All posts in “Artificial Intelligence”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roborace to replace F1 racing drivers with robots at Disrupt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas DiGrassi

CEO, Roborace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gunning for growth — to West and East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking investors for the long haul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?