QUANTech #33: New at Google, Amazon and Facebook


Digital information technology is increasingly becoming entrenched into the fabric of our society, and it will not be long before we all permanently connect via the Internet. As the extensive digitisation of society is set to radically change practically all aspects of our lives, QUANTech (#QTech) aims at helping you stay in the know about the rapidly changing landscape of both organisations and society alike in the digital age.

#QTech is brought to you by Denys Malengreau (@D_MLG), digital advisor to QUANT.

Reading time: 6-7 minutes

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: New at Google, Amazon and Facebook

What does the future hold? Well, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicts the Internet will split in two between the US and China. For now tough, Google is celebrating 20 years of existence. And as birthday goes with celebration, the company has laid out its vision on the present and future of search.

Another announcement worth mentioning from Google this week is the new partnership between the company of Mountain View and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. Future cars from the world’s biggest automotive alliance will be equipped with Google's operating system Android to offer services such as Maps and Google Assistant, which may legitimely raise concerns about Google’s stranglehold on driver data. On the topic, the company just released a framework proposition for data protection legislation.

Beside Google, Amazon also made the headlines. Bloomberg reported that the e-commerce giant is considering opening up to 3,000 cashierless stores by 2021. This follows the announcement for new stores as reported in QUANTech 15 and 29. Beside brick-and-mortar retail, Amazon extends its hardware offer, too. For not much less than $60, you will soon be able to talk to your… microwave using Alexa. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a thing, for sure.

Talking hardware, Facebook is set to announce its video chat device called ‘Portal’. Initially planned for earlier this year, the company postponed the announcement following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Worth noting on the software side: The company has started experimenting its new dating feature in Colombia.

IN SHORT (reading time)

Instagram founders resign from Facebook. (1-2m)
Huawei is set to launch foldable 5G smartphones by mid-2019. (6-7m)
Microsoft can now blur your background while Skyping. (13-16m)
‘Minimal Turing Test’ asks you to prove you’re a human with a single word. (3-4m)
China’s leaders are softening their stance on AI. (3-4m)
Google's prototype Chinese search engine links searches to phone numbers. (6-7m)
On the promise of a future with artificial wombs, and why it’s being stopped by the present. (6-7m)
[VIDEO] An electric implant helps a paralyzed man walk the length of a football field. (2:59m)

IN CONTEXT: data monetisation

As the world increasingly connects, the number of data points we leave keeps growing everyday. And this is exactly what an American insurance company wants to benefit from. In a long-form article —that I do recommend— published by the New York Times this week, I have learned about insurance company Johan Hancock whose life insurance offers a way to « save on premiums and get valuable rewards and discounts by simply living a healthy life » through its « Vitality » programme. How? By sharing your health data such as smartwatch data with the company. The idea, in short: The more you go run, the more points and the best your discounts and special treats.

This reminds me of British startup Score Assured —their website has shut down since then— that buzzed back in 2016 offering behavioural analysis of social media posts for growing chances to access renting based on a person’s likeliness to pay the rent every month. The same year, we heard about Admiral, a company which wanted to price car insurance to first-time drivers with « firstcarquote » (Web page adapted since then) based on Facebook posts, analysing personality traits to offer « cheaper insurance for safer drivers. » They quickly ditch it as Facebook blocked access to user content.

We hear more and more about the idea that we should be able to benefit (money-wise) from the data we drop to online platforms such as Facebook and Google. In another words: selling our data or being paid for it being harvested by a company. Although the debate tends to focus on data trade-off in the context of online advertising, we may consider a binary approach on the topic as users could be paid directly to provide their data as aforementioned or indirectly by paying less for something. Not only could data helps pay less (e.g. insurances) but it could also favours someone over someone else for a certain product or service as shown with Score Assured and Admiral.

Thinking about the idea of data monetisation requires thinking about how important data (increasingly digital) is or is to be. Is data just random metrics that data scientists and advertisers can derive limited value from or —as the world dematerialises ever more— could or should we soon/already consider data as an inherent part of our identity, hence the risk of social cooling? If so, is it acceptable to trade it legal-wise? Ethics-wise? Is data monetisation acceptable if we develop a system offering access —for the user to keep control— rather than data collection, using blockchain for instance? As so-called « free » online platforms struggle to rethink their advertising-based business model —a business model that inherently relies on invading privacy to grow return on investment—, the debate around data use becomes central. More generally, whether or not we agree with the idea of selling data directly or indirectly, it gets us thinking about what data means or should mean for us, our present and future. The New York Times article helps raise and think about these questions.

Talk soon!

Denys Malengreau