November 21, 2018

Pritam Gupta

Pritam Gupta has 6319 articles published.

Kindred’s robots help retailers handle fulfillment centers — and take on Amazon

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Since taking the reins as chief executive of Kindred at the beginning of the year, Jim Liefer has been focused on commercializing his company’s autonomous robots. But unlike forward-projecting use-cases for robots that may (or may not) one day take over for human beings in a wide swath of functions, Kindred’s current robots are purpose-built for the floor of retail fulfillment centers. That puts Kindred in the middle of an interesting business question: Given rising consumer expectations associated with online ordering, can anyone match or beat Amazon when it comes to speed, accuracy and efficiency?

With a background in operations at Walmart and One Kings Lane, Liefer asserts that his company’s core IP represents a significant advancement in retail operations. That’s because while industrial robots have worked well on manufacturing floors, robots have historically underperformed in e-commerce fulfillment centers, which require systems to handle objects of various shapes and sizes. Kindred’s approach is also notable because of its low-risk model that doesn’t require customers to make major capital investments. Instead of paying for the robot hardware, clients such as Gap pay based on the robots being able to successfully pick and sort items in a warehouse.

In the interview below, Liefer was eager to elaborate on his company’s core product, SORT. He was also happy to address the labor and throughput challenges facing Kindred’s clients as they look to thrive this holiday season. Finally, he offered his candid perspective on the ongoing debate over AI and jobs.

Gregg Schoenberg: Jim, it’s good to see you. I was interested in talking with you because Kindred is focused on the unsexy, but very important part of robot and AI technology that deals with e-commerce and gives insight into how our economy is changing. And by unsexy, I mean that your robots don’t do parkour.

Jim Liefer: Thanks, Gregg.  I’ll start out by saying that sexy is in the eye of the beholder. If you came from retail operations companies like Walmart, sexy would be not having to re-engineer or re-architect my building every year to handle the next peak.

GS: Fair enough. So where has that “sexy” journey taken the company today?

JL: We’ve evolved from a research and engineering company into a customer-focused organization. Today, there are four primary components that Kindred is working on: vision capability, grasping/manipulation capability, ability to identify what’s being held onto and then placing an item somewhere.

GS: And today, your solution is being applied to retail fulfillment centers?

JL: Yes, in retail fulfillment distribution centers, but not the consumer-facing side of retail. Still, there is a tremendous amount of automation in these centers. There are sorters and power conveyance, and there are forklifts running around. But we saw gaps in those in-between moments, the need to take individual pieces from automation A to automation B. That’s where Kindred now can fill those gaps, and it’s a big market.

GS: Do you make robots or do you make cobots?

JL: We’re absolutely collaborating with the humans, but we’re not letting them get that close to the robot. We’re letting the humans do what they do best, like higher-level thinking and dealing with more ambiguity than the robot can handle.

GS: But your solution is designed with the intent that there are going to be people that interact with it?

JL: For some period of time to come, I believe that is going to be true. That’s the design of what we have now. The reason I say it that way is that even today, the aspects of how product arrives at our solution varies, and some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.


GS: At the core of the solution is your autograsp technology, right?

JL: The autonomous grasp algorithm is the core of our AI technology, which is combined with vision and grasping capabilities.

GS: I’m guessing that even though that grasp technology looks simple, it’s actually a big feat of both software and hardware innovation.

JL: Yes, absolutely. The grasping technology is a combination of AI that can understand the ambiguity that it’s dealing with. But there’s also the the physical side of it. Not only do you have to be able to get to a grasp-point, but you also have to grip it correctly.

Some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.

GS: What’s the inherent challenge with getting the gripping correct?

JL: It needs to be precise enough to pick up the item you want. It also has to have enough torque to be able to hold onto the item when you’re moving it.  

GS: Why is that so critical?

JL: Because you have to move at a speed that’s equivalent to a human or better in order to not lose it.

GS: What’s the installation process associated with putting a system into a facility?

JL: We literally roll them off the truck, roll them into place, plug them into 110 power and a data port, and maybe do some final provisioning of software. All in, it takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

Business Model

GS: I know you don’t actually sell the solution to a customer. Can you walk me through your model?

JL: In the days when I was in a Walmart facility and I wanted to implement a new solution, I would go out to a service provider and they would tell me how many millions of dollars to plunk down. I would pay for it and then someone would come in and build it, and then they would go away and I would try to operate it.

GS: How antiquated.

JL: In our world today, they tell us their throughput need and how many products they are trying to serve with robots. We then deploy the number of robots to the customer. We have an agreement that says you need 10 robots or whatever the number is, and we deploy robots that will serve X amount of products.

GS: How does the money flow work?

JL: It’s a robots-as-a-service model, where every time we successfully grasp and stow a product or item, they pay us something.

It takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

GS: A commission of sorts.

JL A commission, right. So it’s not a purchase and walk away. And there are several reasons why we think that’s compelling for the customer. One, because it’s not a capital expenditure play for them; it doesn’t have to be multiple weeks, months or even years to get onto the capital budget. It’s an operating expense play.

GS: That sounds like a key consideration.

JL: Think of it this way. When an operating expense comes into play, in many cases, a director-level person of a fulfillment center can make the choice: Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?  The other is that because we’re providing a service to the customer, we’re right there alongside them. It’s not as though we gave them something and said figure it out.

GS: Aren’t you making it very easy for clients to keep the robots around? Because it’s not costing them to have the robots sit on the fulfillment center floor.

JL: Well, okay, good question. In our model, we still have a minimum for the customer,  because we’re paying down the robot. We don’t want to have a robot sitting there idle.

GS: In that case, what’s the break-even on how long the robot needs to be on site with the client?

JL: It’s somewhere between a year and a year and half to get the payback to cover the cost of building the robot.

The Kindred.AI sorting robot in the lab.

GS: Does the counterparty risk become a factor? Because these machines are obviously expensive.

JL: Yes, that comes into play. At the same time, the robots themselves are quite… I want to say the word mobile. It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby. Of course, we don’t want to do that, but it’s possible to do it.


GS: Of course not. But you’ve spent many years at Walmart, and you’re obviously very aware of the existential threat that Amazon poses to just about everybody that isn’t Amazon. Does Kindred aspire to help others thrive in a retail economy that is increasingly dominated by Amazon?

JL: Yes. It levels the playing field, because if our customer, the retailer, is able to have better throughput, get the products into the hands of the customer faster, then they have the ability to hold onto their customers. If they don’t do it, then those customers are going to go somewhere else.

Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?

GS: Looking to the future, do you want to go deeper within the apparel channel, or do you see other retail applications for your grasping technology?

JL: To recap, we figured out a very difficult problem, which is how to handle clothing in a polybag with a label on it. What seems like the most logical and reasonable place to go is to smaller items and maybe toy items or jewelry.

GS: But it has to be in a bag?

JL: It doesn’t have to be in a bag. In testing, we can pick up a pen or a pencil. We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.


GS: Let’s dive into your technology a little deeper. Is your tech based on reinforcement learning or deep reinforcement learning?

JL: Actually, both. The way that we’re operating the current SORT robot is that there are multiple AI algorithms that are running in concert together. So there’s the autonomous grasp algorithm, there’s a grasp verification algorithm, there’s a stow algorithm; there are multiple algorithms that are running to maintain that speed and accuracy. Then, there’s our team in the Toronto office—

GS: —That’s the team working on deploying more reinforcement learning?

JL: Yes, the reinforcement learning which would replace some of the deep learning algorithms that we have in place today.

GS: I read up on Rich Sutton, who, based on my research, is a big deal in reinforcement learning—

JL: —Yes. He’s a big deal and is a mentor to several of our people.

It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby.

GS: Sutton describes reinforcement learning as a learning system that wants something. Can you describe in lay terms how this is central to Kindred’s technology and how it is different than deep Learning?

JL: Here’s how I think of reinforcement learning versus deep Learning. Reinforcement learning is allowing the algorithm to determine all of the possible outcomes and all of the possible permutations. Think about something in a space where you want you to go from point A to point B. In reinforcement learning, that robot will achieve the goal by doing something called body babbling, which looks like it’s jittering around, looking at all the different possible solutions.

GS: So it takes longer to train a reinforcement algo?

JL: Yes, because in deep Learning, you are going to give it some sort of structure within  parameters, because you sort of know what you want it to do. Then you look at body babbling, which is a much cleaner solution because the algorithm knows how to deal with all these variables because it’s explored every permutation.

GS: I saw that Kindred released a research paper last month. My top-line takeaway is that while reinforcement learning has made progress, it’s tough to train robots.

JL: I view it this way: In the last two years that I’ve been here at Kindred, I’ve seen things on a daily basis that I didn’t think were possible the week before or the month before. That’s a blanket statement, though, which is one of the reasons why I think people are anxious about AI and automation.

AI Anxiety

GS: So let’s talk about AI anxiety. Yesterday, I was on Bush Street and I watched this Cafe X robot serve coffee. Meanwhile, across the street, you’ve got this Blue Bottle that’s teeming with people, keeping its staff quite busy. Is that the future you see? Where workers are in demand, even in an era of well functioning robots that can grasp stuff?

JL: I  think back to Tower Records in San Francisco in the 90s. It used to be packed. I mean, that’s where I spent every weekend. You never thought that would end, perhaps like some people at the Blue Bottle today. But there’s that flip point.

GS: I appreciate that honest comment.

JL: To me, I just think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s bad. But I believe that we will embrace it, just as we embrace technology in our phones, because it will improve our lives in many ways and it will also make our lives more complicated.

GS: We’ve discussed previously, too, this idea that in the fulfillment centers where the Kindred robots are operating, there’s a labor shortage.

JL: Yes, there’s no employee there to do the job.

We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.

GS: And that’s because fulfillment centers are in locations that are often—

JL: —They’re clustered. They’re fighting for the same resources. Big Amazon has come in, they’re paying those workers more, so they’re siphoning all those workers away.

GS: What about temporary workers around the holidays?

JL: We said earlier that the robots are collaborative, working alongside and collaborating with the humans. Absolutely, there are places for the temporary workers to come in, and  I want those humans to be fulfilled. In terms of helping our customer, it’s so painful to get even a temporary worker, give them a job that’s very mundane, have them leave and then have to hire another temporary worker.

GS: But Kindred is giving jobs to people with gamer skills, too, right?

JL: Yes, on the tele-operation side. About 85 percent of the time, our algorithm can do everything on its own. But 15 percent of the time, we have a human in the loop who steps in and assists the robot for about a second and half, and then steps back out.

GS: When you’re recruiting for these people, are you recruiting in the typical places that tech companies look?

JL: These people have a wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets. They might be gamer types, but some of them have marketing degrees and some of them have engineering backgrounds. There’s also a pool of generalists, those jack-of-all-trades kind of people.

GS: But they need to have pretty good dexterity, right?

JL: I don’t think it’s highly required. A lot of it is just point and click.

GS: Well, on that non-techy note, Jim, thanks so much for your time.

JL: Thanks very much, Gregg.

This interview has been edited for content, length and clarity.

News Source = techcrunch.com

11 moments from the International Space Station’s first 20 years

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It was November 20, 1998, when an unprecedented international coalition of astronomers, engineers and rocket scientists saw years of collaboration come to fruition with the launch of the International Space Station’s first component. Since then, the largest spacecraft ever built has hosted innumerable astronauts, experiments and other craft. Here are a few notable moments in the history of this inspiring and decades-spanning mission.

1984: Reagan proposes the ISS — without Russia

The space station was originally going to be a U.S. effort, but soon became a collaboration with Canada, Japan and Europe, excluding the then-USSR. American-Russian relations were strained then, as you may remember, and although many in the space industry itself would have preferred working together, the political climate did not permit it. Nevertheless, initial work began.

1993: Clinton adds Russia to the bill

The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent rejuvenation of international relations led President Bush to bring them into the program in a limited fashion, as a supplier and as a guest on a shuttle mission. The next year, however, President Clinton one-upped him with the announcement that Russia would be a full partner. This was both a practical and political decision: Russian involvement would save billions, but it also helped bring Russia on board with other issues, like ICBM de-proliferation efforts. At any rate, designs were finally beginning to be built.

1998: The first components, Zarya and Unity, launch to orbit

Endeavour approaches Zarya when the latter was the only component in place.

Though persona non grata at first, Russia had the privilege of launching the first core component of the ISS on November 20, 1998, the anniversary we are celebrating today. The Zarya Functional Cargo Block is still up there, still being used, forming the gateway to the Russian side of the station.

One month later, Space Shuttle Endeavour took off from Launch Complex 39A (we’ve been there) carrying Unity Node 1. This too is up there now, attached since that day to Zarya.

2000: The first of many long-term occupants arrive

From left: Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev, aboard the station.

Almost exactly a year after Zarya went up, the first astronauts took up residence on the ISS — the first of 230 people so far to call the orbiting structure home. Bill Shepherd was NASA’s first representative, flying with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev; they would stay for about 141 days.

2003: Columbia disaster delays expansion

The fatal breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry following its 28th mission was tragedy enough that other shuttle missions were scrubbed for over two years. As these were the primary means of the U.S. adding to and maintaining the ISS, this responsibility passed to Roscosmos until shuttle launches resumed in 2005; crewed launches wouldn’t resume until mid-2006.

2007: Kibo goes up

Numerous modules have been added to the ISS over the years, but Japan’s Kibo is the largest. It took multiple missions to deliver all the pieces, and was only made possible by earlier missions that had expanded the solar power capacity of the station. Kibo contains a ton of reconfigurable space accessible from the pressurized interior, and has been popular for both private and public experiments that must be conducted in space.

2010: Enter the Cupola

If Kibo is the largest component, the Cupola is likely the most famous. The giant 7-window bubble looks like something out of science fiction (specifically, the front end of the Millennium Falcon) and is the location for the station’s most striking photography, both inside and out.

2014: Beautiful timelapses

With the Cupola in place, capturing imagery of the Earth from this amazing view became easier — especially with the increasingly high-quality digital cameras brought aboard by talented astronaut-photographers like Alexander Gerst and Don Pettit. The many, many photos taken out of this aperture have been formed into innumerable beautiful timelapses and desktop backgrounds, as well as witnessing incredible phenomena like aurora and lightning storms from a new and valuable perspective. It’s hard to pick just one, but Don Pettit’s “The World Outside My Window” above is a fabulous example, and Gerst’s 4K compilation is another.

2015: Gennady Padalka sets time in space record

During his fifth flight to space, Gennady Padalka set a world record for most time in space: When he returned to Earth he had logged a total of 878 days and change. That’s well ahead of the competition, which is almost exclusively Russian — though NASA’s Peggy Whitson is right up there with 666 days over three missions.

2016: Chinese station calling ISS, please pick up

It’s hardly crowded in space, but it can get lonely up there. So it’s nice that those who have the honor to fly reach out to each other. In this case China’s taikonaut Jing Haipeng recorded a heartwarming video message from the Chinese Tiangong-2 space station greeting the incoming ISS crew and praising the community of global cooperation that makes all this possible.

2018: Soyuz accident threatens long-term occupation

A crewed mission to the ISS with astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin encountered a serious fault during launch, fortunately resulting in no injuries or fatalities but shaking up the space community. The Soyuz rocket and capsule had more than proven themselves over the years but no risks could be taken with human life, and future missions were delayed. It was possible that for the first time since it was first entered, the ISS would be empty as its crew left with no replacements on the way.

Fortunately the investigation has concluded and a new mission is planned for early December, which will prevent such an historic absence.

2019? First commercial crew mission and beyond

Russia has borne sole responsibility for all crewed launches for years; the U.S. has been planning to separate itself from this dependence by fostering a new generation of crew-capable capsules that can meet and exceed the safety and reliability of the Soyuz system. SpaceX and Boeing both plan 2019 flights for their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules — though slipping dates and new regulatory attention may delay those further.

The ISS has a bright future despite its remarkable 20 years of continuous operation. It’s funded more or less through 2025, but there’s talk of new space stations from Russia and China both, while the U.S. eyes lunar orbit for its next big endeavor. It’s hard to imagine space now without an ISS full of people in it, however, and falling launch costs may mean that its life can be extended even further and for less cost. Here’s hoping the ISS has another two decades in front of it.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Autodesk agrees to buy PlanGrid for $875 million

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Autodesk announced plans to acquire PlanGrid for $875 million today. The San Francisco startup helped move blueprints from paper to the iPad when it launched in 2011.

This digitization of construction fits with Autodesk’s vision of digitizing design in general, and CEO Andrew Anagnost certainly recognized the transformational potential of the company he was buying. “There is a huge opportunity to streamline all aspects of construction through digitization and automation. The acquisition of PlanGrid will accelerate our efforts to improve construction workflows for every stakeholder in the construction process,” he said in a statement.

The company, which is a 2012 graduate of Y Combinator, raised just $69 million, so this appears to be a healthy exit for the them. PlanGrid took what was a paper-intensive task and shifted it to digital, taking a world of hand-written mark-ups and sticky notes onto the fledgling iPad.

In an interview with CEO and co-founder Tracy Young in 2015 at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, she said the industry was ripe for change. “The heart of construction is just a lot of construction blueprints information. It’s all tracked on paper right now and they’re constantly, constantly changing,” Young said at the time.

Those manual changes often resulted in errors she said, and that was costly for the contractors. As an engineer working for a construction company, who was at one time responsible for making the paper copies, she recognized that the process could be improved by moving it into the digital realm.

PlanGrid CEO Tracy Young onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in 2015

Her idea, which was kind of radical in 2011 when she started the company, was to move all that paper to the cloud and display it on an iPad. It’s important to remember that the enterprise was not rushing to the cloud in 2011, and most people considered the iPad at the time to be a consumer device, so what she and her co-founders were attempting was a true kind of industry transformation.

Young sees joining Autodesk as a way to continue building on that early vision. “PlanGrid has excelled at building beautiful, simple field collaboration software, while Autodesk has focused on connecting design to construction. Together, we can drive greater productivity and predictability on the jobsite,” she said in a statement.

PlanGrid currently has 400 employees, 12,000 customers and 120,000 paid users, and has been used on over a million construction projects worldwide, according to data provided by the companies. They believe that under Autodesk’s umbrella and combined with their existing product set, they can provide a complete construction solution and grow the business faster than PlanGrid could have on its own — pretty much the standard argument in an acquisition like this.

PlanGrid was efficient with the money it took. In fact the last raise was $40 million almost exactly three years ago. The deal is expected to close at the end of January pending the normal regulatory approval process.


News Source = techcrunch.com

Can Bitcoin find its practical use case as a currency in Latin America?

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Eduardo Gomez started with Bitcoin in 2012, though he didn’t quite understand what he was getting himself into nor how it would change his life.

Back in his home country of Venezuela, the struggling computer science student signed up to manually process thousands of captchas at a time, and he received Bitcoin in return. Little by little, Eduardo became intrigued. He saw bitrapreneurs pop-up all around him as savvy hackers set up mining operations that took advantage of the country’s subsidized though irregular electricity. He started reading more, writing more, and pretty soon he became a recognized authority on all things crypto.

Eventually he would be hired by a company that allows people to purchase things on Amazon using Bitcoin. When Venezuela became unlivable, Eduardo’s company helped him and his support team relocate to Argentina. In a moment of euphoria, Eduardo wrote:

Though Venezuela crumbled around him, Eduardo found a way to opt-out of his government’s mass-imposed misery. He still worries about his family and friends, but he’s grateful to have had a choice. Unlike the Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians and utopians who claim Bitcoin will save us from inevitable tyrannical government meddling, Eduardo feels Bitcoin actually did save him from tyrannical government meddling. He believes it can do the same for other Latin Americans, as well.

Since its triumphant arrival to mainstream polite conversation, Bitcoin and its underlying technology blockchain have promised to revolutionize everything from commerce to voting.

While blockchain appears to be fulfilling its promise, many wonder if Bitcoin will ever get around to acting as a viable currency rather than just a store of value or speculative asset.

While Bitcoin can be credited with spawning a new industry of cryptocurrency, in 2018 we still seem to be a ways away from purchasing ice cream or hourly parking with Bitcoin — or any other cryptocurrency for that matter.  

If Bitcoin is to become a viable means of exchange, Latin America would appear to be the currency’s first point of entry on its journey toward ubiquity. Indeed, the region’s long history of economic mismanagement makes Bitcoin adoption as much a necessity as a luxury.  

For example, when you arrive at Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas you’ll see an official exchange rate listed above the currency exchange kiosks, and you might be tempted to cash-in your U.S. dollars for whatever the local currency happens to be that month.

Maybe even before you leave the airport someone, possibly a taxi driver, will approach you and offer a completely different and far more beneficial exchange rate. Though the government purports to control the exchange rate across the country of 30 million people, it struggles to control the exchange rate inside the airport.

If you’re dining in Buenos Aires and you offer to pay in U.S. dollars, you’ll be happy to know you’ll receive a favorable exchange rate for your Benjamins. However, once you pull a bill from your pocket, you may find yourself in a seemingly nonsensical discussion with the waiter about the quality of the bill and how the slightly bent edges means a lower rate than the one initially offered.

Finally, if you arrive in Quito, Ecuador as a tourist, you’ll be delighted to see that the country has no currency of its own in circulation: the country has used the greenback since a financial crisis in 1999 destroyed the banking system and the country’s currency. In an act of desperation, the country switched to the U.S. dollar.  

Your glee may turn to discomfort after you ask a taxi driver to break a $20 bill and you’ll see him fidget nervously and probably ask you for exact change. Few things are harder in the Andean capital than breaking a $20. Never having the right mix of bills is one of the downsides of not controlling your own money supply.

For your average tourist, these encounters are befuddling. To economists, these incidents are both sad and bemusing: all of the worst-case currency management scenarios first-year economics students study in textbooks seem to come to life in the countries that are fed by the Amazon river and its tributaries — like a twisted Narnia for economists.

To the local populations of the aforementioned countries, managing currencies has turned common people into artisanal forex traders. While annoying, volatile currencies have been around for as long as anyone can remember, and people adjust their behavior in order to survive. If you want to buy an apartment in Buenos Aires, for example, you’ll be expected to arrive with the payment in U.S. dollars in cash. Best to invest in a good briefcase.

Unequal access to technology often means unequal access to the benefits of technology.

As crypto enters its peak or its decent, depending on who you ask, Latin America offers the perfect testing ground for the technology’s practical application. Specifically, Argentines and Venezuelans would appear to be the test group for the use of crypto currencies as an alternative to unstable and unreliable national currencies.

In a parallel world, both Argentina and Venezuela would be the region’s richest countries, were it not for their leaders’ penchants for mismanagement and corruption. With oil reserves greater than those of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela should be thriving. Instead, its experiment with socialism has resulted in more than two million people leaving the country, a wrecked economy and a humanitarian crisis that threatens regional stability.  

Argentina’s current crisis is far more complex, and yet also more predictable due to the country’s history of boom and bust.

Despite the initial optimism voiced by foreign investors when a right-leaning pro-market government came to power in 2017, such optimism has not been reflected in support for the peso.

The peso has suffered due to, amongst other factors, a strengthening dollar, dwindling foreign currency reserves and investor mistrust. Inflation caused by past policies of over-printing money to service local debt combined with the current government’s elimination of energy subsidies means that Argentines can’t be sure on Monday what their money will be worth on Friday.

The theatrics of Argentina’s politics also doesn’t inspire confidence, and breaking news can often send the peso on nosedives. Stories of corruption unfold like Emmy-winning soap operas.  

For example, the recently discovered notebooks of a government chofer reveal that businesses close to the current president are alleged to have paid bribes to its bitter rivals from the previous government. Regardless of their ideological differences, Latin America’s political class is often united in its penchant for corruption.

The cyclical nature of Argentina’s currency crisis is what gives some hope that the country can become the first to develop a thriving national Bitcoin market. Already a hotbed for blockchain-based companies such as Ripio, Buenos Aires has a higher percentage of businesses that accept Bitcoin than New York. By the end of 2018, Argentina will have more than 100 Bitcoin ATMs, a number expected to increase to 1,600 by the end of 2019.

For Agustina Fainguersch, an Argentine entrepreneur who helps companies, including many in Latin America as managing partner at Wolox, manage digital transformation through the adoption of technologies such as the blockchain, Bitcoin is a practical solution for the average Argentine just trying to make ends meet.

“In Argentina, we exchange pesos into dollars and then back again within the span of a week,” she says. Given that the peso has lost 50 percent of its value against the dollar since the beginning of 2018, most are changing money for the purpose of short-term survival rather than long-term savings. “Many Argentines are often just trying to make sure they have enough money to cover basic expenses.”

According to Fainguersch, the advantage Bitcoin has over other currencies is its increasingly availability, and as such acts as an alternative to the U.S. dollar. Fainguersch has seen how, over the span of a few years, more and more Argentines can access the cryptocurrency and easily exchange pesos. “So long as it’s less volatile than the peso, it’s attractive. Argentine’s have a long history of navigating volatility,” notes Fainguersch.

That volatility, however, is also a risk that places Bitcoin at a disadvantage when compared to the U.S. dollar. Also widely available, the dollar is relatively stable and relatively easy to exchange, though not without burdens and risks, such as falsified bills, hence the extra-value placed on crisp bills.

The future of Bitcoin will depend on which narratives become the meta-narratives.

For Matías Bianchi, the Argentine political scientist and founder of the regional think-tank Asuntos del Sur, the demand for Bitcoin in Argentina follows a familiar pattern: Like much technology that promises to democratize access to something, the benefits of said technology most likely end up helping a wealthy few at the expense of the increasingly hard-luck masses.

In the case of Bitcoin, Bianchi opines that its adoption in Argentina is driven in large part by a wealthy class that has always looked for ways to subvert the country’s institutions to protect its wealth and to benefit from speculative financial activities. “Bitcoin allows the elites to opt-out of the poor decisions made by the government they help install.” After all, unequal access to technology often means unequal access to the benefits of technology.

For Bianchi, talk of an alternative to the national currency is elitist hogwash. Even if a larger and larger percentage of Argentines use Bitcoin, Bianchi argues, 100 percent of Argentines still need to use pesos. As such, opting out of the peso is a luxury for some but not for a viable solution for all. In Bianchi’s view of the world, Bitcoin is more like a modern-day offshore account that removes wealth from the economy and shifts the burden of bad government to the poor. It’s like a Cayman Islands account on your phone, and in countries where corruption is rife and stability is rare, such technology is bound to thrive.

For Venezuelans arriving in Argentina like the aforementioned Eduardo Gomez, their new country’s currency woes are not unfamiliar. As previously mentioned, Eduardo was a student in Venezuela when he first discovered Bitcoin. As the bottom fell out of the Venezuelan economy, Bitcoin mining became a popular activity in a country where everything is subsidized, including energy. Eventually the government caught on and cracked down, but not before a nascent Bitcoin community took form.

Undemocratic Socialist governments tend to replace economic elites with elites who are connected to the sources of power, and, according to Gomez, people with connections in the government eventually took over the Bitcoin mining space. Venezuela even launched its own cryptocurrency, the Petro, whose value is tied to oil production. The Petro has been met with skepticism from both crypto-enthusiasts as well as average Venezuelans who have long lost faith that the government responsible for their problems is capable of solving them.

As previously mentioned, Venezuelans have been leaving their country en masse to escape the entirely man-made crisis that has engulfed their country, and more than 130,000 have settled in Argentina. Gomez sees the parallels between Argentina’s current predicament and the one he left behind in Venezuela, though he feels Argentina’s crisis is tame compared to the complete social breakdown suffered in Venezuela.  

Compared to Venezuela, trading Bitcoin in Argentina is much easier: users in both countries use LocalBitCoin.bom to connect with buyers and sellers to facilitate converting money to and from local currencies. The process is somewhat archaic and not without risks. Unlike in Venezuela, in Argentina many money exchangers also offer Bitcoin exchange services. Whereas in Venezuela buyers and sellers run the risk of the government discovering their Bitcoin activities and blocking their bank accounts, in Argentina the government is more concerned about individuals not declaring their income or capital gains.

Both Argentina and Venezuela have offered the ideal conditions for the development of national Bitcoin communities, including the two key ingredients: subsidized energy and unstable national currencies.

As a result, both countries have benefited from the emergence of developer communities focused both on cryptocurrencies as well as blockchain-enabled technologies. Nonetheless, neither country is likely to fulfill the Bitcoin fantasy of replacing their national currencies, nor even overtaking the greenback as an alternative to unstable national currencies.

Bitcoin’s ultimate use cases are more likely to appear along the lines of existing power structures. Wealthy people in Argentina will use Bitcoin to hide their money. Corrupt Venezuelan officials will find a way to enrich themselves at the cost of the struggling masses. Having said that, if Bitcoin becomes as stable as the U.S. greenback, its use as a store of value will continue to increase.

Other innovations will also emerge: as Gomez points point, the launch of Coinbase’s USD coin, a cryptocurrency pegged to the U.S. dollar, could make it a lot easier for people to move money between dollars, pesos and bitcoins without the need to carry physical cash. One of Argentina’s leading Bitcoin thinkers, Santiago Siri, has proposed to the country’s Central Bank that it hold 1 percent of its foreign currency reserves in cryptocurrency. Though the plan is unlikely to succeed, Argentina’s desperate circumstances has opened the door for out-of-the-box thinking.

Is it easier for technology to co-opt power than it is for power to co-opt technology?

The emergence of Bitcoin as an alternative to the U.S. dollar will not reduce the need for sound monetary policy, nor will the stability promised by the U.S. dollar become less attractive for the average Argentine or Venezuelan looking to make ends meet rather than speculate away their savings. In either case, Bitcoin does not replace the need for sound institutions.

Of course, if President Trump is successful in gaining control of the U.S. Federal Reserve in order to begin manipulating monetary policy to benefit his short-term political agenda, the U.S. dollar could lose its attractiveness. So far, however, U.S. institutions appear to be fairly resilient in the face of the type of intrusive leadership Latin Americans know all too well.

Though its proponents will continue to tout Bitcoin’s superiority vis-à-vis fiat currencies, Bitcoin’s ultimate challenge is that it is hard to understand and will therefore be defined by stories we tell about it. In other words, the future of Bitcoin will depend on which narratives become the meta-narratives: will Bitcoin be defined by the Eduardo Gomez stories of individuals who escape systems of tyranny thanks to Bitcoin, or the corrupt government officials who receive bribes in their anonymous crypto-wallet, or the drug traffickers who evades detection by shifting from U.S. dollar payments to crypto?

Over 50 years ago Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute a huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics.” Bitcoin is the perfect example of a surgery we are undertaking on the body politic without necessarily understanding the far-reaching consequences. We have to consider that making policy decisions based on the currency’s theoretical promise may not result in a better world.

At the same time, we should also be open to re-thinking how the world operates for the sake of empowering people through technology. The challenge for democratizing technologies is that they must take on and overcome existing power structures. In Latin America institutions are often weak, which is part of the reason why Bitcoin can flourish there: the poison and the antidote spring from the same well. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t powerful and resilient interests filling the voids left by those floundering institutions.

Ultimately the question for Bitcoin in Latin America and elsewhere in the world is following: Is it easier for technology to co-opt power than it is for power to co-opt technology? Argentina and Venezuela are putting that question to the test. The world watches.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Piano teams up with True[x] to combine advertising and paywalls

in 21st century fox/Advertising Tech/Delhi/India/Media/piano/Politics/Startups/truex by

Nearly every online publisher has launched or announced a paywall — but of course, even the ones that are successful won’t convince every reader, or even the majority of readers, to sign up. Now Piano and True[x] say they’ve found a more effective way to monetize the rest of the audience, without threatening crucial subscription revenue.

Piano is a company that’s built a range of publisher tools, including paywall and subscription management. True[X], meanwhile, is an adtech company that was acquired by 21st Century Fox a few years ago.

Piano’s global head of business development Jonas Rideout said the collaboration will allow publishers to present different messages to different audience members. This is something that Piano has been working on, but by working with True[x] specifically, it can present readers with the option to (temporarily) circumvent the paywall by watching a premium video ad.

According to Rideout, this takes advantage of Piano’s “out of the box segmentation,” which assesses reader loyalty based on things like how often they visit a site, where they’re coming from and how many pages they visit. It probably makes more sense to ask the most loyal readers to subscribe (since they’re the most likely to convert), but there’s another subset of readers who may be interested in the content, but aren’t actually going to pay — at least, not yet.

Those are the ones who will have the option to see an ad, so the publisher is still making money, and they’re also keeping the reader engaged in case they want to subscribe down the road.

“Maybe 1 to 3 percent of that audience is going to subscribe, but you’re worried about cooking your golden goose [by giving them a way to get around the paywall],” said Chris Shively, True[x]’s director of global business development. “Now you can actually provide that other 97 percent of the audience with a different experience. They’re getting to enjoy the product while you’re getting a significantly higher CPM.”

Shively declined to specify how well these ads monetize, except to say that they’re priced “significantly higher” than a standard display or video ad. He also said, “It’s very important to us that the user has a choice” — so even if you’re given the ad option, you can still choose to subscribe instead.

And to be clear, these ads aren’t an indefinite free pass. It’s a metered system, where the publisher can let the reader through the paywall a set number of times before they really do have to pay.

Piano and True[x] have already been testing this out with Ad Age, where they found that the visitors asked to view a video ad were significantly more likely to register later on. Among readers who watched the ad, there was a 17x increase in the current conversion rate, but even if you look at readers who were given the option and didn’t watch it, they were 3x more likely to register than those who were only presented with the registration option.

Rideout also noted that not every Piano publisher makes money through subscriptions (in fact, TechCrunch is a publisher that uses Piano for non-paywall purposes). So he said the team has been talking about “how else this could be applicable,” like helping publishers drive readers to signup for giveaways or to provide some of their data.

“It’s not just paid content sites — there are opportunities for other types of content,” he said.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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