In Army of None, a field guide to the coming world of autonomous warfare

The Silicon Valley-military industrial complex is increasingly in the crosshairs of artificial intelligence engineers. A few weeks ago, Google was reported to be backing out of a Pentagon contract around Project Maven, which would use image recognition to automatically evaluate photos. Earlier this year, AI researchers around the world joined petitions calling for a boycott of any research that could be used in autonomous warfare.

For Paul Scharre, though, such petitions barely touch the deep complexity, nuance, and ambiguity that will make evaluating autonomous weapons a major concern for defense planners this century. In Army of None, Scharre argues that the challenges around just the definitions of these machines will take enormous effort to work out between nations, let alone handling their effects. It’s a sobering, thoughtful, if at times protracted look at this critical topic.

Scharre should know. A former Army Ranger, he joined the Pentagon working in the Office of Secretary of Defense, where he developed some of the Defense Department’s first policies around autonomy. Leaving in 2013, he joined the DC-based think tank Center for a New American Security, where he directs a center on technology and national security. In short, he has spent about a decade on this emerging tech, and his expertise clearly shows throughout the book.

The first challenge that belies these petitions on autonomous weapons is that these systems already exist, and are already deployed in the field. Technologies like the Aegis Combat System, High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the Harpy already include sophisticated autonomous features. As Scharre writes, “The human launching the Harpy decides to destroy any enemy radars within a general area in space and time, but the Harpy itself chooses the specific radar it destroys.” The weapon can loiter for 2.5 hours while it determines a target with its sensors — is it autonomous?

Scharre repeatedly uses the military’s OODA loop (for observe, orient, decide, and act) as a framework to determine the level of autonomy for a given machine. Humans can be “in the loop,” where they determine the actions of the machine, “on the loop” where they have control but the machine is mostly working independently, and “out of the loop” when machines are entirely independent of human decision-making.

The framework helps clear some of the confusion between different systems, but it is not sufficient. When machines fight machines, for instance, the speed of the battle can become so great that humans may well do more harm then good intervening. Millions of cycles of the OODA loop could be processed by a drone before a human even registers what is happening on the battlefield. A human out of the loop, therefore, could well lead to safer outcomes. It’s exactly these kinds of paradoxes that make the subject so difficult to analyze.

In addition to paradoxes, constraints are a huge theme in the book as well. Speed is one — and the price of military equipment is another. Dumb missiles are cheap, and adding automation has consistently added to the price of hardware. As Scharre notes, “Modern missiles can cost upwards of a million dollars apiece. As a practical matter, militaries will want to know that there is, in fact, a valid enemy target in the area before using an expensive weapon.”

Another constraint is simply culture. The author writes, “There is intense cultural resistance within the U.S. military to handing over jobs to uninhabited systems.” Not unlike automation in the civilian workforce, people in power want to place flesh-and-blood humans in the most complex assignments. These constraints matter, because Scharre foresees a classic arms race around these weapons as dozens of countries pursue these machines.

Humans “in the loop” may be the default today, but for how long?

At a higher level, about a third of the book is devoted to the history of automation, (generalized) AI, and the potential for autonomy, topics which should be familiar to any regular reader of TechCrunch. Another third of the book or so is a meditation on the challenges of the technology from a dual use and strategic perspective, as well as the dubious path toward an international ban.

Yet, what I found most valuable in the book was the chapter on ethics, lodged fairly late in the book’s narrative. Scharre does a superb job covering the ground of the various schools of thought around the ethics of autonomous warfare, and how they intersect and compete. He extensively analyzes and quotes Ron Arkin, a roboticist who has spent significant time thinking about autonomy in warfare. Arkin tells Scharre that “We put way too much faith in human warfighters,” and argues that autonomous weapons could theoretically be programmed never to commit a war crime unlike humans. Other activists, like Jody Williams, believe that only a comprehensive ban can ensure that such weapons are never developed in the first place.

Scharre regrets that more of these conversations don’t take into account the strategic positions of the military. He notes that international discussions on bans are led by NGOs and not by nation states, whereas all examples of successful bans have been the other way around.

Another challenge is simply that antiwar activism and anti-autonomous weapons activism are increasingly being conflated. Scharre writes, “One of the challenges in weighing the ethics of autonomous weapons is untangling which criticisms are about autonomous weapons and which are really about war.” Citing Sherman, who marched through the U.S. South in the Civil War in an aggressive pillage, the author reminds the reader that “war is hell,” and that militaries don’t choose weapons in a vacuum, but relatively against other tools in their and their competitors’ arsenals.

The book is a compendium of the various issues around autonomous weapons, although it suffers a bit from the classic problem of being too lengthy on some subjects (drone swarms) while offering limited information on others (arms control negotiations). The book also is marred at times by errors, such as “news rules of engagement” that otherwise detract from a direct and active text. Tighter editing would have helped in both cases. Given the inchoate nature of the subject, the book works as an overview, although it fails to present an opinionated narrative on where autonomy and the military should go in the future, an unsatisfying gap given the author’s extensive and unique background on the subject.

All that said, Army of None is a one-stop guide book to the debates, the challenges, and yes, the opportunities that can come from autonomous warfare. Scharre ends on exactly the right note, reminding us that ultimately, all of these machines are owned by us, and what we choose to build is within our control. “The world we are creating is one that will have intelligent machines in it, but it is not for them. It is a world for us.” We should continue to engage, and petition, and debate, but always with a vision for the future we want to realize.

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Open source sustainability

Open source sustainability has been nothing short of an oxymoron. Engineers around the world pour their sweat and frankly, their hearts into these passion projects that undergird all software in the modern internet economy. In exchange, they ask for nothing in return except for recognition and help in keeping their projects alive and improving them. It’s an incredible movement of decentralized voluntarism and represents humanity at its best.

The internet and computing giants — the heaviest users of open source in the world — are collectively worth trillions of dollars, but you would be remiss in thinking that their wealth has somehow trickled down to the maintainers of the open source projects that power them. Working day jobs, maintainers today can struggle to find the time to fix critical bugs, all the while facing incessant demands from users requesting free support on GitHub. Maintainer burnout is a monstrous challenge.

That distressing situation was chronicled almost exactly two years ago by Nadia Eghbal, in a landmark report on the state of open source published by the Ford Foundation. Comparing open source infrastructure to “roads and bridges,” Eghbal provided not just a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing open source, but also a call-to-arms for more users of open source to care about its economics, and ultimately, how these critical projects can sustain themselves indefinitely.

Two years later, a new crop of entrepreneurs, open source maintainers, and organizations have taken Eghbal up on that challenge, developing solutions that maintain the volunteer spirit at the heart of open source while inventing new economic models to make the work sustainable. All are early, and their long-term effects on the output and quality of open source are unknown. But each solution offers an avenue that could radically change the way we think of a career in open source in the future.

No one sees that the Roads and Bridges are falling down

Eghbal’s report two years ago summarized the vast issues facing open source maintainers, challenges that have remained essentially unchanged in the interim. It’s a quintessential example of the “tragedy of the commons.” As Edghbal wrote at the time, “Fundamentally, digital infrastructure has a free rider problem. Resources are offered for free, and everybody (whether individual developer or large software company) uses them, so nobody is incentivized to contribute back, figuring that somebody else will step in.” That has led to a brittle ecosystem, just as open source software reached the zenith of its influence.

The challenges, though, go deeper. It’s not just that people are free riding, it’s often that they don’t even realize it. Software engineers can easily forget just how much craftsmanship has gone into the open source code that powers the most basic of applications. NPM, the company that powers the module repository for the Node ecosystem, has nearly 700,000 projects listed on its registry. Starting a new React app recently, NPM installed 1105 libraries with my initial project in just a handful of seconds. What are all of these projects?

And more importantly, who are all the people behind them? That dependency tree of libraries abstracts all the people whose work has made those libraries available and functional in the first place. That black box can make it difficult to see that there are far fewer maintainers working behind the scenes at each of these open source projects than what one might expect, and that those maintainers may be struggling to work on those libraries due to lack of funding.

Eghbal pointed to OpenSSL as an example, a library that powers a majority of encrypted communications on the web. Following the release of the Heartbleed security bug, people were surprised to learn that the OpenSSL project was the work of a very small team of individuals, with only one of them working on it full-time (and at a very limited salary compared to industry norms).

Such a situation isn’t unusual. Open source projects often have many contributors, but only a handful of individuals are truly driving a particular project forward. Lose that singular force either to burnout or distraction, and a project can be adrift quickly.

When free isn’t free

No one wants open source to disappear, or for maintainers to burnout. Yet, there is a strong cultural force against commercial interests in the community. Money is corrupting, and dampens the voluntary spirit of open source efforts. More pragmatically, there are vast logistical challenges with managing money on globally distributed volunteer teams that can make paying for work logistically challenging.

Unsurprisingly, the vanguard of open source sustainability sees things very differently. Kyle Mitchell, a lawyer by trade and founder of License Zero, says that there is an assumption that “Open source will continue to fall from the sky like manna from heaven and that the people behind it can be abstracted away.” He concludes: “It is just really wrong.”

That view was echoed by Henry Zhu, who is the maintainer of the popular JavaScript compiler Babel. “We trust startups with millions of VC money and encourage a culture of ‘failing fast,’ yet somehow the idea of giving to volunteers who may have showed years of dedication is undesirable?” he said.

Xavier Damman, the founder and CEO of Open Collective, says that “In every community, there are always going to be extremists. I hear them and understand them, and in an ideal world, we all have universal basic income, and I would agree with them.” Yet, the world hasn’t moved to such an income model, and so supporting the work of open source has to be an option. “Not everyone has to raise money for the open source community, but the people who want to, should be able to and we want to work with them,” he said.

Mitchell believes that one of the most important challenges is just getting comfortable talking about money. “Money feels dirty until it doesn’t,” he said. “I would like to see more money responsibility in the community.” One challenge he notes is that “learning to be a great maintainer doesn’t teach you how to be a great open source contractor or consultant.” GitHub works great as a code repository service, but ultimately doesn’t teach maintainers the economics of their work.

Supporting the individual contributor: Patreon and License Zero

Perhaps the greatest debate in sustaining open source is deciding who or what to target: the individual contributors — who often move between multiple projects — or a particular library itself.

Take Feross Aboukhadijeh for example. Aboukhadijeh (who, full disclosure, was once my college roommate at Stanford almost a decade ago) has become a major force in the open source world, particularly in the Node ecosystem. He served an elected term on the board of directors of the Node.js Foundation, and has published 125 repositories on GitHub, including popular projects like WebTorrent (with 17,000 stars) and Standard (18,300 stars).

Aboukhadijeh was looking for a way to spend more time on open source, but didn’t want to be beholden to working on a single project or writing code at a private company that would never see the light of day. So he turned to Patreon as a means of support.

(Disclosure: CRV, my most immediate former employer, is the series A investor in Patreon. I have no active or passive financial interest in this specific company. As per my ethics statement, I do not write about CRV’s portfolio companies, but given that this essay focuses on open source, I made an exception).

Patreon is a crowdsourced subscription platform, perhaps best known for the creatives it hosts. These days though, it is also increasingly being used by notable open source contributors as a way to connect with fans and sustain their work. Aboukhadijeh launched his page after seeing others doing it. “A bunch of people were starting up Patreons, which was kind of a meme in my JavaScript circles,” he said. His Patreon page today has 72 contributors providing him with $2,874 in funding per month ($34,488 annually).

That may seem a bit paltry, but he explained to me that he also supplements his Patreon with funding from organizations as diverse as Brave (an adblocking browser with a utility token model) to PopChest (a decentralized video sharing platform). That nets him a couple of more thousands of dollars per month.

Aboukhadijeh said that Twitter played an outsized role in building out his revenue stream. “Twitter is the most important on where the developers talk about stuff and where conversations happen…,” he said. “The people who have been successful on Patreon in the same cohort [as me] who tweet a lot did really well.”

For those who hit it big, the revenues can be outsized. Evan You, who created the popular JavaScript frontend library Vue.js, has reached $15,206 in monthly earnings ($182,472 a year) from 231 patrons. The number of patrons has grown consistently since starting his Patreon in March 2016 according to Graphtreon, although earnings have gone up and down over time.

Aboukhadijeh noted that one major benefit was that he had ownership over his own funds. “I am glad I did a Patreon because the money is mine,” he said.

While Patreon is one direct approach for generating revenues from users, another one is to offer dual licenses, one free and one commercial. That’s the model of License Zero, which Kyle Mitchell propsosed last year. He explained to me that “License Zero is the answer to a really simple question with no simple answers: how do we make open source business models open to individuals?”

Mitchell is a rare breed: a lifelong coder who decided to go to law school. Growing up, he wanted to use software he found on the web, but “if it wasn’t free, I couldn’t download it as a kid,” he said. “That led me into some of the intellectual property issues that paved a dark road to the law.”

License Zero is a permissive license based on the two-clause BSD license, but adds terms requiring commercial users to pay for a commercial license after 90 days, allowing companies to try a project before purchasing it. If other licenses aren’t available for purchase (say, because a maintainer is no longer involved), then the language is no longer enforceable and the software is offered as fully open source. The idea is that other open source users can always use the software for free, but for-profit uses would require a payment.

Mitchell believes that this is the right approach for individuals looking to sustain their efforts in open source. “The most important thing is the time budget – a lot of open source companies or people who have an open source project get their money from services,” he said. The problem is that services are exclusive to a company, and takes time away from making a project as good as it can be. “When moneymaking time is not time spent on open source, then it competes with open source,” he said.

License Zero is certainly a cultural leap away from the notion that open source should be free in cost to all users. Mitchell notes though that “companies pay for software all the time, and they sometimes pay even when they could get it for free.” Companies care about proper licensing, and that becomes the leverage to gain revenue while still maintaining the openness and spirit of open source software. It also doesn’t force open source maintainers to take away critical functionality — say a management dashboard or scaling features — to force a sale.

Changing the license of existing projects can be challenging, so the model would probably best be used by new projects. Nonetheless, it offers a potential complement or substitute to Patreon and other subscription platforms for individual open source contributors to find sustainable ways to engage in the community full-time while still putting a roof over their heads.

Supporting the organization: Tidelift and Open Collective

Supporting individuals makes a lot of sense, but often companies want to support the specific projects and ecosystems that underpin their software. Doing so can be next to impossible. There are complicated logistics required in order for companies to fund open source, such as actually having an organization to send money to (and for many, to convince the IRS that the organization is actually a non-profit). Tidelift and Open Collective are two different ways to open up those channels.

Tidelift is the brainchild of four open-source fanatics led by Donald Fischer. Fischer, who is CEO, is a former venture investor at General Catalyst and Greylock as well as a long-time executive at Red Hat. In his most recent work, Fischer invested in companies at the heart of open source ecosystems, such as Anaconda (which focuses on scientific and statistical computing within Python), Julia Computing (focused on the Julia programming language), Ionic (a cross-platform mobile development framework), and TypeSafe now Lightbend (which is behind the Scala programming language).

Fischer and his team wanted to create a platform that would allow open source ecosystems to sustain themselves. “We felt frustrated at some level that while open source has taken over a huge portion of software, a lot of the creators of open source have not been able to capture a lot of the value they are creating,” he explained.

Tidelift is designed to offer assurances “around areas like security, licensing, and maintenance of software,” Fischer explained. The idea has its genesis in Red Hat, which commercialized Linux. The idea is that companies are willing to pay for open source when they can receive guarantees around issues like critical vulnerabilities and long-term support. In addition, Tidelift handles the mundane tasks of setting up open source for commercialization such as handling licensing issues.

Fischer sees a mutualism between companies buying Tidelift and the projects the startup works with. “We are trying to make open source better for everyone involved, and that includes both the creators and users of open source,” he said. “What we focus on is getting these issues resolved in the upstream open source project.” Companies are buying assurances, but not exclusivity, so if a vulnerability is detected for instance, it will be fixed for everyone.

Tidelift initially launched in the JavaScript ecosystem around React, Angular, and Vue.js, but will expand to more communities over time. The company has raised $15 million in venture capital from General Catalyst and Foundry Group, plus former Red Hat chairman and CEO Matthew Szulik.

Fischer hopes that the company can change the economics for open source contributors. He wants the community to move from a model of “get by and survive” with a “subsistence level of earnings” and instead, help maintainers of great software “win big and be financially rewarded for that in a significant way.”

Where Tidelift is focused on commercialization and software guarantees, Open Collective wants to open source the monetization of open source itself.

Open Collective is a non-profit platform that provides tools to “collectives” to receive money while also offering mechanisms to allow the members of those collectives to spend their money in a democratic and transparent way.

Take, for instance, the open collective sponsoring Babel. Babel today receives an annual budget of $113,061 from contributors. Even more interesting though is that anyone can view how the collective spends its money. Babel currently has $28,976.82 in its account, and every expense is listed. For instance, core maintainer Henry Zhu, who we met earlier in this essay, expensed $427.18 on June 2nd for two weeks worth of Lyft rides in SF and Seattle.

Xavier Damman, CEO and founder of Open Collective, believes that this radical transparency could reshape how the economics of open source are considered by its participants. Damman likens Open Collective to the “View Source” feature of a web browser that allows users to read a website’s code. “Our goal as a platform is to be as transparent as possible,” he said.

Damman was formerly the founder of Storify. Back then, he built an open source project designed to help journalists accept anonymous tips, which received a grant. The problem was that “I got a grant, and I didn’t know what to do with the money.” He thought of giving it to some other open source projects, but “technically, it was just impossible.” Without legal entities or paperwork, the money just wasn’t fungible.

Open Collective is designed to solve those problems. Open Collective itself is a 501(c)6 non-profit, and it technically receives all money destined for any of the collectives hosted on its platform as their fiscal sponsor. That allows the organization to send out invoices to companies, providing them with the documentation they need in order to write a check. “As long as they have an invoice, they are covered,” Damman explained.

Once a project has money, it is up to the maintainers of that community to decide how to spend it. “It is up to each community to define their own rules,” Damman said. He notes that open source contributors can often spend the money on the kind of uninteresting work that doesn’t normally get done, which Damman analogized as “pay people to keep the place clean.” No one wants to clean a public park, but if no one does it, then no one will ever use the park. He also noted that in-person meetings are a popular usage of revenues.

Open Collective was launched in late 2015, and since then has become home to 647 open source projects. So far, Webpack, the popular JavaScript build tool, has generated the most revenue, currently sitting at $317,188 a year. One major objective of the non-profit is to encourage more for-profit companies to commit dollars to open source. Open Collective places the logos of major donors on each collective page, giving them visible credit for their commitment to open source.

Damman’s ultimate dream is to change the notion of ownership itself. We can move from “Competition to collaboration, but also ownership to commons,” he envisioned.

Sustaining sustainability

It’s unfortunately very early days for open source sustainability. While Patreon, License Zero, Tidelift, and Open Collective are different approaches to providing the infrastructure for sustainability, ultimately someone has to pay to make all that infrastructure useful. There are only a handful of Patreons that could substitute for an engineer’s day job, and only two collectives by my count on Open Collective that could support even a single maintainer full time. License Zero and Tidelift are too new to know how they will perform yet.

Ultimately though, we need to change the culture toward sustainability. Henry Zhu of Babel commented, “The culture of our community should be one that gives back and supports community projects with all that they can: whether with employee time or funding. Instead of just embracing the consumption of open source and ignoring the cost, we should take responsibility for it’s sustainability.”

In some ways, we are merely back to the original free rider problem in the tragedy of the commons — someone, somewhere has to pay, but all get to share in the benefits.

The change though can happen through all of us who work on code — every software engineer and product manager. If you work at a for-profit company, take the lead in finding a way to support the code that allows you to do your job so efficiently. The decentralization and volunteer spirit of the open source community needs exactly the same kind of decentralized spirit in every financial contributor. Sustainability is each of our jobs, every day. If we all do our part, we can help to sustain one of the great intellectual movements humanity has ever created, and end the oxymoron of open source sustainability forever.

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Are scooter startups really worth billions?

It’s been hard to miss the scooter startup wars opening fresh, techno-fueled rifts in Valley society in recent months. Another flavor of ride-sharing steed which sprouted seemingly overnight to clutter up sidewalks — drawing rapid-fire ire from city regulators apparently far more forgiving of traffic congestion if it’s delivered in the traditional, car-shaped capsule.

Even in their best, most-groomed PR shots, the dockless carelessness of these slimline electrified scooters hums with an air of insouciance and privilege. As if to say: Why yes, we turned a kids’ toy into a battery-powered kidult transporter — what u gonna do about it?

An earlier batch of electric scooter sharing startups — offering full-fat, on-road mopeds that most definitely do need a license to ride (and, unless you’re crazy, a helmet for your head) — just can’t compete with that. Last mile does not haul.

But a short-walk replacement tool that’s so seamlessly manhandled is also of course easily vandalized. Or misappropriated. Or both. And there have been a plethora of scooter dismemberment/kidnap horror stories coming out of California, judging by reports from the scooter wars front line. Hanging scooters in trees is presumably a protest thing.

Scooter brand Lime struck an especially tone-deaf tech note trying to fix this problem after an update added a security alarm  that bellowed robotic threats to call the cops on anyone who fumbled to unlock them. Safe to say, littering abusive scooters in public spaces isn’t a way to win friends and influence people.

Even when functioning ‘correctly’, i.e. as intended, scooter rides can ooze a kind of brash entitlement. The sweatless convenience looks like it might be mostly enabling another advance in tech-fueled douche behavior as a t-shirt wearing alpha nerd zips past barking into AirPods and inhaling a takeaway latte while cutting up the patience of pedestrians.

None of this fast-seeded societal friction has put the brakes on e-scooter startup momentum, though. Au contraire. They’ve been raising massive amounts of investment on rapidly inflating valuations ($2BN is the latest valuation for Bird).

But buying lots of e-scooters and leaving them at the mercy of human whim is an expensive business to try scaling. Hence big funding rounds are necessary if you’re going to replace all the canal-dunked duds and keep scooting fast enough for the competition.

At the same time, there isn’t a great deal to differentiate one e-scooter experience over another — beyond price and proximity. Branding might do it but then you have to scramble even harder and faster to create a slick experience and inflate a brand that sticks. (And it goes without saying that a scooter sticky with fecal-matter is absolutely not that.)

The still fledgling startups are certainly scrambling to scale, with some also already pushing into international markets. Lime just scattered ~200 e-scooters in Paris, for example. It’s also been testing the waters more quietly in Zurich. While Bird has its beady eye on European territory too.

The idea underpinning some very obese valuations for these fledgling startups is that scooters will be a key piece of a reworked, multi-modal transport mix for urban mobility, fueled by app-based convenience and city buy-in to greener transport options with emissions-free benefits. (Albeit scooters’ greenness depends on what they’re displacing; Great if it’s gas-guzzling cars, less compelling if it’s people walking or peddling.)

And while investors are buying in to the vision that lots of city dwellers are going to be scooting the last mile in future, and betting big on sizable value being captured by a few plucky scooter startups — more than half a billion dollars has been funneled into just two of these slimline scooter brands, Bird and Lime, since February — there are skeptical notes being sounded too.

Asking whether the scooter model really justifies such huge raises and heady valuations. Wondering if it isn’t a bit crazy for a fledgling Bird to be 2x a unicorn already.

The bear case for these slimline e-scooters says they’re really only fixing a pretty limited urban mobility problem. Too spindly and unsafe to go the distance, too sedate of pace (and challenged for sidewalk space) to feel worthwhile if you don’t have far to go anyway. And of course you’re not going to be able to cart your kids and/or much baggage on a stand-up two wheeler. So they’re useless for families.

Meanwhile scooter invasions are illegal in some places and, where they are possible, are fast inviting public and regulatory frisson and friction — by contributing to congestion and peril on already crowded pavements.

After taking one of Lime’s just-landed e-scooters for a spin in Paris this week, Willy Braun, VC at early stage European fund Daphni, came away unimpressed. “I didn’t feel I was really saving time in a short distance, since there is always many people in our narrow sidewalks,” he tells us. “And it isn’t comfortable enough for me to imagine a longer distance. Also it’s quite expensive ($1 per use and $.15/min).

“Lastly: Before renting it I read two news media that told me I had to use it only on the sidewalks and they tell us that we should only use it on the road during the onboarding — and that wearing an helmet is mandatory without providing it). As a comparison, I’d rather use e-bikes (or emoto-bikes) for longer journey without hesitation.”

“Give us Jump instead of Lime!” he adds, namechecking the electric bike startup that’s been lodged under Uber’s umbrella since April, adding a greener string to its urban mobility bow — and which is also heading over to Europe as part of the ride-hailing giant’s ongoing efforts to revitalize its regionally battered brand.

“Uber stands ready to help address some of the biggest challenges facing German cities: tackling air pollution, reducing congestion and increasing access to cleaner transportation solutions,” said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wheeling a bright red Jump bike on stage at the Noah conference in Berlin earlier this month. Uber’s Jump e-bikes will launch in Germany this summer.

E-bikes do seem to offer more urban mobility versatility than e-scooters. Though a scooter is arguably a more accessible type of wheeled steed vs a bike, given you can just stand on it and be moved.

But in Europe’s dense and dynamic urban environments — which, unlike the US, tend to be replete with public transit options (typically at a spectrum of price-points) — individual transport choices tend to be based firstly on economics. After which it’s essentially a matter of personal taste and/or the weather.

Urban transport horses for courses — depending on your risk, convenience and comfort thresholds, thanks to a publicly funded luxury of choice. So scooters have loads of already embedded competition.

TechCrunch’s resident Parisienne, Romain Dillet — a regular user of on-demand bike services in the city (of which there are many), and prior to that the city’s own dock-based bike rental scheme — also went for a test spin on a Lime scooter this week. And also came away feeling underwhelmed.

“This is bad,” he said after his ride. “It’s slow and you need to brake constantly. BUT the worst part is that it feels waaaaaay more dangerous than a bike. Basically you can’t brake abruptly because you’re just standing there.”

Index Venture’s Martin Mignot was also in Paris this week and he took the chance to take a Lime scooter for a spin too — checking out the competition in his case, given the European VC firm is a Bird backer. So what did he think?

“The experience is pretty cool. It’s slightly faster than a bike, there’s no sweating. The weather was just amazing and very hot in Paris so it was pretty amazing in terms of speed and lack of effort,” he says, rolling out the positively spun, vested view on scooter sharing. “Especially going up hill to go to Gare du Nord.

“And the lack of friction — just to get on board and get started. So in general I think it’s a great experience and I think it feels a really interesting niche between walking and on-demand bikes… In Paris you’ve also got the mopeds. So that kind of ‘in between offering’. I think there’s a big market there. I think it’s going to work pretty well in Paris.”

Mignot is a tad disparaging about the quality of Lime’s scooters vs the model being deployed by Bird — a scooter model he also personally owns. But again, as you’d expect given his vested interests.

“Obviously I’m biased but I would say that the Xiaomi scooter/Ninebot scooter is higher quality than the one that Lime are using,” he tells us. “I thought that the Lime one, the handlebar is a little bit too high. The braking is a little bit too soft. Maybe it was the one I used, I don’t know.”

Talking generally about scooter startups, he says investors’ excitement boils down to trip frequency — thanks exactly to journeys being these itty-bitty last mile links.

But it’s also then about the potential for all that last mile hopping to be a shortcut for winning a prized slot on smartphone users’ homescreens — and thus the underlying game being played looks like a jockeying for prime position in the urban mobility race.

Lime, for example, started out with bike rentals before jumping into scooters and going multi-modal. So scooter sharing starts to look like a strategy for mobility startups to scoot to the top of the attention foodchain — where they’re then positioned to offer a full mix and capture more value.

So really scooters might mostly be a tool for catching people’s app attention. Think of that next time you see one lying on a sidewalk.

“What’s very interesting if you look at the trip distribution, most of the trips are short. So the vast majority of trips if you’re walking, obviously, are less than three miles. So that’s actually where the bulk of the mobility happens. And scooters play really well in that field. So in terms of sheer number of trips I think it’s going to dwarf any other type of transportation. And especially ride-hailing,” says Mignot.

“If you look at how often do people use Uber or Lyft or Taxify… it’s going to be much less frequent than the scooter users. And I think that’s what makes it such an interesting asset… The frequency will be much higher — and so the apps that power the scooters will tend to be on the homescreen. And kind of on top of the foodchain, so to speak. So I think that’s what makes it super interesting.”

Scooters also get a big investor tick on merit of the lack of friction standing in the way of riding vs other available urban options such as bikes (or, well, non-electric scooters, skateboards, roller blades, public transport, and so on and on) — in both onboarding (getting going) and propulsion (i.e. the lack of sweat required to ride) terms.

“That’s what’s so brilliant with these devices, you just snap the QR code and off you go,” he says. “The difference with bikes is that you don’t have to produce any effort. I think there are cases where obviously bikes are better. But I think there are a lot of cases where people will want something where you don’t sweat.

“Where you don’t wrinkle your clothes. Which goes a little bit faster. Without going all the way to the moped experience where you need to put the helmet, which is a bit more dangerous, which a lot of people, especially women, are not super familiar with. So I think what’s exciting with scooters as a form factor is it’s actually very mainstream.

“Anyone can ride them. It’s very simple to manoeuvre. It’s not super fast, it’s not too dangerous. It doesn’t require any muscular effort — so for older people or for people who just don’t want to sweat because they’re going to a meeting or something. It’s just a fantastic option.”

Index has also invested in an e-bike startup (Cowboy) and the firm is fully signed up to the notion that urban mobility will be multimodal. So if e-scooters valuations are a bit overcooked Index is not going to be too concerned. People in cities are clearly going to be riding something. And backing a mix is a smart way to hedge the risk of any one option ending up more passing fad than staple urban steed.

Mostly Index is betting that people will keep on riding robotic horses for urban courses. And whatever they ride it’s a fairly safe bet that an app is going to be involved in the process of finding (docklessness is therefore another attention play) or unlocking (scan that QR code!) the mobility device — opening up the possibility that a single app could house multiple mobility options and thus capture more overall value.

“It’s not a one-size fits all. They’re all complementing each other,” says Mignot of the urban mobility options in play. “I would say e-bikes are probably a little bit more great for little bit longer trips because you’re sitting down. But again it takes a little bit longer, because you have to adjust the saddle, you need to start peddling. There’s a bit more friction both on the onboading and on the riding. But they’re a bit better for slightly longer distances. I would say for shorter distances there’s nothing better than the scooter.”

He also points out that scooters are both cheaper and less bulky than e-bikes. And because they take up less street space they can — at least in theory — be more densely stacked, thereby generating the claimed convenience by having them sitting near enough to convince someone not to bother walking 10 minutes to the café or gym — and just scoot instead. So scooters’ slimline physique is also especially exciting to investors. (Even if, ironically, it’s being deployed to urge people to walk less.)

“I think we will end up with more density of scooters. Which is super important,” he continues. “People will, in the end, tend to take the vehicle that they can find where they are. And I think it’s more likely, eventually, that they will get a scooter than an e-bike. Just simply because they take less space and they are less expensive.”

But why wouldn’t people who do get won over to the sweatless perks of last mile scooting just buy and own their own ride — rather than shelling out on an ongoing basis to share?

Unlike bikes, scooters are mobile enough to be picked up and moved around fairly easily. Which means they can go with you into your home, office, even a restaurant — disruptively reducing theft risk. Whereas talk to any bike owner and they’ll almost invariably have at least one tale of theft woe, which is a key part of what makes bike sharing so attractive: It erases theft worry.

Add to that, you can find e-scooters on sale in European electronics shops for as little as €140. So if you’re going to be a regular scooterer, the purely economic argument to just own your own looks pretty compelling.

And people zipping around on e-scooters is a pretty common sight in another dense European city, Barcelona, which has very scooter-friendly weather but no scooter startups (yet). But unless it’s a tourist weaving along the seafront most of these riders are not shared: People just popped into their local electronics shop and walked out with a scooter in a box.

So the rides aren’t generating repeat revenue for anyone except the electricity companies.

 

Asked why people who do want to scoot won’t just buy, rather than rent Mignot talks up the hassle of ownership — undermined slightly by the fact he is also a scooter owner (despite the claimed faff from problems such as frequent flat tires and the chore of the nightly charge).

“The thing you notice very rapidly: There are two things, one is the maintenance,” he says. “The models that exist today are not super robust. Maybe in a very flat, very smooth roads, maybe Santa Monica, maybe it’s a little bit less true but I would say in Europe the maintenance that is required is fairly high… I have to do something on mine every week.

“The other thing is it takes a little bit of space. If you have to bring it to a restaurant or whatever type of crowded place, a movie theatre or wherever you’re going, to an office, to a meeting room, it’s a little bit on the heavy side, and it’s a little bit inconvenient. So certainly some people will buy them… But I also think that there are a lot of cases where you’d rather have it just on-demand.”

Unlike Mignot and Index, Tom Bradley, of UK focused VC firm Oxford Capital, is not so convinced by the on-demand scooter craze.

The firm has not made any e-scooter investments itself, though mobility is a “core theme”, with the portfolio including an on-demand coach travel startup (Sn-ap), and technology plays such as Morpheus Labs (machine learning for driverless cars) and UltraSoc (complex circuits for automotive parts, which sells to the likes of Tesla).

But it’s just not been sold on scooter startups. Bradley describes it as an “open question” whether scooters end up being “an important part of how people move around the cities of the future”. He also points to theft problems with dockless bike share schemes that have not played out well in the UK.

“We’re not convinced that this is a fundamental part of the picture,” he says of scooter sharing. “It may be a part of the picture but I personally am not yet convinced that it’s as big a part of the picture that people seem to be prepared to pay for.”

“I keep thinking of the Segway example,” he adds. “It’s an absolutely delightful product. It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely brilliant. In a way that these electric scooters are not. But obviously it was much more expensive. And it made people feel a bit weird. But it was supposed to be the answer — and it’s not the answer. Before its time, perhaps.”

Of course he also accepts that capital is “being used as a weapon”, as he puts it, to scoot full-pelt towards a future where shared electric scooters are the norm on city streets by waging a “marketing war” to get there.

“Venture capital valuations are what someone is prepared to pay. And in this case people are valuing potential rather than valuing the business… so the valuations [of Bird and Lime] are being driven more than anything by the amount of money being raised,” he says. “So you decide a rule of thumb about what is acceptable dilution, and if you’re going to raise $400M or whatever then the valuation’s got to be somewhere between $1.6BN and $2BN to make that sort of raise make sense — and leave enough equity for the previous investors and founders. So there’s an element of this where the valuations are being driven by the amount of capital being raised.”

Oxford Capital’s bearish view on scooter sharing is also bounded by the fund only investing in UK-based startups. And while Bradley says it sees lots of local mobility strengths — especially in the automotive market — he admits it’s more of a mental leap to imagine a world leading scooter startup sprouting from the country’s green and pleasant lands. Not least because it’s not legal to use them on UK public roads or pavements.

“If you look at places like Amsterdam, Berlin, they’re sort of built for bikes. London’s getting towards being built for bikes… Cycling’s been one of the big success stories in London. Is [scooter sharing] going to replace cycling? I don’t know. Not so convinced… It’s obviously easy for anyone to get on and off these things, young and old. So that’s good, it’s inclusive. But it feels a little bit like a solution looking for a problem, the sorts of journeys people talk about for these things — on campus, short urban journeys. A lot of these are walkable or cycle journeys in a lot of cities. So is there a mass need?

“Is this Segway 2 or is this bike hire 2… it’s hard to tell. And we’re coming down on the former. We’re not convinced this is going to be a fundamental part of the transport space. It will be a feature but not a huge part.”

But for Mignot the early days of the urban mobility attention wars mean there’s much to play for — and much that can be favorably reshaped to fit scooters into the mix.

“The whole thing, even on-demand bikes, it’s a two year old phenomenon really,” he says. “So I think everyone is just trying to learn and figure out and adapt to this new reality, whether it’s users or companies or cities. I think it’s very similar to when cars were first introduced. There were no parking spaces at the time and there were no rules on the road. And fast forward 100 years and it looks very different.

“If you look at the amount of infrastructure and effort and spend that has been put into making — and I would argue way more than should have — into making a city car-friendly, if you only do a 100th of the same amount of effort and spend into making some space for bicycles and light two-wheel vehicles I think we’ll be fine.

“That’s the beauty of this model. If you compare the space of the tech and if you look at the efficiency of moving people around vs the space, the scooters are simply the most efficient because their footprint on the ground is just so small.”

He even makes the case for scooters working well in London — arguing the sprawl of the city amps up the utility because there are so many tedious last mile trips that people have to make.

Even more so than in denser European cities like Paris, where he admits that hopping on a scooter might just be more of a “nice to have”, given shorter distances and all the other available options. So, really, where urban mobility is concerned, it can actually be courses for horses.

Yet, the reality is London is off-limits to the likes of Bird and Lime for now — thanks to UK laws barring this type of unlicensed personal electric vehicle from public roads and spaces.

You can buy e-scooters for use on private land in the UK but any scooter startups that tried their usual playbook in London would be scooting straight for legal hot water.

It’s not just the British weather that’s inclement.

“I’m really hoping that TfL [Transport for London] and the Department for Transport are going to make it possible,” says Mignot on that. “I think any city should welcome this with open arms. Some cities are, by the way. And I think over time once they see the success stories in other parts of the world I think they all will. But I wish London was one of those cutting edge cities that would welcome new innovation with open arms. I think right now, unfortunately, it’s not there.

“There’s a lot of talk about air quality, and so on, but actually, when push comes to shove… you have a lot of resistance and a lot of pushback… So it’s a little bit disappointing. But, you know, we’ll get there eventually.”

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How backups, backups, backups protect NYC’s cellular infrastructure

The infrastructure that underpins our lives is not something we ever want to think about. Nothing good has come from suddenly needing to wonder “where does my water come from?” or “how does electricity connect into my home?” That pondering gets even more intense when we talk about cellular infrastructure, where a single dropped call or a choppy YouTube video can cause an expletive-laden tirade.

Recently, I visited Verizon’s cellular switch for the New York City metro area (disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Oath, and Oath is part of Verizon). It’s a completely nondescript building in a nondescript suburb north of the city, so nondescript that it took Verizon’s representative about 15 minutes of circling around just to find it (frankly, the best security through obscurity I have seen in some time).

This switch, along with its sister, powers all cellular service in New York City, including three million voice or voice over LTE (VoLTE) calls and 708 million data connections a day. High-reliability and redundancy is a must for the facility, where dropping even one in 100,000 connections would create more than 7,000 angry customers a day. As Christine Williams, the senior operations manager who oversees the facility, explained, “It doesn’t matter what percentage of dropped calls you have if you are that person.”

As we walked through the server rows that processed those hundreds of millions of connections, I was surprised by just how little digital equipment was actually in the switch itself. “Software-defined networking” has taken full hold here, according to Michele White, who is Verizon’s Executive Director for Network Assurance in the U.S. northeast. As the team has replaced older equipment, the actual physical footprint has continued to downsize, even today. All of New York City’s traffic is run from a handful of feet of server racks.

The key to network assurance is two-fold. First is multiple levels of redundancy at every level of the infrastructure. Inside the switch, independent server racks can take over from other servers that fail, providing redundancy at the machine level. If the air conditioning — which is critical for machine performance — were to fail, mobile AC units can be deployed to pick up the burden.

All equipment in the building is serviced by DC power, and in the event of an external power loss, two diesel generators connected to a large fuel storage tank will take over. The facility is also equipped with battery backups that can sustain the facility for eight hours if the generators themselves don’t function appropriately.

Diesel generators can sustain power to the switch in the event of an external power outage

At a higher level, the switch and its sister share all New York City cellular traffic, but either one could handle the full load if necessary. In short, the goal of the switch’s design is to ensure that that no matter how small or large a problem it might experience, there is an instant backup ready to go to keep those cellular connections alive.

The other half of network assurance is centralization, something that I was surprised to hear in this supposed era of decentralization. Cellular sites in an urban area like New York are often placed on buildings, as anyone looking at roof lines can see from the street. Given those locations, it can be hard to provide backup generators and other failover infrastructure, and servicing them can also be challenging. With centralization, increasingly only the antenna is located at the site, with almost all other operations handled in central control offices and switches where Verizon has greater control of the environment.

Even with intense focus on redundancy, natural disasters can overwhelm even the best laid plans. The telecom company has an additional layer of redundancy with its mobile units, which are placed in a “barnyard” owing to the names of the equipment stored there. There are GOATs (generator on a truck), and COWs (cell on wheels), and BATs (bi-directional amplifier on a truck). These units get deployed to areas of the network that either are experiencing unusually strong demand (think the U.S. Open or a presidential inauguration) or where a natural disaster has stuck (like Hurricane Harvey).

A barnyard filled with animal-named mobile cell infrastructure, including COWs, COLTs, HORSEs, and others

That said, both White and Williams noted that mobile cell deployment is much rarer than people would guess. One reason is that cell sites are increasingly being installed with Remote Electrical Tilt, which allows nearby cell sites to adjust their antennas so as to provide some signal to an area formerly covered by an out-of-commission cell. That process I was told is increasingly automated, allowing the network to essentially self-heal itself in emergencies.

The other reason their deployment is rare is that network assurance already has to handle a remarkable amount of surging traffic throughout the normal ebb and flow of a dense urban city. “Rush hour in Times Square is pretty heavy,” noted Williams. Even something as heavy as a parade through Midtown Manhattan won’t typically exceed the network’s surge capacity.

One other redundancy that Verizon has been exploring is using drones to provide more adaptive coverage. The company has been testing “femto-cell” drone aircraft designed by American Aerospace Technologies that can provide one square mile of coverage for about sixteen hours. A drone capability could be particularly useful in cases like hurricanes, where roads are often littered with debris, making it hard for network engineers to deploy ground-based mobile cells.

I asked about 5G, which I have been covering more heavily this year as telecom deployments pick up. Given the current design of 5G, White and Williams didn’t expect too much change to happen at the switch level, where most of the core technology was likely to remain unchanged.

The trend that is changing things though is edge computing, which is in vogue due to the need for computing to be located closer to users to power applications like virtual reality and autonomous cars. That’s critical, because 50 milliseconds of extra latency could be the difference between an autonomous car hitting another vehicle or a new support pylon and swerving out of the way just in time.

Edge computing in many ways is decentralizing, and therefore there is a tension with the increasingly centralized nature of mobile communications infrastructure. Switches like this one are getting outfitted with edge technology, and more installations are expected in the coming years. 5G and edge are also deeply connected at the antenna level, and that will likely affect cell deployments far more than the switch infrastructure itself.

Edge, internet of things, 5G — all will increase the quantity and scale of the connections flowing through these networks. In the future, a cellular outage may not just inconvenience that YouTube user, but could also prevent an automobile from successfully navigating to a hospital during a natural disaster. It takes backups, backups, and backups to prevent us from ever having to ask, “where does that signal come from?”

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Bag Week 2018: Timbuk2’s Launch featherweight daypack is tough and tiny

If you need something small, lightweight and indestructible, Timbuk2’s Lightweight Launch Backpack ($129) might be right up your alley. The pack, constructed from famously tough Tyvek, can fit a 13″ laptop comfortably and plenty else. At only 18L, it sounds small, but due to its drawstring top design and large main compartment, it holds more than enough to make it a functional all-purpose daypack for work or play.

The Launch’s distinct look will be what makes up most people’s minds about this pack. Beyond the drawstring design and this fun lemon-lime interior color, the Launch doesn’t have too many bells and whistles. Still, it checks important boxes with the inclusion of stuff like a water bottle holder, a sternum strap, and weather resistant build material.

If you’re a fan of tough lightweight packs, know that the Launch’s Tyvek material gives it more structure than most stuff made out of this kind of material. That’s both a good and bad thing: more structure is great so your pack doesn’t just collapse into a little pile but because the Tyvek lacks any stretch whatsoever both its front pocket and the top compartment that sits on top of the main part of the pack can be a little tricky to dig things in and out of.

Happily, the Launch holds a laptop very well thanks to a padded compartment accessible via a full-length side zipper — always the best way to access a laptop in a backpack! The laptop area is a nice touch for such a lightweight pack and makes Timbuk2’s Launch a unique, super light laptop pack for everyday use so long as you’re not carrying too much.

If you’re a longtime Timbuk2 fan know that the pack both looks and feels different from most of Timbuk2’s classic designs and unfortunately doesn’t come in the bright, playful tri-color look that some of its classic messengers do. Still, if you’re into more natural, subdued tones and really don’t want your day-to-day pack to weigh you down unnecessarily, Timbuk2’s Launch is totally worth a look.

What it is: A small but not too small Tyvek daypack that carries a laptop well.

What it isn’t: A Timbuk2 design that you’re used to.

Read more reviews from TechCrunch Bag Week 2018.

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