VR’s most popular game is getting more features (and more expensive)

VR’s most popular game is getting more features (and more expensive)

6:17pm, 14th May, 2019
VR’s most hyped game is getting a price bump later this month as it expands the amount of headsets that it’s playable on. We did a big deep-dive last week on Beat Saber, the best seller from a tiny Prague VR studio that’s pulling in big revenues. The game is part Guitar Hero, part Fruit Ninja, and you’ve got some light sabers to guide you through EDM tunes. It’s sold over 1 million copies. This week, the company Beat Games shared some updates that are likely to increase those revenues further as the company grows more confident that they’ve ironed out most of the game’s bugs. On May 21, Beat Games is bumping the price from $20 to $30 on Valve’s Steam store and the Oculus Home platform, bringing the price in line with the PS VR version. This price bump comes as the company abandons the “Early Access” title, a classifier that has long signified that a game is in beta and hasn’t had all of the kinks ironed out. With this, the studio detailed in a , they feel the game has reached a “stable version,” and that it is now a “full game.” When the game exits early access, it will be picking up a long-promised level editor so that gamers can create custom levels for their own audio tracks. The price change on May 21 isn’t an arbitrary date, that’s when Oculus will be releasing both of its new headsets, the Rift S and Quest. Speaking of the Quest, Oculus had introduced a feature called cross-buy that would enable users who already owned a copy of a game on Rift to let users download that game for free on Quest. On , Beat Games noted today that they won’t be supporting this for the base game, so Quest users will still have to pay up, though the studio said they will enable the feature for add-ons like additional music packs. Beat Saber is going to be unified across all platforms moving forward, meaning you won’t see certain versions getting updates that the others won’t get for a while. This opens up the potential for cross-platform multiplayer as the studio continues to work on a mode for multiple concurrent users. The price jump comes next week, you’ll still be able to score the game at the Early Access price before May 21.
Jeff Bezos moves some earth to break ground on new $1.5B Amazon Prime Air hub near Cincinnati

Jeff Bezos moves some earth to break ground on new $1.5B Amazon Prime Air hub near Cincinnati

5:28pm, 14th May, 2019
(Screen grab via Twitter / @JeffBezos) Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hopped into a front-end loader to “move some earth” as the tech giant broke ground Tuesday on a new 3-million-square-foot air cargo hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The $1.5 billion project, which is scheduled to open in 2021, will reportedly create 2,000 jobs and help “get you your packages faster,” Bezos said in a tweet in which he was shown on video operating heavy machinery to pick up and drop some dirt in front an Amazon Prime Air cargo plane. “If you’re wondering … that’s fun!” Bezos said as he emerged from the vehicle. We’re investing $1.5 billion in our new air hub to get you your packages faster. Three million square feet, and it’s going to create 2,000 jobs. And if you’re guessing that driving a front loader was fun, you’re right! — Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) According to the , the hub will have room to park 100 airplanes and will sit on 900 acres of land leased from the airport for 50 years. “It will be the largest building in this part of the country, not just Boone County,” Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore said in an . reported that Kentucky brought $45 million in incentives to the table to land the deal.
‘Ghost Work’ explores the ups and mostly downs of the hidden gig economy

‘Ghost Work’ explores the ups and mostly downs of the hidden gig economy

6:28pm, 14th May, 2019
Chances are the last time you ordered something, chatted with customer service, or looked something up online, you didn’t give much thought to who was making sure the information you were looking at was accurate. Welcome to ghost work, the hidden human forces working to ensure that what you get is what you think it is. Ghost work differs from the typical jobs associated with the gig economy, like Uber and Lyft drivers or Airbnb hosts, in which you do interact with someone. Ghost work refers to the teams worldwide who are captioning photos, flagging and removing inappropriate content, or even writing, designing or coding a project to move it along. Authors Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri are both senior researchers at Microsoft Research, where they came together to write . In the book, they tackle explaining this new and ever-changing workforce, one that will continue to displace the traditional 9-to-5 world with on-demand tasks. As more jobs and people shift to ghost work, it raises certain dilemmas: How do workers find quality jobs? How will companies find quality workers? How will we move toward this new work ecosystem, one that overwhelmingly takes advantage of its workers, underpaying them and shifting the burden of many parts of employment, such as providing their own hardware, software, training, and more, onto the worker without any established rights to protect them? I’ll be moderating a discussion with Gray and Suri at in Seattle on Wednesday evening. In advance of the event, we spoke about the ins and outs of this new gig economy — tasks being cranked out behind a computer, 24/7, around the world — and a near-future that affects us all. How did you come to the decision to tackle the issue of “ghost work?” Siddharth Suri. Photo: Peter Hurley Siddharth Suri: Back in 2008, while at Yahoo! Research, I wanted to conduct behavioral experiments to understand how the structure of the network people are part of influences their ability to cooperate. At the time, these kinds of experiments were typically done with undergraduate students sitting in a university computer lab. The problem was that at Yahoo! we didn’t have any undergraduates. So I, along with my colleagues, figured out how to use crowdsourcing sites, like Amazon Mechanical Turk to conduct experiments with human subjects. MTurk provided an always available crowd of workers that we could pay to participate in our experiments. We started off by doing experiments similar to those had previously been done in the lab setting. But quickly thereafter we pushed this new methodology to see what we could study that wasn’t previously possible. We did experiments that took place in a more realistic setting than a computer lab with a more diverse population. We also figured out how to do experiments with hundreds of workers working simultaneously, and we did experiments that took place every day for a month. Around this time the psychology community heard about this work and moved many of their experiments from the classroom to an online setting. Today it’s almost taken for granted that a researcher conducted, at least part of, their experiments on MTurk. But whenever I would give a presentation someone in the audience would always ask, “Who are the workers?” I would give statistics about the demographics, but I didn’t really know beyond that. So in 2012, shortly after I started at Microsoft Research NYC, Mary [L. Gray] approached me and asked if I’d like to collaborate on doing an ethnography on the workers. I thought it was very cool that an anthropologist and a computer scientist were interested in the same thing. So I said yes, and the project was born. The downsides of ghost work: In the introduction, you write that “Joan, with years of practice, now knows how to piece together an average 10-hour day that will bring in roughly $40 worth of such tasks.” The online marketplace has actually driven down what professionals can charge for work. Do you see any way of improving the pay scale for workers online? SS: At first glance these markets might seem very efficient. There is a list of tasks that a worker can search, choose and do. There is a large pool of workers for requesters to choose from. So it would seem there would be very little friction in matching a worker with a task. But when you look closer you see a lot of friction. The search functionality on these platforms generally doesn’t work very well so workers have to collaborate with one another off the platform to find good work. Workers don’t get paid for this overhead they incur, and it’s time they could be spending working. Many platforms only allow the requesters to see a worker’s reputation but not vice versa. Finally, it is very common on these platforms that only a few requesters that put up the overwhelming majority of the tasks. So the deeper you look you see that the requesters have the majority of the power in these markets. Workers have little choice but to accept whatever wage rate these requesters offer, as there is often no way for workers to bargain. Economists call this monopsony. So to improve the pay scale for workers we need to decrease these frictions and balance the power in the market. We would need all platforms to let both sides of the market, workers and requesters, see the reputation of the other party. We would need platforms to seriously invest in their search functionality. We would need more requesters putting up more tasks and more types of tasks. Finally, for those platforms who don’t allow workers to bargain for wages, that would help balance the power as well. Were you surprised by the other downsides that come with ghost work, like hyper-vigilance and a lack of direction on projects? SS: I was surprised by how much of the transaction costs got pushed onto the workers. The specific transaction cost I was most surprised by was hyper-vigilance. When you first look at these platforms it appears there are many requesters posting many jobs, so it looks like there is a lot of choice for the workers. In reality, only a few requesters post the majority of the work, and the best, most lucrative work gets snapped up quickly so workers have to constantly be on the lookout. Requesters also reported seeing the consequences of hyper-vigilance. They said whenever they posted a task there would be a flood of workers trying to do it which made it hard for the requesters to choose the most qualified worker. So both sides of the market were losing due to this inefficiency. This finding showed a nice interplay between anthropology and computer science. Mary’s interviews found out that workers feel the need to constantly be on call for good work. Then we conducted behavioral experiments to measure how much do workers value, in terms of dollars, some flexibility in when they do a task. The upsides of ghost work: There were a lot of pleasant surprises here, like camaraderie and creativity. What surprised you when you started asking people what they liked about the work? SS: I had been doing work in crowdsourcing for over five years, and I had no idea that workers collaborate and communicate. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but it was definitely not in foresight. When I think of the term “crowd” I think of independent individuals. I would bet that most computer scientists thought that as well. But it turns out the crowd is actually a network. It’s just that the API requesters use to hire workers hides the connections between them. The API lets a requester hire one worker, or a collection of workers, but it doesn’t show you who they might be connected to. It turns out that workers use these connections to re-create the office watercooler. They congregate in online forums to offer each other social support, blow off steam, and share best practices. The finding that workers form their own social networks and how we mapped the network is one of my favorite findings in the book. Mary L. Gray. Photo: Adrianne Mathiowetz As more work transitions online, what are some full-time fields you see transitioning to ghost work, or more “macro-tasks,” in the near future? Mary L. Gray: If history is any indicator, most knowledge work and information service jobs that can be, at least in part, sourced, scheduled, routed, managed, shipped and billed through a mix of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), the internet, and a sprinkle of AI are up for grabs. Ghost work is not a niche job so much as a mechanism for dismantling of full-time jobs and transforming them into task-driven work done on contract. If trends continue at the current rate, economists estimate that by the early 2030s, tech innovation could dismantle and semi-automate roughly 38 percent of jobs in the U.S. alone (John Hawksworth et al., UK Economic Outlook: Prospects for the Housing Market and the Impact of AI on Jobs. London: PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2017). The most obvious fields in the thick of transition are healthcare and retail. For example, it’s now possible to route all the requests for following up with a healthcare professional and turning the callbacks, patient guidance, appointment scheduling, and other bits of office work into tasks that can be distributed to a host of people able to answer a quick customer query, compare calendars, and decipher clinician’s written notes so that they stay attached to a patient record. None of those tasks need to happen in front of a patient or in the medical office. Or, in the case of retail, U-Haul now allows customer service texts to be routed to on-demand workers who can pick up queries about road closures or store hours and reply on-the-spot, no matter where the customer generating the question might be. Law and financial services are also easy targets because so much of the filing rules and legal guidelines are spelled out. Any work that has some rote directions to it can be structured in a way that a person can be brought in to double-check how the software took the available information, like a tax law, and applied it to something a customer added, like their annual income. In essence, a person is threaded into the loop to check the math before the filing heads to the IRS. That’s exactly the type of service that Intuit and LegalZoom offer now. Can you talk more about how the Microsoft permatemp case was a miss for establishing worker rights in this arena? MLG: In the late 1980s, Microsoft was thrust into the spotlight not so much for its status in the growing tech industry—it was already a big name in software—as for its approach to meeting the intense staffing needed to constantly test out new products and prototypes. Microsoft was assigning temporary workers tasks that were virtually identical to what their permanent staff did. These “permatemps” spent years on software projects with the same responsibilities, reporting to the same management, and on full-time hours as their full-time counterparts. In many cases, everyone was making the same amount of money and had the same benefits, except for stock options extended to full-time employees only. By 1989, the IRS had grown wary of this arrangement and audited Microsoft’s staffing procedures. The IRS ended up deciding that only about 600 of Microsoft’s independent contractors should be reclassified as permanent employees, because their work was entirely under Microsoft’s control. In 1992, a group of temporary workers filed a class-action suit (Vizcaino v. Microsoft) against Microsoft claiming that they were common-law employees and should receive the same benefits as permanent staff. In 2000, after nearly eight years of litigation, roughly 8,000 Microsoft permatemps received a settlement of $97 million. Without a court ruling, the question of what kinds of workers these permatemps were and what kinds of benefits and protections they deserved was never resolved. Keep in mind the timing. The case settled just as the dot.com bubble popped. Post-permatemp, Big Tech could lean heavily on a contingent workforce to rebuild. The permatemp settlement left new start-ups and tech companies that had weathered the economic downturn of the early ’00s in charge of interpreting 1940s-era labor laws written for assembly-line workers to set the terms for hiring coders, designers and a host of other newly unemployed creatives on contract. Small companies rising from the ashes of the crash started everyone on-contract until they proved too valuable to lose once their contract ran out. This became the default mode of hiring in Silicon Valley. The cadre of mostly white, middle-class, college-educated 20 and 30-somethings hired by tech companies to work on projects neither shared a professional identity nor a particular interest in organizing for their rights. Sociologist Gina Neff writes about this moment beautifully in her book . These workers were happy to have decent paychecks and some semblance of upward mobility (or least some relief from feeling knocked off that trajectory). Competition for some workers, particularly freelance software developers, heated up. Some individuals moved around to get better compensation, but the churn made it even harder to organize workers’ interests. The settlement is the great irony of the tech industry: the tech industry could’ve never cycled through so many failed projects—moved so fast, broke so many things—if it had not been able to rely on a contingent workforce, hired to tackle 18-month build cycles and released when the software update shipped. Add to the mix the instability introduced by the start-up acquisitions and company mergers that meant a quarterly reinvention of what jobs were “mission critical” and you have the perfect storm for undoing worker solidarity and shared vision for a long-term future that had been the main organizing tactics for most of the history of labor in the United States. Tech companies didn’t know it at the time, but they would become increasingly dependent on contract staffing for almost every business operation. Now they, like the contract workers, are stuck with an odd set of rules about how long someone can contract with a single company and stay in a specific role there; the limits on their access to workplace amenities, like gyms, commuter buses, or after-work pizza parties; and whether they have a right to organize or collectively bargain at their workplace. The opportunity lost was two-fold: Had the case gone to court, we would have had an answer to what are the corporate responsibilities to workers who are invaluable for a specifically defined project that may last several months or, if things go well, a couple of years? Are these workers any less valuable to a company’s “return on investment” in some measurable way and, if not, shouldn’t they get the same benefits as someone recruited for a less-defined project or term of service? And, bigger than that, had the case continued, we could have had a robust, public debate about the rights of every worker, no matter where they work or their hours on the job to basics, like healthcare, retirement, paid leave, continuing education, and the other protections that, today, are reserved for those who land full-time employment. Your suggestions for a brighter ghost work future: better healthcare options, hours, projects, teamwork, etc. How likely is that more companies will adopt the creativity/collaboration mindset like or ? Or will the trend be to continue to push the burdens of the work life (software, admin costs, benefits, learning curves, etc.) all on the workers? MLG: The answer to this question really depends on consumers and citizens. If history tells us anything it’s that the collective fate of workers is a moral and political question that should not be determined by market forces, even if they come from the good intentions of fair-minded businesses like LeadGenius and Amara… Our global economy is driven by information and service work. Businesses make their money on finding new consumer markets dependent on the exchange of an ever-evolving set of service experiences and information. Yet, our labor laws still operate as though most of us will learn one set of skills, enter the workforce, and hold a 9-5 job with the same employer for most of our work lives. This is an outdated snapshot of how our global economy works. Our research offers solid, empirical evidence that when platform companies recognize and address the needs of workers, they get better information services. Does this increase operational costs? Yes. In the short-term. But should businesses pay more rather than be allowed to shift business costs to independent workers? If you were an independent worker, what would you answer? Right now, consumers are getting inexpensive platform services at the expense of workers. Are we willing to pay more to see workers’ conditions improve? And are we, as citizens, motivated to lobby for changes to existing labor laws so that every worker, no matter their employment status, has access to the basics to make work life sustainable? Shining a spotlight on ghost work conditions—a labor market defined by projects done on-contract where there is no promise of steady employment or career advancement—is an opportunity to debate what we want the future of work to look like. Ghost workers have pulled together to stand for their rights, like the to Jeff Bezos you cited in the book. What are the likelihoods that more workers will mobilize to fight for better rights in the online workplace? MLG: Lyft and Uber drivers recently in solidarity to demonstrate their frustration with both companies’ astronomical IPO valuation. These drivers are the visible tip of an iceberg of work below the surface of APIs. These drivers took aim at the larger industry of ride-sharing services rather than a specific platform. As more and more knowledge workers come to depend on platform services to pick up projects distributed as task-based work for hire, there will be more chances to organize workers to mobilize for their rights to improve work conditions, no matter what platform they use to find work. Because any one online workplace is dependent on the larger ecosystem of platform companies, it will, likely take fighting to redefine what it means to be gainfully employed as an independent worker to meaningfully convert ghost work conditions to a sustainable version of on-demand employment. We are at the very beginning of a labor movement among independent workers finding their common cause in calling on a right to fair treatment and control over their lives. It’s likely they’ll succeed if we collectively see how this is about fighting for all our employment rights, not just the rights of a poor few, doing a niche job. Do you eventually see large established platforms, like Microsoft and Amazon, implementing any of the suggested changes to improve their services for both requesters and workers? MLG: Large tech companies, notably Microsoft and Google, have already put in place requirements that their labor contracting services provide benefits, like paid leave and healthcare. This is a step in the right direction. And, arguably, the biggest brand names in tech have the most to gain by making the AI labor supply chain fueling tech advancement as transparent and equitable as possible. Large companies, like Nike, learned this as they came to grips with the horrific labor conditions that went into producing their products. Consumers, particularly younger ones, are statistically likely to care more about where what they buy or eat comes from and how it was produced. There’s no reason to believe that tomorrow’s consumers will be any less scrutinizing about the sourcing and labor conditions that went into their favorite information services. Odds are good that the future of work will be augmented through technologies rather than automated outright. Companies that equip both consumers and workers for this future have the most to gain from leading the industry in setting the bar for creating dignity and sustainability as they build technologies for future workers. You have strong conclusion that the future of work will include an ever-changing relationship between AI and people, dispelling the popular notion that AI will completely displace people in the workplace. Did you know this going into the project, or did the research help you come to this conclusion? SS: The research most definitely helped us come to this conclusion. As an anthropologist, Mary believes that computers will never be able to emulate human intellect. As a computer scientist, I believe machines are currently very far from human intelligence, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get there or not. I don’t think anyone knows, and I’m not even sure anyone can know right now given our current understanding of cognition. But I do believe that we’re many decades from knowing the answer to this question and I respect the creativity and ingenuity of scientists and engineers. In discussing our different viewpoints we realized that whatever we believe about the end point ignores how we get there, and that’s a huge part of what this book is about. For the foreseeable future, AI systems will require human labor, and our goal was to shine a light on those humans. by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri is out today. The authors speak with GeekWire book reviewer Molly Brown at on Wednesday, May 15, in Seattle.
Q&A: Melinda Gates opens up about tech industry, equality and 3 women who changed her life

Q&A: Melinda Gates opens up about tech industry, equality and 3 women who changed her life

10:46am, 14th May, 2019
Melinda Gates, right, speaks with GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop) Melinda Gates once famously set a rule in her kitchen. Nobody leaves until mom does. It’s a story she tells often during interviews and it comes up in her new book, because it shows that balancing unpaid work is a challenge universally shared among men and women. In the book, she’s careful to note that she is coming from a place of privilege and support, but still must negotiate the division of domestic labor. “I’m describing my own scene, not because it’s a problem but because it’s my vantage point on the problem,” she writes. That vantage point is what gives Gates’ new book its authenticity and resonance. As an early employee at Microsoft, she saw the formation of the industry culture that many women struggle with today. As co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she has traveled the world and witnessed first-hand the barriers that hold women back. As the wife of one of the most high-profile men in business and a woman with a hard-charging career in her own right, she’s experienced how difficult it is for women to raise a family and pursue their ambitions. Each of these experiences informs Gates’ viewpoints and supports the central thesis of her book: removing barriers for women improves society as a whole. She sat down with GeekWire to discuss these topics and more before the on her book tour in Seattle. Listen to our conversation above and read the edited Q&A below. Monica Nickelsburg: We are here to talk about your new book, “The Moment of Lift.” This book is really about how, if you empower women throughout the world, then you lift up everyone. And you tell that story through all of these incredible women and their experiences, including your own. So if you could draw a line connecting each of them, what would it be? Melinda Gates: It would be that we so often don’t look at the issues that women face in societies all over the world, these barriers. If we would recognize the barriers, which I write chapter after chapter in the book, if we’d recognize the barriers and lift those barriers, and then we invest in women, then women invest in everybody else and it changes our societies all over the world. MN: Some of those barriers happen in the workplace, particularly in tech where you got your start. I really identified with the portion of the book when you talked about the early culture at Microsoft and how you struggled with the brashness and how aggressive and competitive it was. This is still a persistent problem in tech, so I’m curious what advice you would give to other women on how they can be courageous enough to be themselves and be vulnerable when oftentimes they’re the only woman in the room. Gates: We have to start, a little bit, with how did tech get the way it is? Because in the late 1980s when I was in computer science, we were on our way up. Computer science degrees held by women, we were graduating at a rate of about 37 percent. We were on our way up like law and medicine, which have reached now essentially parity for men and women in terms of degrees. Then in the computer industry, we dropped down all the way to 18 percent. We’re on a slight uptick now. We don’t know exactly why that is, but we believe it’s because the personal computer began to be marketed towards boys in the home. Then there were more computer games and so boys played those and by the time women went into the tech industry, they felt inexperienced because boys had so much more experience. I think we have a persistent problem in the tech industry, but I’m also optimistic we can change it. When I think about the industry today, I think about not a leaky pipeline, which so many people talk about for women, but how do we create pathways in for women to help them understand what creative jobs these are? That you actually code in teams. That you don’t have to be a white guy in his hoodie. I think when we start to create more pathways in, for instance, that first class freshman year of computer science, when you make that welcoming … it begins to change things for women. Todd Bishop: One of the things that struck me was that you were writing about your early experiences at Microsoft and that was in part, in large part, a culture that Bill created. Did you have any moments in the process of writing this book where two of you talked about that and discussed what that meant for you and your life? Because it was a dramatic impact. You talked about leaving at one point. Gates: Bill and I have talked about this over the years, not during the time I was at Microsoft because it would be inappropriate when I was there for me to discuss work with him, I felt, if I was still managing teams, which I was. I was there for nine years. I had a fabulous career. But yes, Microsoft was started by a group of very young guys, and I would say that you’re not at your most mature when you are around age 21 and starting a company. Some things got set in motion there and patterns that now I think Satya is working very consistently to break down, and he’s very clear about that. What I will say about Bill is that he has become a much more mature leader over time. The way we run the foundation both as true equal partners, and what we expect of ourselves as leaders and what we expect of others, is the culture that I think more people would like to work in. It’s been an interesting journey for us as a couple to name what we want and need in culture and it’s been a maturation process for both of us. MN: In some ways, things haven’t changed that much since when you were there though. There was that email chain that went around where a lot of women were describing experiences where they didn’t really feel supported at Microsoft. Is that discouraging to you? Gates: I am optimistic and the reason I am is it takes transparency to create change. Satya and Kathleen, who’s the head of HR, have been very outspoken about what they expect in their company culture. I think they’ve been creating change and I think this latest wave, where you saw so many women come forward with their stories, meant that they felt safe bringing their stories forward and you see Microsoft’s response in the last few weeks. What I know is that consistent transparency followed by a consistent response is what will create change. So I’m quite optimistic. TB: What would be your message for the tech industry, big picture on these issues? If there was one thing you could change, if there was one action item, what would it be for the tech industry? Gates: For the tech industry there is no silver bullet, but what I would say is absolutely make sure that in every single meeting you’re in, women have a seat at the table. Not one woman. Many women. Women cannot act alone on behalf of other women. You want to have the most creative products? You want to sell to the biggest market? Which is actually women who make purchasing decisions on behalf of the family. You should have women at the table, and if you don’t, then it’s time you do and have transparency. Make sure that you are promoting women equally to men. You’re paying women equally to men and you’re walking the talk. What I’m starting to see, because of the labor force shortage, the supply of women coming out with computer science degrees, they’re voting with their feet and they’re choosing now companies that have the culture they want. So if you don’t get with the times, the times are going to leave you behind. MN: One really striking part of the book is the health worker in India who asked you if you would do anything to feed your children. She was referring to a group of sex workers who you were attempting to help prevent the spread of HIV through. And it was kind of a challenge. She wanted you to be able to empathize with these women and see that under their circumstances anyone would do the same thing. I’m wondering what kind of lessons you can learn from that sort of radical empathy and apply to the business community for men or anyone who’s in a position of power to empathize with an underrepresented group? At the final stop on Melinda Gates’ book tour, attendees sign a wall to “commit to the lift,” explaining how they will help to lift barriers for women. (Christopher Farber/Gates Archive) Gates: I think we’ve had a certain work culture for a long time in the United States that really goes back to the 1950s and 1960s. We still have that sometimes embedded in our brains when we think it’s a culture where men work and women stay home and are taking care of everything at home and that is not the truth anymore. Forty-seven percent of the U.S. workforce are women, and what I know is that when men and women can talk about what they fully care about in the workplace — which many of them care about their families and their loved ones and their friends — when they can bring their whole selves to work, whether they’re a man or a woman, including empathy, then you start to change the workforce. I’m starting to see that in places. I see it in a lot of young startups. I see it in the healthcare industry quite often because there are more women working in that field. Again, I’m impatient for things to get better quickly, but I do think they are getting better for women. I think this is the best time to be a woman in the United States that we’ve ever seen before. MN: I want to talk about unpaid work. Gates: Me, too. MN: I was telling Todd on the drive over that since reading your book, I’ve been asking for a lot more unpaid work to be shared around my house and it’s been great. It’s been great for everybody, but I think we have to back up before we jump into it because there are a lot of people who this still doesn’t really register to them, this concept of unpaid work. How would you frame it in a nutshell? Gates: This is one of the barriers I do bring up in my book. First of all, unpaid labor or work are the things that we do in our homes. Some of them are things we want to do, caring for our loved ones, for the elderly or young children, but many of the things we do in our home are things that simply need to get done; chores, lunchboxes, doing the dishes, doing the laundry, shopping. And there is no place in the world where women and men do the same amount of unpaid labor. In the United States, women do 90 minutes more per day than their husband, 90 minutes more. That’s time that she could be in the gym, investing in her health, maybe getting another degree, maybe doing something else she wants to do after work. We need to look at that unpaid labor and we need to figure out, are there certain things that help us reduce that labor over time? But it’s really, at this point, it’s about redistributing in our households and naming what we need and our spouses stepping up and say, “Hey, you know what? Just because I came into the marriage assuming you would do that or assuming I wouldn’t do that, I need to step up and take more responsibility in the home.” MN: Is there anything that employers can do to balance the scales of unpaid work? Gates: Well, I am big on talking about paid family medical leave in the United States. We are the only industrialized nation, the only one, that does not have paid family medical leave, and so 17 percent of the U.S. workforce is all that has access to paid family medical leave. I believe that if we pass a robust, a good policy for this, people will start to rebalance and think about men’s and women’s roles both in work and at the birth of a child, or when there’s an aging parent. Quite often a man and a woman have aging parents and who takes care of them? If you had paid family medical leave and both men and women actually take it, like countries like Sweden who’ve had it for a long time do, it starts to change the balance of how we think about work and family life. MN: I just spent quite a bit of time researching paid leave for a story and the Gates Foundation came up because you really pushed the limits of how comprehensive a paid leave policy you can offer as an employer. It was a year, but you found that that was not really practical and recently reduced it to six months plus a $20,000 stipend. What were some of the lessons you learned from that? Gates: Yes, we rolled out our paid family medical leave policy three years ago. We were one of only two companies in the United States that had that robust of a paid family medical leave policy. As we worked with it and with the organization over three years, what we found was that it was putting more burden on the work that we want to get done in the world than we wanted it to. We believe in balancing family and work life, but we felt we had tipped a bit too far in terms of the family piece of it. What we decided to do, that we also have some experience with from my own office, Pivotal Ventures and also from Bill’s office Gates Ventures, was that six months seems to be the right amount, for now, of paid family medical leave. A family can absolutely have time to care for their elderly, their loved one. Care for the birth of the new child, but then $20,000 to support childcare as they come back into the workplace. That seems to be about right in terms of men and women then coming back to work. I think that’ll help us be the most efficient as an organization with the resources that we have and support families. MN: What if it’s a startup that doesn’t have the kind of endowment that the Gates Foundation does, but it’s bringing up the same kind of challenges that you raised, that it’s too challenging to get anything done? We’re in growth mode. We’re small. We’re scrappy. How can a smaller company like that still support women? Gates: I’m watching some of these small companies do very interesting things. I’ve seen a few startups, actually, a couple here in Seattle decide that they’re going to allow the mom, while she’s still nursing, to bring her baby to work at times. They create a space for that, a space for a caregiver, for the child and for the mom to go, not just to nurse the child, but for the child to be there either part or all of the day. There are creative ways you can do it. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but I think the message you send to employees about how we care about family and work changes and what we find is that employees who feel their employer understands their overall life is likely to stay longer at a company. TB: One of the remarkable things about the book is that you’re telling the stories of women that you’ve met along the way, but there are also women who’ve influenced your life. I wondered if you might, in succession, tell us about these three women from the book; Mrs. Bauer, your computer science teacher, the unnamed IBM manager who told you to go work for Microsoft, and Anna. Gates: Mrs. Susan Bauer was my math teacher in high school. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and she went to a conference one weekend and she saw computers. They were actually Apple II computers. She came back from the conference and went to the head nun of the school and said, “We have to get these for the girls.” She convinced the head nun to put up the budget and they bought five Apple II computers for us, 600 girls. I was part of the very first small coding class. What I learned in that class was how much I loved coding. I learned from a teacher who let us get out in front of her. She taught me that to be a leader you don’t have to actually know everything. Her getting those computers influenced my path. So by the time I went to college, I knew I wanted to study computer science. Melinda Gates draws on her extensive on-the-ground experience in developing countries, as well as her career in the tech industry, for insights in her new book, ‘The Moment of Lift.’ In this photo, the co-chair & trustee, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation tours FPAM (Family Planning Association of Malawi) clinic in Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo: Gates Archive I went to Duke University for undergraduate to study computer science and graduated in that, got my MBA. As I was coming out of business school at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, I had a longstanding job offer from IBM. I’d worked for them in Dallas for several summers. Over my spring break, I went back to IBM in Dallas. The hiring manager that I met with, a woman, said, “Are you ready to accept our offer?” I said, “Well, I interviewed a lot of other places, turned them all down. I have this one more small company I’m going to go interview with and then I’ll probably come back and take this job.” And she said, “Would you mind me asking who that is?” I said, “Well, it’s this little company called Microsoft in Seattle.” This was 1987. Microsoft was still less than 1,700 employees. She said, “Oh, I know that company. Do you want a piece of advice?” I said, “Sure,” and she said, “If you get an offer from Microsoft, you should accept it.” She just floored me. This was my hiring manager. I said, “Why?” She said, “As a woman, I think you would do quite well at IBM. Have a successful career, but there are levels here that you’ll have to move up through systematically. At a young startup like that, if you’re as good as it seems like you are, I think your rise would be meteoric.” And I thought, “Wow, what an amazing piece of advice.” Sure enough, I interviewed and got a job offer and I knew I should take it. MN: And it turned out to be very good advice. Gates: It did. It changed my life in many ways. But what I liked about Microsoft was they were creating the future. And that’s what I love about tech for women, and for men too. It is our future. We are creating our future through technology. They’re some of the best jobs, the best paying jobs, many of them, in the United States. They’re also creating the future that we want. That’s why I’m so passionate about making sure that women and people of color have a seat at the table. The other story is about Anna. When our oldest daughter was 15, Jenn, she and I went to live for several days in Tanzania. A family said they would take us into their home. It was actually their goat hut that we stayed in. They were a Maasai family. Anna’s the mom of the family and, Sanare is her husband. We stayed over several days and Jen and I followed Anna around her farm all day doing the tasks that Anna does. We also followed Sanare on one day, and we chopped wood with Anna. We carried water with Anna, which is what women are expected to do in the developing world. They carry the water, not the men. And we cooked. I cooked in the cooking hut probably six hours that day and we did the dishes, the women, Anna, and her sister and her daughter at night in the dust, at 10 at night under the stars. What I learned from Anna was about unpaid work. After I had been cooking with her for quite a number of hours, I was interviewing her about her life, and she said she was clearly in a relationship she wanted to be in. It was a loving relationship, Sanare confirmed that later, her husband. But she said, “I almost left Sanare at one point.” I said, “Really? Why?” She said, “Well, the birth of our first son, Robert,” she said, “I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t carry water and nurse my baby.” Sanare confirmed that he came home one day and there was Anna sitting on the doorstep with her bag packed, baby in her arms and she said, “I’m leaving you,” and he was stricken. He was heartbroken. He said, “What do you mean you’re leaving me?” And she said, “Well, your land is very arid. I’m going to go back to the more lush homeland that I came from because I can’t do this anymore.” So he asked that simple question, which is, “What can I do?” And she said, “Well, you could carry water.” Maasai men do not carry water, and Sanare said he would. So he started walking to the well. The other Maasai men made fun of him. He was walking miles a day and they said he was bewitched, but they started walking with him. So inadvertently they were walking in Anna’s footsteps. After a while, the men all started to bike to the well and get water and they realized how exhausting it was. Finally, they came up with this idea, “Why don’t we build water pans around our villages?” And they did. That story of Anna naming what she needed so she could nurse and care for her son and her husband responding, that is unpaid work. That is a real relationship where you work through issues of naming what you need and somebody responding. Melinda and Bill Gates at the University of Washington at a December 2017 ceremony celebrating the UW’s new Gates Center. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota) MN: And it’s amazing because you had such a parallel experience, albeit not as extreme, but something very similar happened with you and with Bill and the result of him taking over was also very similar. Do you mind telling that story? Gates: With our first daughter, Jenn, it came time for her to go to kindergarten. We both agreed the school we wanted her in, but it was not near our home in Seattle. And I could see all these years ahead of driving on the freeway and in the traffic in Seattle. We had two children at this point. So I had said to Bill, “Look, let’s just wait until she’s in third grade and we’ll put her in that school.” He said, “No, no,” he felt strongly she go at kindergarten. He was working full time as CEO of Microsoft, and I just said, “Driving five days a week, twice a week in traffic,” I could see it ahead. He said, “What can I do?” Before I even was able to answer, he said, “I could drive two mornings a week.” I said, “Really you would drive two mornings a week?” Because it was almost an hour commute for him back to Microsoft, which was further away and he said, “Yeah, I will.” He started doing it and about three weeks into the school year, a mom sidled up to me and said, “Do you notice anything different going on in this classroom?” I said, “Yes, so many dads are coming in and dropping off.” She said, “Yeah, we went home and said to our husbands, ‘by gosh, if Bill Gates can do it, so can you.'” So inadvertently we role modeled by asking what I needed and Bill offering, we role modeled something in the community and that’s what change looks like. TB: One common theme in your story is that you don’t bow down to institutions just for the sake of doing so. I’m thinking, in particular, the Catholic Church and contraception. What did you learn from that experience where you were on the front page of the Vatican newspaper about how to approach it in a way that creates change while still being able to exist within the institution? Gates: What I have learned is to look for our common humanity and look at where we are the same and not different. And what I see in parents all over the world is that they love their children and they have the same hopes and dreams for their children that we have here in the United States. Yet women can’t fulfill their hopes and dreams for their children because of lack of access to contraceptives, voluntary access. So as I would be traveling and, women kept bringing this up over and over and over to me, I honestly, because of my Catholic roots, kind of wanted to turn away from it and say, “No, somebody else will do that.” But the truth is 220 million women were asking us for this tool. So I finally realized I would overcome my own fears. I learned how to be a more courageous leader, quite honestly, and how to say, “What do I believe in?” As I started to realize, I have met so many women … who have died in childbirth. Men, women who say, “My sister died in childbirth.” “My mom had struggled.” “We know babies who’ve died.” I thought, “It’s a man-made rule to say we women can’t use contraceptives” and yet my religion also says, “Love thy neighbor.” If you love thy neighbor and you empathize with them, you deliver the tool that women, and more than 90 percent use [it] in the United States. I learned that I needed to speak my truth even if my church disagrees with me. And my truth is that I believe in saving other lives. MN: I think that story reflects a broader theme throughout the book, which is often in your work in the Gates Foundation, you go in seeking to address a problem like women’s maternal health and realize that you have to get to the root of the problem, which is a lot more complicated. I’m thinking of the sex workers in India whom you wanted to get to use condoms to stem the tide of HIV and they told you, “We need you to do something about violence.” And it was a similar situation where it didn’t seem it was quite in the Gate’s Foundation’s charter, but you ended up going there. So I wonder if there are lessons from that that can be translated to some of the inequity that women in the American workforce face? We are seeing a lot of the symptoms. How do you get to the root of the problem? Gates: I think you listen. You listen to women and you hear what they’re telling you and you hear the cacophony of voices when they say to you, “This isn’t working. Yes, you may want us to lead more but we can’t lead if we need time off to care for our loved ones. We’re in charge of taking the child to the doctor and being there for the homework and being there to comfort them when they have tears. You’re putting us in an impossible situation.” Then you listen to what women are telling you. You collect the data and you decide to create change and all you’ve got to do is set a goal and do it. Paid family medical leave, we just need a policy. We need to stop acting like it’s possible to do what women are doing all over the United States, which is working and raising families. We just have to listen to them and then we have to move forward, set goals, and make things happen. And stop saying, “Hey, these issues are the fault of women.” No, these are barriers that society’s created that have held women back. MN: Melinda Gates, thank you so much for joining us. Gates: Thanks for having me, Monica and Todd.
HP’s new gaming laptop has more screens for more content

HP’s new gaming laptop has more screens for more content

9:41am, 14th May, 2019
There’s something about gaming laptops that make manufacturers do weird things. It’s kind of wonderful, in a way. Companies tend to give their teams a much wider berth for strange and novel designs, and HP’s Omen line is certainly no stranger. Designs that tend to be relegated to the concept shelf of history actually hit the market, and indeed, the Omen X 2S is currently on target for a May/June release. The defining characteristic of the $2,700 notebook is almost certainly the inclusion of a second screen that lives just above the keyboard. HP’s not the first to attempt such a thing — in fact, we might actually be approaching a trend here. The six-inch secondary display is considerably smaller than the 15-inch mean dealie. It’s designed to provide supplementary information at a glance. While the idea of a secondary screen has been around for some time, I do think HP’s at least being fairly realistic about how it will primarily be used. Rather than assuming that game developers are going to create content specifically for the 1080p touchscreen, HP suggests that gamers will almost certainly use it for other apps entirely. It suggests chatting in WeChat and WhatsApp, using Spotify and watching Twitch and YouTube videos. In other words, it will essentially serve the same function as just sticking your phone on your laptop — but this one is built in. Oh, and HP sells now, so you can coordinate with your new dual-screen laptop.
‘Ghost Work’ explores the ups and mostly downs of the hidden gig economy

‘Ghost Work’ explores the ups and mostly downs of the hidden gig economy

6:28pm, 14th May, 2019
Chances are the last time you ordered something, chatted with customer service, or looked something up online, you didn’t give much thought to who was making sure the information you were looking at was accurate. Welcome to ghost work, the hidden human forces working to ensure that what you get is what you think it is. Ghost work differs from the typical jobs associated with the gig economy, like Uber and Lyft drivers or Airbnb hosts, in which you do interact with someone. Ghost work refers to the teams worldwide who are captioning photos, flagging and removing inappropriate content, or even writing, designing or coding a project to move it along. Authors Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri are both senior researchers at Microsoft Research, where they came together to write . In the book, they tackle explaining this new and ever-changing workforce, one that will continue to displace the traditional 9-to-5 world with on-demand tasks. As more jobs and people shift to ghost work, it raises certain dilemmas: How do workers find quality jobs? How will companies find quality workers? How will we move toward this new work ecosystem, one that overwhelmingly takes advantage of its workers, underpaying them and shifting the burden of many parts of employment, such as providing their own hardware, software, training, and more, onto the worker without any established rights to protect them? I’ll be moderating a discussion with Gray and Suri at in Seattle on Wednesday evening. In advance of the event, we spoke about the ins and outs of this new gig economy — tasks being cranked out behind a computer, 24/7, around the world — and a near-future that affects us all. How did you come to the decision to tackle the issue of “ghost work?” Siddharth Suri. Photo: Peter Hurley Siddharth Suri: Back in 2008, while at Yahoo! Research, I wanted to conduct behavioral experiments to understand how the structure of the network people are part of influences their ability to cooperate. At the time, these kinds of experiments were typically done with undergraduate students sitting in a university computer lab. The problem was that at Yahoo! we didn’t have any undergraduates. So I, along with my colleagues, figured out how to use crowdsourcing sites, like Amazon Mechanical Turk to conduct experiments with human subjects. MTurk provided an always available crowd of workers that we could pay to participate in our experiments. We started off by doing experiments similar to those had previously been done in the lab setting. But quickly thereafter we pushed this new methodology to see what we could study that wasn’t previously possible. We did experiments that took place in a more realistic setting than a computer lab with a more diverse population. We also figured out how to do experiments with hundreds of workers working simultaneously, and we did experiments that took place every day for a month. Around this time the psychology community heard about this work and moved many of their experiments from the classroom to an online setting. Today it’s almost taken for granted that a researcher conducted, at least part of, their experiments on MTurk. But whenever I would give a presentation someone in the audience would always ask, “Who are the workers?” I would give statistics about the demographics, but I didn’t really know beyond that. So in 2012, shortly after I started at Microsoft Research NYC, Mary [L. Gray] approached me and asked if I’d like to collaborate on doing an ethnography on the workers. I thought it was very cool that an anthropologist and a computer scientist were interested in the same thing. So I said yes, and the project was born. The downsides of ghost work: In the introduction, you write that “Joan, with years of practice, now knows how to piece together an average 10-hour day that will bring in roughly $40 worth of such tasks.” The online marketplace has actually driven down what professionals can charge for work. Do you see any way of improving the pay scale for workers online? SS: At first glance these markets might seem very efficient. There is a list of tasks that a worker can search, choose and do. There is a large pool of workers for requesters to choose from. So it would seem there would be very little friction in matching a worker with a task. But when you look closer you see a lot of friction. The search functionality on these platforms generally doesn’t work very well so workers have to collaborate with one another off the platform to find good work. Workers don’t get paid for this overhead they incur, and it’s time they could be spending working. Many platforms only allow the requesters to see a worker’s reputation but not vice versa. Finally, it is very common on these platforms that only a few requesters that put up the overwhelming majority of the tasks. So the deeper you look you see that the requesters have the majority of the power in these markets. Workers have little choice but to accept whatever wage rate these requesters offer, as there is often no way for workers to bargain. Economists call this monopsony. So to improve the pay scale for workers we need to decrease these frictions and balance the power in the market. We would need all platforms to let both sides of the market, workers and requesters, see the reputation of the other party. We would need platforms to seriously invest in their search functionality. We would need more requesters putting up more tasks and more types of tasks. Finally, for those platforms who don’t allow workers to bargain for wages, that would help balance the power as well. Were you surprised by the other downsides that come with ghost work, like hyper-vigilance and a lack of direction on projects? SS: I was surprised by how much of the transaction costs got pushed onto the workers. The specific transaction cost I was most surprised by was hyper-vigilance. When you first look at these platforms it appears there are many requesters posting many jobs, so it looks like there is a lot of choice for the workers. In reality, only a few requesters post the majority of the work, and the best, most lucrative work gets snapped up quickly so workers have to constantly be on the lookout. Requesters also reported seeing the consequences of hyper-vigilance. They said whenever they posted a task there would be a flood of workers trying to do it which made it hard for the requesters to choose the most qualified worker. So both sides of the market were losing due to this inefficiency. This finding showed a nice interplay between anthropology and computer science. Mary’s interviews found out that workers feel the need to constantly be on call for good work. Then we conducted behavioral experiments to measure how much do workers value, in terms of dollars, some flexibility in when they do a task. The upsides of ghost work: There were a lot of pleasant surprises here, like camaraderie and creativity. What surprised you when you started asking people what they liked about the work? SS: I had been doing work in crowdsourcing for over five years, and I had no idea that workers collaborate and communicate. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but it was definitely not in foresight. When I think of the term “crowd” I think of independent individuals. I would bet that most computer scientists thought that as well. But it turns out the crowd is actually a network. It’s just that the API requesters use to hire workers hides the connections between them. The API lets a requester hire one worker, or a collection of workers, but it doesn’t show you who they might be connected to. It turns out that workers use these connections to re-create the office watercooler. They congregate in online forums to offer each other social support, blow off steam, and share best practices. The finding that workers form their own social networks and how we mapped the network is one of my favorite findings in the book. Mary L. Gray. Photo: Adrianne Mathiowetz As more work transitions online, what are some full-time fields you see transitioning to ghost work, or more “macro-tasks,” in the near future? Mary L. Gray: If history is any indicator, most knowledge work and information service jobs that can be, at least in part, sourced, scheduled, routed, managed, shipped and billed through a mix of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), the internet, and a sprinkle of AI are up for grabs. Ghost work is not a niche job so much as a mechanism for dismantling of full-time jobs and transforming them into task-driven work done on contract. If trends continue at the current rate, economists estimate that by the early 2030s, tech innovation could dismantle and semi-automate roughly 38 percent of jobs in the U.S. alone (John Hawksworth et al., UK Economic Outlook: Prospects for the Housing Market and the Impact of AI on Jobs. London: PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2017). The most obvious fields in the thick of transition are healthcare and retail. For example, it’s now possible to route all the requests for following up with a healthcare professional and turning the callbacks, patient guidance, appointment scheduling, and other bits of office work into tasks that can be distributed to a host of people able to answer a quick customer query, compare calendars, and decipher clinician’s written notes so that they stay attached to a patient record. None of those tasks need to happen in front of a patient or in the medical office. Or, in the case of retail, U-Haul now allows customer service texts to be routed to on-demand workers who can pick up queries about road closures or store hours and reply on-the-spot, no matter where the customer generating the question might be. Law and financial services are also easy targets because so much of the filing rules and legal guidelines are spelled out. Any work that has some rote directions to it can be structured in a way that a person can be brought in to double-check how the software took the available information, like a tax law, and applied it to something a customer added, like their annual income. In essence, a person is threaded into the loop to check the math before the filing heads to the IRS. That’s exactly the type of service that Intuit and LegalZoom offer now. Can you talk more about how the Microsoft permatemp case was a miss for establishing worker rights in this arena? MLG: In the late 1980s, Microsoft was thrust into the spotlight not so much for its status in the growing tech industry—it was already a big name in software—as for its approach to meeting the intense staffing needed to constantly test out new products and prototypes. Microsoft was assigning temporary workers tasks that were virtually identical to what their permanent staff did. These “permatemps” spent years on software projects with the same responsibilities, reporting to the same management, and on full-time hours as their full-time counterparts. In many cases, everyone was making the same amount of money and had the same benefits, except for stock options extended to full-time employees only. By 1989, the IRS had grown wary of this arrangement and audited Microsoft’s staffing procedures. The IRS ended up deciding that only about 600 of Microsoft’s independent contractors should be reclassified as permanent employees, because their work was entirely under Microsoft’s control. In 1992, a group of temporary workers filed a class-action suit (Vizcaino v. Microsoft) against Microsoft claiming that they were common-law employees and should receive the same benefits as permanent staff. In 2000, after nearly eight years of litigation, roughly 8,000 Microsoft permatemps received a settlement of $97 million. Without a court ruling, the question of what kinds of workers these permatemps were and what kinds of benefits and protections they deserved was never resolved. Keep in mind the timing. The case settled just as the dot.com bubble popped. Post-permatemp, Big Tech could lean heavily on a contingent workforce to rebuild. The permatemp settlement left new start-ups and tech companies that had weathered the economic downturn of the early ’00s in charge of interpreting 1940s-era labor laws written for assembly-line workers to set the terms for hiring coders, designers and a host of other newly unemployed creatives on contract. Small companies rising from the ashes of the crash started everyone on-contract until they proved too valuable to lose once their contract ran out. This became the default mode of hiring in Silicon Valley. The cadre of mostly white, middle-class, college-educated 20 and 30-somethings hired by tech companies to work on projects neither shared a professional identity nor a particular interest in organizing for their rights. Sociologist Gina Neff writes about this moment beautifully in her book . These workers were happy to have decent paychecks and some semblance of upward mobility (or least some relief from feeling knocked off that trajectory). Competition for some workers, particularly freelance software developers, heated up. Some individuals moved around to get better compensation, but the churn made it even harder to organize workers’ interests. The settlement is the great irony of the tech industry: the tech industry could’ve never cycled through so many failed projects—moved so fast, broke so many things—if it had not been able to rely on a contingent workforce, hired to tackle 18-month build cycles and released when the software update shipped. Add to the mix the instability introduced by the start-up acquisitions and company mergers that meant a quarterly reinvention of what jobs were “mission critical” and you have the perfect storm for undoing worker solidarity and shared vision for a long-term future that had been the main organizing tactics for most of the history of labor in the United States. Tech companies didn’t know it at the time, but they would become increasingly dependent on contract staffing for almost every business operation. Now they, like the contract workers, are stuck with an odd set of rules about how long someone can contract with a single company and stay in a specific role there; the limits on their access to workplace amenities, like gyms, commuter buses, or after-work pizza parties; and whether they have a right to organize or collectively bargain at their workplace. The opportunity lost was two-fold: Had the case gone to court, we would have had an answer to what are the corporate responsibilities to workers who are invaluable for a specifically defined project that may last several months or, if things go well, a couple of years? Are these workers any less valuable to a company’s “return on investment” in some measurable way and, if not, shouldn’t they get the same benefits as someone recruited for a less-defined project or term of service? And, bigger than that, had the case continued, we could have had a robust, public debate about the rights of every worker, no matter where they work or their hours on the job to basics, like healthcare, retirement, paid leave, continuing education, and the other protections that, today, are reserved for those who land full-time employment. Your suggestions for a brighter ghost work future: better healthcare options, hours, projects, teamwork, etc. How likely is that more companies will adopt the creativity/collaboration mindset like or ? Or will the trend be to continue to push the burdens of the work life (software, admin costs, benefits, learning curves, etc.) all on the workers? MLG: The answer to this question really depends on consumers and citizens. If history tells us anything it’s that the collective fate of workers is a moral and political question that should not be determined by market forces, even if they come from the good intentions of fair-minded businesses like LeadGenius and Amara… Our global economy is driven by information and service work. Businesses make their money on finding new consumer markets dependent on the exchange of an ever-evolving set of service experiences and information. Yet, our labor laws still operate as though most of us will learn one set of skills, enter the workforce, and hold a 9-5 job with the same employer for most of our work lives. This is an outdated snapshot of how our global economy works. Our research offers solid, empirical evidence that when platform companies recognize and address the needs of workers, they get better information services. Does this increase operational costs? Yes. In the short-term. But should businesses pay more rather than be allowed to shift business costs to independent workers? If you were an independent worker, what would you answer? Right now, consumers are getting inexpensive platform services at the expense of workers. Are we willing to pay more to see workers’ conditions improve? And are we, as citizens, motivated to lobby for changes to existing labor laws so that every worker, no matter their employment status, has access to the basics to make work life sustainable? Shining a spotlight on ghost work conditions—a labor market defined by projects done on-contract where there is no promise of steady employment or career advancement—is an opportunity to debate what we want the future of work to look like. Ghost workers have pulled together to stand for their rights, like the to Jeff Bezos you cited in the book. What are the likelihoods that more workers will mobilize to fight for better rights in the online workplace? MLG: Lyft and Uber drivers recently in solidarity to demonstrate their frustration with both companies’ astronomical IPO valuation. These drivers are the visible tip of an iceberg of work below the surface of APIs. These drivers took aim at the larger industry of ride-sharing services rather than a specific platform. As more and more knowledge workers come to depend on platform services to pick up projects distributed as task-based work for hire, there will be more chances to organize workers to mobilize for their rights to improve work conditions, no matter what platform they use to find work. Because any one online workplace is dependent on the larger ecosystem of platform companies, it will, likely take fighting to redefine what it means to be gainfully employed as an independent worker to meaningfully convert ghost work conditions to a sustainable version of on-demand employment. We are at the very beginning of a labor movement among independent workers finding their common cause in calling on a right to fair treatment and control over their lives. It’s likely they’ll succeed if we collectively see how this is about fighting for all our employment rights, not just the rights of a poor few, doing a niche job. Do you eventually see large established platforms, like Microsoft and Amazon, implementing any of the suggested changes to improve their services for both requesters and workers? MLG: Large tech companies, notably Microsoft and Google, have already put in place requirements that their labor contracting services provide benefits, like paid leave and healthcare. This is a step in the right direction. And, arguably, the biggest brand names in tech have the most to gain by making the AI labor supply chain fueling tech advancement as transparent and equitable as possible. Large companies, like Nike, learned this as they came to grips with the horrific labor conditions that went into producing their products. Consumers, particularly younger ones, are statistically likely to care more about where what they buy or eat comes from and how it was produced. There’s no reason to believe that tomorrow’s consumers will be any less scrutinizing about the sourcing and labor conditions that went into their favorite information services. Odds are good that the future of work will be augmented through technologies rather than automated outright. Companies that equip both consumers and workers for this future have the most to gain from leading the industry in setting the bar for creating dignity and sustainability as they build technologies for future workers. You have strong conclusion that the future of work will include an ever-changing relationship between AI and people, dispelling the popular notion that AI will completely displace people in the workplace. Did you know this going into the project, or did the research help you come to this conclusion? SS: The research most definitely helped us come to this conclusion. As an anthropologist, Mary believes that computers will never be able to emulate human intellect. As a computer scientist, I believe machines are currently very far from human intelligence, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get there or not. I don’t think anyone knows, and I’m not even sure anyone can know right now given our current understanding of cognition. But I do believe that we’re many decades from knowing the answer to this question and I respect the creativity and ingenuity of scientists and engineers. In discussing our different viewpoints we realized that whatever we believe about the end point ignores how we get there, and that’s a huge part of what this book is about. For the foreseeable future, AI systems will require human labor, and our goal was to shine a light on those humans. by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri is out today. The authors speak with GeekWire book reviewer Molly Brown at on Wednesday, May 15, in Seattle.
VR’s most popular game is getting more features (and more expensive)

VR’s most popular game is getting more features (and more expensive)

6:17pm, 14th May, 2019
VR’s most hyped game is getting a price bump later this month as it expands the amount of headsets that it’s playable on. We did a big deep-dive last week on Beat Saber, the best seller from a tiny Prague VR studio that’s pulling in big revenues. The game is part Guitar Hero, part Fruit Ninja, and you’ve got some light sabers to guide you through EDM tunes. It’s sold over 1 million copies. This week, the company Beat Games shared some updates that are likely to increase those revenues further as the company grows more confident that they’ve ironed out most of the game’s bugs. On May 21, Beat Games is bumping the price from $20 to $30 on Valve’s Steam store and the Oculus Home platform, bringing the price in line with the PS VR version. This price bump comes as the company abandons the “Early Access” title, a classifier that has long signified that a game is in beta and hasn’t had all of the kinks ironed out. With this, the studio detailed in a , they feel the game has reached a “stable version,” and that it is now a “full game.” When the game exits early access, it will be picking up a long-promised level editor so that gamers can create custom levels for their own audio tracks. The price change on May 21 isn’t an arbitrary date, that’s when Oculus will be releasing both of its new headsets, the Rift S and Quest. Speaking of the Quest, Oculus had introduced a feature called cross-buy that would enable users who already owned a copy of a game on Rift to let users download that game for free on Quest. On , Beat Games noted today that they won’t be supporting this for the base game, so Quest users will still have to pay up, though the studio said they will enable the feature for add-ons like additional music packs. Beat Saber is going to be unified across all platforms moving forward, meaning you won’t see certain versions getting updates that the others won’t get for a while. This opens up the potential for cross-platform multiplayer as the studio continues to work on a mode for multiple concurrent users. The price jump comes next week, you’ll still be able to score the game at the Early Access price before May 21.
Apple-picking robots gear up for U.S. debut in Washington state

Apple-picking robots gear up for U.S. debut in Washington state

9:06am, 13th May, 2019
Abundant Robotics’ apple picking system was developed in collaboration with Washington state apple growers. (Abundant Robotics Photo) Next fall, as you browse the produce section at your local grocery store, pay close attention to the apples. You might be witnessing American history. For the first time, some of the apples sold in the U.S. will be picked by a robot rather than human hands. That’s thanks to agricultural automation startup , the maker of apple harvesting machines that will partake in Washington state’s next harvest. “This will be the first season that we’re actually ready to harvest commercially,” said Abundant CEO . “It’s incredibly exciting.” Abundant’s picker has more in common with a really smart Hoover vacuum than a human hand. The robot moves down rows of orchards and uses artificial intelligence with a dash of LIDAR to search for ripe apples. Once spotted, a robotic arm with a vacuum gently sucks the apples from the tree into a bin. The achievement is owed to advances not only in machine learning and robotics but also in agriculture. The architecture of apple trees has evolved over the decades, and it’s now common to grow them on trellises like you would tomatoes or cucumbers. Modern apple trees are also smaller, derived from dwarf varietals that yield more per acre and produce fruit more quickly after being planted. These horticultural leaps have allowed farmers to double their apple yields. They’ve also made the job of picking easier for humans and, now, for robots. Karen Lewis, a tree fruit specialist at Washington State University who has worked with Abundant and other robotics startups, said that apple trees have reached a “sweet spot” for robotic harvesting. Orchards are now sufficiently uniform and predictable for machines to reliably pick fruit, and canopies are narrow enough for sunlight, the human eye and vision systems to penetrate. Successful tech companies, she said, are the ones that listen to what farmers need. “We’re not going to let technology be the driver here. Horticulture needs to be the driver.” The U.S. debut comes following a rollout in New Zealand, where Abundant began a commercial harvest earlier this year. Steere said the decision to make the global debut in New Zealand rather than Washington was based purely on seasonal luck. He added that Abundant owed a lot to the Washington growers, who gave the startup crucial support and feedback in its early years. “The special thing about Washington is the scale, the sophistication and the openness to supporting innovation,” he said. Steere declined to say how many machines would be put to use this fall or which growers Abundant is working with. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Abundant has raised $12 million with backing from GV, formerly Google Ventures, among others. The startup formed out of the robotics division at SRI International, a research lab in California. Abundant’s main competition is Fresh Fruit Robotics, an Israeli startup that’s developing a picker that uses a claw-like appendage. Both companies have received funding from the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. Steere and his team have been developing the robots with help from growers in Washington state for the past six years. The process has involved both give and take: Abundant received feedback on how to improve the machines, and growers have adapted their practices to work with automation. “It’s not that people haven’t wanted to automate harvesting fruit, it’s that it’s never been possible,” Steere said. “Now we’re making it possible.” Modern apple orchards often feature smaller trees with narrow canopies. (WSU Photo) Wherever automation appears, so does the question of whose jobs might be displaced. But American farmers have for years an are increasingly dependent on foreign seasonal labor. Approvals for H-2A visas, which allow foreigners to do agriculture-related work in the U.S. temporarily, increased by a factor of five over the past 13 years, according to the USDA. The program now accounts for around 8 percent of the total agricultural workforce. In Washington state, those seasonal worker visas exploded from 3,014 to 24,862 in the past eight years. “We’re being squeezed,” said Lewis. “There’s substantial pressure from not being able to attract and retain a workforce.” That labor shortage has been accompanied by higher wages. In Washington state, the minimum wage is set to jump by $1.50 to $13.50 an hour next year, an increases that Lewis said could amount to a quarter of a million dollars for a grower that manages 250 acres. The typical American farm worker makes $11.84 per hour. (USDA data / GeekWire chart) Farmers have also been battered by trade wars, which have , and they face threats from . Robots could help carry some of the weight of Washington state’s enormous apple harvest, which supplies nearly in the U.S., according to the U.S. Apple Association. The U.S. ranks second globally in apple production, behind China. Agricultural robot shipments are from 60,000 units today to more than 727,000 in 2025, according to market research firm Tractica. Still, replacing people with new technology is “scary and expensive,” Lewis said. Lewis is hopeful that the robots are finally reaching a point where they can make growers more profitable. “We’ve had a bit of over promise, under deliver” from tech companies, she said. “That has led to fatigue among growers.” Abundant’s leadership boasts some agricultural street cred. Steere grew up in a family of farmers, spending time on his grandfather and uncle’s cotton and soybean farms. Abundant co-founder Michael Eriksen was raised on a dairy farm in Denmark. And Curt Salisbury, another co-founder, is a native of the Columbia Basin, one of Washington state’s main apple-growing regions. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated with combines, the big machines that would go through and harvest soybeans, or cotton pickers that would drive through and pick cotton,” Steere said. “We get to make these machines for an industry that’s never had that kind of automation before.”