Billions Of Online Ads Are About To Die A Well-Deserved Death

From my Forbes blog:

Businesses that run annoying ads on your smartphone and laptop are about to get a rude awakening.

Not only are online ad blockers quickly gaining in popularity, now two very big companies will soon offer us new ways to avoid in-your-face video and animated ads, pop-ups, and other intrusive ads that plague our online existence.

Today, Sept. 1, Google will start blocking ads that use Adobe’s Flash software, employed widely by video advertisers, in its Chrome browser. And as early as next week, Apple is expected to release its new mobile operating software for iPhones and iPads that will allow the installation of apps that keep ads from appearing in its Safari Web browser.

These developments suggest a new era in which you’ll finally be able to zap annoying ads like those in the video above. For a variety of reasons, it’s unlikely that ad blocking alone will cause advertisers and publishers a big problem. But the fact that the two biggest forces in mobile phones are both cracking down on annoying ads means the online ad business is about to change in a big way. …

Read the rest of the post.

Behind The Would-Be Siri Killer Facebook M, A Battle Over AI’s Future

Facebook M

Facebook M

From my Forbes blog:

Facebook’s test release today of a digital assistant inside its Messenger app is a shot across the bow of the Internet’s biggest companies: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.com. It’s also the latest salvo in a high-stakes battle over the ways artificial intelligence should transform the way we live and work.

Facebook M is intended to allow users of Facebook Messenger to pose any query or service request in natural language and get a personalized answer immediately. The key wrinkle that sets it apart from Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana is that there’s a team of human “trainers” who will step in when the machines aren’t quite up to the challenge.

So far, it’s only available to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay Area, and its timing and scope are unclear. But judging from a brief post by VP of Messaging Products David Marcus, Facebook M is clearly a major bid in a quickening battle to be the virtual assistant of choice, taking on not only Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, but also a raft of upstarts such as Luka, Magic, and Operator.

And in the mobile age, virtual assistants could prove to be the key product that will define which companies dominate the next decade of online services, just as search was for the past decade. “Whoever creates the intelligent assistant will be the first place people go to find things, buy things, and everything else,” former AI researcher Tim Tuttle, CEO of the voice interface firm Expect Labs, said last week.

But what’s even more interesting in the bigger picture is how Facebook M plays into a longstanding, fundamental battle over how artificial intelligence should be employed–one that has recently come into sharper focus. … The upshot: Until and unless AI gets so good that machines can anticipate what we want, people will remain a key component of truly intelligent online services.

Read the entire post.

Why Are You Still Typing On Your Phone – Or Any Other Device?

From my Forbes post:

Only a few years ago, you thought that guy walking down the street apparently talking to himself was off his meds. Now, you’re rocking your Bluetooth headset every day without even thinking about it (even if you still annoy some of us on the train).

But that’s talking with other people, for pete’s sake–are you still phoning with your phone in 2015? Today, you can ask it to do almost anything just by speaking “OK Google” or “Hey Siri”: conduct a search, make a restaurant reservation, send a text, or do almost anything you used to have to type into a search box or tap into an app.

You probably already knew you could try doing all that, but here’s what you may not know: Most of it doesn’t suck anymore. If you haven’t tried Google Voice Search, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or even Amazon.com’s Echo “smart” speaker recently, you may be surprised how much better they’re working than even six months ago. Not only do they seem to understand words better, even in noisy situations, they also appear to produce more accurate results in many cases.

All that’s thanks to big improvements in machine learning, in particular a branch of artificial intelligence called deep learning, that’s been applied to speech recognition in the last couple of years. “Recent AI breakthroughs have cracked the code on voice, which is approaching 90% as good as human accuracy,” says Tim Tuttle, CEO of Expect Labs, which began offering its MindMeld cloud-based service last year to help any device or app create voice interfaces.

It’s great for us smartphone owners, but the stakes couldn’t be higher for companies. …

Read the full story.

Here Comes Wall-E For The Warehouse: A Conversation With Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

From my Forbes blog:

The little robot follows Melonee Wise around a makeshift warehouse as she picks up boxes of cereal and packages of soap and drops them into a crate atop the machine. Freight, as Wise’s startup Fetch Robotics calls it, may be a machine, but its careful tracking of her movements recalls nothing so much as a dutiful dog.

The robot, which Wise demonstrated in a mock warehouse in a corner of the company’s San Jose headquarters, is one of two wheeled models introduced by Fetch in April as a way to automate warehouses and manufacturing buildings. While Freight is intended as an aid to human workers, the namesake Fetch has a single arm that can pick items off a shelf and drop them onto Freight, potentially replacing people.

Wise’s company is one of several robotics companies betting that robots, which have slowly found homes in auto plants and retail warehouses, are finally ready to roll out in much larger numbers. The CEO says in an interview I conducted for a recent profile of the young roboticist and entrepreneur that smaller and faster computers, improvements in artificial intelligence, and cheaper sensors are all combining to make robots cheaper (in Fetch’s case, tens of thousands of dollars) and more capable.

Fetch is one of the most closely watched robotics startups thanks largely to Wise, a key contributor at the seminal robotics incubator Willow Garage, where she helped design and build several models, and a team of robotics veterans she has assembled. Fetch, which in June raised a $20 million round of funding from Softbank and previous investors Shasta Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has sold a few robots to pilot commercial customers. But Wise has bigger ambitions to create a platform on which software developers can create new applications. “They have a chance to create the backbone of autonomous robots,” says Shasta Ventures Managing Director Rob Coneybeer.

The blunt-speaking Wise, whose voice suggests a mellower version of the comedian Paula Poundstone, talked about how she got into robotics, what she hopes to accomplish at Fetch, how she aims to compete against Google and other companies snapping up robotics companies and talent, and the challenges of fulfilling her dream of a robot in every home. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: How did you decide to focus on that particular area, given that you’ve been trying all along to build for pretty broad application, even in the home?

A: At Willow, we spent two years trying to figure out what the next thing in robotics would be. The first year we tried to understand if there was any play in the home. The answer was a resounding no.

Q: Why?

A: The expectations are too high and the price tolerance is way too low. So people would love to have a robot that would do their dishes or tidy their house, but they want all of that for $500 or less. Even when you challenge that notion by saying, well, you know the Roomba you bought last month was $850, they’re like, oh no, I bought that on sale.

There was this big hype about at-home telepresence. Everyone wants to put telepresence inside someone else’s home, like their mother’s, but no one actually wants it in their home. They don’t like the privacy challenges.

Q: What’s attractive about logistics and manufacturing?

A: We strongly felt that logistics and materials handling and manufacturing was very scalable. There’s a strong need for it. One of the things that sold me on it is there’s a 600,000-person job gap right now for logistics and manufacturing. They just don’t have enough people right now. Turnover is really bad. They also want to increase performance, and people have a rate limit. They get injured. There’s shrinkage. When you pile all these things up, there’s a great case for robots. …

Read the complete interview.

In Conversation: Stripe CEO Patrick Collison On The Limitless Potential Of Payments

Headshot - Patrick Collison

Stripe CEO and cofounder Patrick Collison

From my Forbes blog:

When Patrick Collison and his younger brother John were developing ideas in 2010 for new apps to create, they kept running into a seemingly basic problem: Even as it was getting easier to tap cloud services to create startups faster and cheaper than ever, one thing was still a pain in the app: accepting payments online from customers.

So the pair, already entrepreneurs from Ireland who sold their first company in their teens for $5 million, decided to turn that problem into a business. They set up a system that allowed developers to add a few lines of code to their app and start taking payments from anyone anywhere, for a small fee per transaction.

Today, their company, Stripe, processes billions of dollars a year for tens of thousands of companies, from other startups to the likes of Facebook, Salesforce, and Lyft. With a recent funding from Visa and other partners such as Apple and China’s Alibaba, Stripe is now valued at $5 billion. But CEO Patrick Collison and the company’s investors alike think that’s only the start. Hemant Taneja of investor General Catalyst says that when Stripe reached its first $1 million in transactions processed, the elder Collison said, “Only five orders of magnitude left.”

Taneja thinks Stripe indeed could be valued at $100 billion in the next few years if it plays its cards right. Just as Google turned search into an advertising empire and Amazon’s Web Services enabled the creation of many thousands of online businesses, he says, “There’s an opportunity for someone to create a platform that’s all about payments and commerce.”

It’s a heady possibility for someone who still hasn’t turned 27 years old, and who faces competitors from PayPal and Google to big banks. In an interview I conducted with Patrick Collison for a story in MIT Technology Review’s annual list of Innovators Under 35, the Stripe CEO had a sore throat, so he spoke softly, in a distinct if muted accent befitting his upbringing in Ireland’s Shannon region.

But his ambition–and a firm belief that Stripe and the sometimes controversial startups it enables are good for society–were apparent as we talked on a balmy late June afternoon at Stripe headquarters, a 106-year-old trunk factory in San Francisco’s Mission District. Following is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: What spurred your interest in technology early on?
A: I grew up in very rural Ireland. The Internet was kind of a connection to the greater world. It had a lot of significance. Maybe if I grew up in New York, I’d have already felt it. It was very clear if you grew up in the middle of Ireland just how potent a force the Internet was and could be. I was always seduced by the potency of computers and the possibilities for which they could be leveraged.

Q: When did you and John realize you needed what Stripe now provides, and when did you realize it could be a business?
A: We started working on it as a side project, while I was at MIT, and just being baffled at how convoluted and awkward this appeared to be. It seemed like a prevailing ecosystem designed to reduce the number of Internet businesses. …

Read the rest of the interview.

Innovator Melonee Wise Builds Robots For The Warehouse And Beyond

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise

Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise with namesake robot

From my MIT Technology Review story:

Melonee Wise imagines that all homes will have autonomous robots—something like The Jetsons’ Rosie the robot maid, minus the apron and Brooklyn accent. Just one problem: Wise, chief executive of the year-old startup Fetch Robotics, thinks it won’t happen in her lifetime, because the challenges in hardware and software are too big. “I’m probably one of the most pessimistic roboticists you’ll ever meet,” she admits.

Nonetheless, Wise still thinks smaller and more powerful computers, affordable sensors, more adept machine vision, and better artificial intelligence are coming together to make robots capable of a wide range of tasks—if not yet all in a single machine. That’s why Fetch Robotics is going after one promising area: warehouses and e-commerce fulfillment centers, which are plagued with high turnover, injuries, employee theft, and a chronic shortage of workers, who, of course, also have a biological need to sleep.

Although dedicated robots are common in giant distribution centers, Wise thinks there’s a bigger market for more flexible “mobile manipulation” robots that can help smaller companies ease into automation. …

Read the complete profile.

Innovator Patrick Collison Aims To Make Money Flow Easily Online

collison-tr

My story in MIT Technology Review:

“I grew up in very rural Ireland. The Internet was a connection to the greater world. It was very clear just how potent a force the Internet was and could be. While my brother John and I were tinkering with some new apps in Ireland and then in Boston and Silicon Valley, we experienced firsthand the difficulty of accepting online payments. We were just baffled at how convoluted and awkward the process appeared to be. The ecosystem seemed designed to reduce the number of Internet businesses.

“The same way Google exists as a foundational component of the Internet around information retrieval, it felt like there should be a developer-focused, instant-setup payment platform. Many people in financial services told us it couldn’t work.

“Stripe now processes billions of dollars a year for thousands of businesses, from startups to publicly traded companies. There’s a ton of database and distributed-system work that has to be done to make that experience possible. We have a 10-person machine-learning team that works on compliance, risk, fraud, identity verification, all of those things behind the scenes.

“Making it so easy to participate in the online economy has a far larger effect than one might imagine. We’re enabling new business models, like crowdfunding. And mobile marketplaces, like Lyft, Postmates, and Instacart. That enables more people in society to take advantage of these services. My youngest brother is disabled, and for him it’s not just a convenience. He can now do grocery shopping in a way that he could not before.”

—as told to Robert D. Hof