’s keeping some people sane,” said Carolina Milanesi, a tech industry analyst at the research firm Creative Strategies.

Just about every consumer technology company has reported similar upticks. Facebook said that in places hit hardest by the virus, voice and video calling has more than doubled on two apps it owns, Messenger and WhatsApp. “We are experiencing new records in usage almost every day,” executives wrote in a blog post.



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Google offers $800 million to coronavirus relief funds

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By: Bloomberg |

Updated: March 28, 2020 2:11:27 pm


Google coronavirus relief funds Google offers 0 million to coronavirus relief funds

Google is pledging $800 million in relief funds to customers and health-care workers, joining a list of corporations providing money and materials to address the coronavirus pandemic.

The contributions include $250 million in advertising credits for the World Health Organization and $340 million to small businesses to run promotions with Google, Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google and parent Alphabet Inc., announced Friday. The economic fallout from the pandemic has dried up marketing spending. Another $20 million gives researchers working on the novel virus credits to use the company’s cloud-computing services.

Google also said it would be working with a partner, Magid Glove and Safety Manufacturing LLC, a supplier based in Illinois, to produce between 2 million and 3 million face masks in the coming weeks. Protective masks are in dire shortage across hospitals in the U.S.

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The cello playing robot and other tech news

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BBC Click’s Paul Carter looks at some of the best tech stories of the week including:

  • A new daily covid-19 symptom tracker was launched by King’s College London and health startup ZOE to let anyone share their data with researchers and the NHS.
  • Phone sales dropped by the industry’s biggest-ever amount since the invention of the smartphone due to upheaval of manufacture and supply.
  • An Oscar-winning Icelandic composer has written a new musical composition – but she’s not playing it. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s latest piece has been performed by a robotic musician as part of an art exhibition in Zurich.

See more at Click’s website and @BBCClick



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