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How four European cities are embracing micromobility to drive out cars

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The coronavirus pandemic is acting as a catalyst for urban transformation across Europe as city authorities grapple with how to manage urban mobility without risking citizens’ health or inviting gridlock by letting cars flood in.

Micromobility and local commerce are being seen as both short and long-term solutions for urban revival in a number of cases. We’ve run down key policy developments in four major cities, Paris, Barcelona, London and Milan, which — at varying speeds — are pushing to rethink and reclaim streets for feet and two wheels.

Paris’ 15-minute city

Every year, around 2,500 people die prematurely because of air pollution in Paris. Like most European cities, the number one cause of pollution is motorized traffic.

Due to consistent policy changes over the past two decades, pollution has been slowly decreasing. It’s a long and difficult process and each step provides a new set of challenges.

The city has only had two different mayors for the past twenty years — Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo. That consistency combined with long terms as mayor has led to some divisive changes and long-term thinking.

Paris has a long and conflictual relationship with cars. Nearly 20 years ago, bus lanes were highly controversial because it reduced space dedicated to cars. Today, nobody is asking for the removal of those lanes.

That’s why it’s a bit ironic that the same thing is happening again and again. For instance, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo banned cars from the right bank of the Seine in 2016. Many political opponents and car enthusiasts criticized the decision. Earlier this year, none of the candidate in the municipal election mentioned the right bank of the Seine — it became a non-issue.

But the city’s policies aren’t just focused on banning cars. Paris has become a mobility lab for European cities with many public and private initiatives. If they work in Paris, chances are those initiatives will be reproduced elsewhere.

There are two reasons why Paris is an interesting city for mobility experiments. First, the Paris area is the 29th metropolitan area in the world by population density. Georges-Eugène Haussmann initiated some radical urbanization changes in the second half of the 19th century leading to the city’s modern layout — mostly seven-story buildings circled by the ring road.

As the limits of the city haven’t changed in over 100 years, it is still relatively small compared to other major cities. For instance, San Francisco, which is a small city by American standards, is still larger than Paris when it comes to area.

Second, Paris attracts a lot of tourists (in a normal year). In 2019, 38 million tourists came to Paris. These tourists tend to do normal touristy things — they move around the city all day long.

Vélib’ as the epicenter of mobility changes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Vélib' bikes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and a fleet of Vélib’ bikes. Image Credits: Loïc Venance / AFP / Getty Images

In addition to a dense public transportation network with subways, regional trains, buses and trams, other transportation methods have emerged. In 2005, the city of Lyon introduced Vélo’v, a publicly subsidized bike-sharing service based on a network of stations spread across the city.

Two years later, the city of Paris introduced a similar servie called Vélib’. It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact Vélib’ has had on transportation. Just a few years after its launch, Vélib’ had hundreds of thousands of subscribers generation over 100,000 rides per day.

Other cities in Europe and the U.S. have followed course and introduced their own bike-sharing service. But nobody has come close to reaching the success of Vélib’. Despite some growing pains, Vélib’ now has over 400,000 subscribers. On September 4th, 2020, the service handled 209,000 rides. There are around 15,000 bikes on the service, which means that each bike is used nearly 14 times per day.

The reason why Vélib’ is much more successful than Citi Bike in New York or Santander Cycles in London is that Vélib’ is much cheaper. A standard Vélib’ subscription with unlimited ride costs $3.70 per month (€3.10). In London, you pay nearly $10 per month (£90 per year). In New York, it costs $15 per month. Subscribing to Vélib’ is a no-brainer.

And this is all due to political will. Vélib’ is a subsidized service. But it’s hard to understand the financial impact of Vélib’ as there are fewer cars on the road, which means that it’s less expensive to maintain roads. Additionally, the impact on pollution and physical activity means that people tend to be healthier, which reduces the pressure on the public health system.

Bike-sharing services can’t work without public money as it fosters network density, which boosts usage. Once the network reaches a critical mass, it’s a never-ending virtuous circle of network expansion and new clients.

Micromobility’s key battleground

A dozen Bikes from Obike in Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Many startups have tried to enter the lucrative market with their own take on bike-sharing without docks. Gobee.bike, Obike, Ofo, Mobike and more recently Bolt have all deployed thousands of bikes in the streets of Paris. They’ve all shut down since then. Jump, which is now a Lime subsidiary, is the only remaining contender.

But bikes are just one transportation method among what people call ‘soft mobility’ in France. A French startup called Cityscoot has also been thriving with tens of thousands of rides per day. The company operating free-floating electric moped scooter service.

And then, there are scooters. At some point, there were just too many scooter startups — Bird, Bolt, Bolt by Usain Bolt, Circ, Dott, Hive, Jump, Lime, Tier, Voi, Ufo and Wind. They all had funny-sounding names and there were even two different companies with the same name (Bolt). And I’m probably forgetting a couple of companies.

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

This shows once again that Paris is an attractive city for micromobility startups. There are many tourists and you can go from A to B quite easily.

The city of Paris had to regulate the market because scooters were taking over urban space. There are now three permits to operate shared electric scooters in Paris — Dott, Lime and Tier. They each operate a fleet of 5,000 scooters and there are now dedicated parking spots.

The 15-minute city

Up next, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has some ambitious plans to accelerate the pace of changes. During her reelection campaign earlier this year, she laid out a clear multiyear plan with a key concept: the 15-minute city.

“The 15-minute city represents the possibility of a decentralized city. At its heart is the concept of mixing urban social functions to create a vibrant vicinity,” Carlos Moreno, a professor at University of Paris 1, told Bloomberg.

Essentially, Moreno believes that there shouldn’t be residential neighbourhoods, business districts and commercial areas. Each neighbourhood should be a tiny town on its own with workplaces, stores, movie theaters, health centers, schools, bakeries, etc.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the 15-minute concept has the potential of revitalizing neighbourhoods altogether. By prioritizing social functions, roads immediately become an afterthought.

The 15-minute city is a concept that sums up a lot of things in three words. Suddenly, there’s a clear political agenda with a strong brand for the next decade of urban planning.

If I paraphrase neoliberal ideology, many policies trickle down from the 15-minute city. Car ownership is relatively low in Paris — more than 60% of households don’t have a car. Even more striking, people going to work use their car extremely rarely — in 9.5% of cases.

There are two consequences. First, cars are no longer the priority. In 2024, you won’t be able to drive a diesel car in Paris. In 2030, gas-powered cars will be banned.

Some major roads are now primarily focused on ‘soft mobility’. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the city of Paris took advantage of the lockdown to accelerate their mobility agenda with new bike lanes and repurposed roads. It feels like they’re copying the neoliberal shock doctrine, as explained by Naomi Klein. And yet, in that case, it feels like a reverse shock doctrine as the administration is focusing on green initiatives.

For instance, the Rue de Rivoli used to be a major road that connects the Champs-Elysées to Bastille. Now, one-third of the road is dedicated to buses and two-thirds are reserved for bikes and e-scooters.

Rue de Rivoli. Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Second, the City of Paris wants to reclaim space. Cars in Paris remain parked 95% of the time. That’s why Paris is going to remove 50% of parking spots. Instead, the city of Paris wants to turn some streets into gardens. There are bigger plans for new parks as well in front of the city hall and between the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro.

After decades of incremental changes, everything is lining up for a drastic transition. In Paris, change happens progressively, then suddenly.

A bike traffic jam near Bastille, Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Barcelona’s Superblocks

The Catalan capital — Spain’s second largest city — approved a new Urban Mobility Plan in 2013 with the aim of flipping street space in favor of pedestrians and away from prioritizing private vehicles. The city has the highest vehicle density in Europe and that’s a major problem.

City authorities report vehicle density at around 6,000 per square kilometer — highlighting the deleterious impact on air quality and public health. Per official stats, traffic pollution causes 3,500 premature deaths annually, 1,800 hospital admissions for cardiorespiratory problems, 5,100 cases of bronchitis in adults, 31,100 cases in children and 54,000 asthma attacks in children and adults.

The city’s solution to this public health crisis is an ambitious pedestrianization plan focused, in recent years, on creating ‘superilles’ — also known as ‘super islands’ or ‘superblocks’ — which switch the function of a number of streets from carrying cars to putting neighbourhood life first.

One of Barcelona’s early superblocks in the Poblenou district. Image Credits: Toni Hermoso Pulido / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A handful of superblocks have been established over the years. Some, such as one in the Gracia barrio, is already so well established it’s all but invisible to the eye unless you stop to ask yourself how come there are so many pedestrians out and about and the cars that pass have to creep along behind them? Or why the edge of the pavement blends seamlessly into the road with no change of level.

But Barcelona is now planning a major expansion of the policy, championed by mayor Ada Colau, that will see it transform the dense, central Eixample district — creating masses more green (and low speed) urban space over the next ten years. They’re dubbing this the Barcelona superblock, given its central location and the larger scale vs what’s come before.

The superblocks model is naturally suited to micromobility — and building out the city’s network of bike lanes is a key part of the urban mobility plan.

Barcelona has had a red-liveried docked bike rental scheme — called Bicing — since 2007. Recently upgraded to include e-bikes alongside mechanical rides, the scheme isn’t yet as heavily used as its equivalent in Paris (and isn’t open to tourists as the subscription requires a local ID to obtain) but it is very popular with residents.

Per official data, Bicing had more than 127,000 subscribers as of September 2020 who racked up around 1.3 million journeys in the month.

In recent years e-scooter ownership has mushroomed, with no specific legislation preventing private use on public roads, though rental companies have faced regulatory controls — not that that’s prevented plenty of scooter startups, from Bird to Bolt to Wind, from scooter-bombing the city seeking to workaround restrictions.

A pair of Wind e-scooters parked in a Barcelona street in the barrio of Gracia where pedestrians and bikes already have priority over cars. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

As well as boosting biking and micromobility, the superblocks plan also aims to boost local commerce as streets flip from being ‘for cars’ to greener and more pleasant spaces where people are encouraged to meet, gather and do business.

In other traffic control policy measures, Barcelona began applying restrictions to vehicles based on their emissions at the start of this year — banning older petrol and diesel cars from entering during peak times. (The policy will apply to delivery transportation from next year.) While residents who own polluting vehicles have been encouraged to give up their cars in exchange for a free three-year public transit card (nudging people toward the existing metro, train and bus network).

With the superblocks transformation, there’s a historical architectural challenge that Barcelona’s urban planners are aiming to overcome.

The grid structure of the central Eixample district — conceived in 1856 by Catalan civil engineer, Illdefons Cerdà — aimed to extend the growing city in a healthy way by allowing for green space within every housing block.

However, the plan was implemented with a lack of regulation that allowed infill by developers and speculators over time, fuelled by rising land values and housing prices. That gobbled up gaps in the blocks intended as open public spaces. The result is a far denser city than Cerdà had planned. And one with streets that — so long as they remain packed with petrol and diesel vehicles — are noisy, polluted and unpleasant places to hang around in.

The Barcelona superblock is thus an attempt to right a historical wrong in the implementation of the city’s urban planning. Or “to modernize the Barcelona of the late nineteenth century and achieve better conditions for public health,” as city authorities put it.

It’s also a cautionary story about the need for proper regulation to accompany urban planning to ensure it serves the public interest — to protect residents’ health, quality of life and local commerce — guarding against deleterious external forces powered by private economic interests.

Around a third of Eixample’s 61 streets will be flipped to make way for a “green axes” of pedestrianized carriageway by 2030, under the Barcelona superblock plan. It will also create 21 new public squares at diagonal intersections.

The transformation of the zone will be slow, with city authorities wanting to make sure they bring residents along with them. But they have data to champion the plan — drawing on the success of a handful of existing superblocks, such as one in the Poblenou district — and can point to examples such as a third less NO2 pollution at one of the flipped interchanges and a similar increase in street level commercial activity.

The detail of the new street model has not yet been determined — the city is holding a design competition to choose that next year — but it’s set key parameters such as the need for 80% of the street to be shaded by trees/vegetation in summer, and at least 20% of its surface to be permeable rather than paved.

The city’s vision for the evolution of streets in the Barcelona superblock. Image Credits: Barcelona City Council

“It will be necessary to generate walking spaces, spaces that facilitate spontaneous children’s play and comfortable living spaces,” it writes in a press release [translated from Catalan]. “The design will have to allow for flexible spaces that can accommodate various occasional uses such as fairs, concerts and other acts. All with a feminist vision, prioritizing children and the elderly and promoting services and local trade.”

City authorities describe the aim as “a more sustainable model of public space, healthy and designed for people” — and one which “promotes social relations, which encourages local trade and focuses on the needs of children and seniors.”

They have also committed to maintain access to public transport throughout the superblocks.

Work on converting the first four streets is slated to begin in the first quarter of 2022: In Consell de Cent, Girona, Rocafort and Comte Borrell. City authorities have committed $44.8 million (€37.8 million) to these first transformations — though clearly a lot more public funding will be needed to deliver the full switch.

The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a small-scale opportunity for accelerating pedestrian-focused urban remodeling — enabling city authorities to expand Barcelona’s network of bike lanes during the relative quiet of lockdowns, and install some emergency pedestrian zones to expand outdoor space as an anti-COVID-19 measure.

Some street parking around the city has also been requisitioned and repurposed to make outdoor terrace space for cafés and bars during the pandemic.

But the need to reset an urban infrastructure that’s unhealthily monopolized by motorized traffic is an issue the city has been grappling with for decades — slowly chipping away at the problem with a variety of policies, such as those that allow for temporary road closures for local events and at weekends.

So for many Barcelona residents it’s not controversial to say that creating healthy, commercially active urban spaces means cars giving way to foot traffic. And the 2030 ‘Barcelona superblock’ looks like it will tip the balance for good.

That said, criticism of the project includes that it’s not radical enough — leaving a number of high-speed thoroughfares to keep on slicing right through the heart of the city. So Barcelona’s creep away from cars doesn’t yet look as radical as what’s being planned in Paris.

A Bird e-scooter parked next to a bike lane in Barcelona’s Poblenou district. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

London’s Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods

The UK capital has operated congestion charging in central zones of the city since 2003 — charging motorists to drive into the area in a bid to reduce road use during the busiest times. The policy made London a major European pioneer in applying controls on urban car use.

However, a lack of public and political consensus on the issue has restricted policy development for long periods — and even led to a rolling back, at the end of 2010, when then London mayor, Boris Johnson, scrapped a portion of the zone known as the western extension.

London’s huge population and sprawling size — with commercial zones tending to be clustered and concentrated away from large swathes of residential housing (which are often segregated by income) — means the issue of how to get around can be a divisive one, for people and businesses. So, it’s not an obvious candidate for going ‘car free’.

Yet, at the same time, London is extremely well served with public transport (buses, subways, trams and trains) — meaning plenty of journeys can be made without owning or using a private vehicle. There has also been investment in expanding the city’s network of cycle lanes in recent decades. And since 2010 a pay-as-you-go docked bike rental scheme has been in operation — racking up more than 10 million trips in total as of 2017.

Though, again, car-clogged streets and a Northern European climate can put limits on people’s willingness to brave the elements on two wheels.

London’s docked bike hire scheme. Image Credits: Elliott Brown / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Existing UK regulations have also held back the uptake of modern alternatives like e-scooters — though there are now moves to open up streets to this type of micromobility, with the city’s transport regulator preparing a trial for scooter rental companies.

While a lack of decisive political action to curb car use has undoubtedly contributed to decades of terrible air quality in London — with drastic impacts on public health (one study in 2015 suggested deaths from long term exposed to pollution could be as high as 9,500 annually) — rising awareness of the health risks associated with urban traffic has led city authorities to push policies that aim to deter the most polluting vehicles from driving through the congestion zone by applying a surcharge, which appears to have led to a decline in peak pollution levels.

London’s ‘ultra-low emission zone’ (Ulez) will be expanded to cover a larger area of the city next year. So, there’s been a centralized and somewhat sustained push to make urban car use cleaner and less harmful, even though there’s been an inconsistent approach to discouraging car use itself.

But, in a more radical recent development, the shock of the coronavirus has fuelled grassroots campaigns at a borough/neighbourhood level to bar through-traffic in residential neighbourhoods.

This is done by implementing so-called low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) which use a variety of interventions to limit traffic — such as strategically placed planters or bollards and/or timed road use restrictions to block rat runs.

Residents in a number of London boroughs who are sick of living alongside the noise and pollution generated by traffic have seized on the opportunity of COVID-19-related mobility restrictions to restrict access to roads in their immediate vicinity to through traffic.

Per Bloomberg, there were 114 plans for LTNs in the works in London as of late July.

There’s push and pull here too, with LTNs generating opposition, including complaints that rat-running cars are simply being displaced to other streets.

There are also important socioeconomic critiques that they disproportionately benefit wealthier areas at the expense of more deprived neighbourhoods.

Such opposition may in part reflect the relative rapidness of implementation since the pandemic — something a more participatory process and well-rounded monitoring and consultation might be able to avoid.

But for those lucky to be living in LTNs the gains look hard to ignore. “Now, instead of speeding cars, the streets carry street chalk, murals, flowers, and signs with children’s illustrations asking people to step out of their car and explore the neighborhood,” Bloomberg reports on the changed character of street life in one LTN.

Image Credits: Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

In May, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan — who has pledged to make London carbon neutral by 2030 if he’s reelected next year — announced a ‘Streetspace’ plan: Pushing a range of policies aimed at “rapidly transforming London’s streets to accommodate a possible 10x increase in cycling and 5x increase in walking.”

The plan also explicitly encourages scooting alongside walking and cycling as an urban mobility priority in London.

Part of the motivation for the policy push has been trying to steer Londoners away from a mass regressive switch away from London’s public transport — and into cars — as lockdown restrictions ease yet the risk of COVID-19 infection lingers.

Khan’s Streetspace plan also voices support for LTNs. But, ultimately, the power to restrict London traffic rests with local councils (or central government) — leaving the mayor to “urge” government/borough councils to get on board with measures aimed at persuading Londoners to switch to “cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport”.

The lack of a central London authority with a policy plan for LTNs may limit how far or fast these through-traffic-free neighbourhoods can spread in the UK capital.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting development that shows how much appetite there is among Londoners to reclaim residential streets for neighbourhood life.

Image Credits: Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

Milan’s Open Streets

Italy’s industrial north was among the hardest hit regions in Europe during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. An extended lockdown was implemented — clearing cars off the streets of cities like Milan for months, as businesses got shuttered and residents were confined indoors — which in turn led to a noticeable improvement in air quality in a region infamous for pollution.

Since then, authorities in Milan have seized on the enforced break with a smog-filled ‘norm’ to push forward with an experimental citywide expansion of cycling lanes and pedestrianized zones — under a mobility plan called Strade Aperte (aka Open Streets) that’s aimed at adapting city infrastructure to find space for social distancing as urban life gets opened back up.

The Open Streets plan includes dropping the speed limit to 30kmph on a majority of Milan’s roads (replacing a 50kmph maximum), via signage and incorporating some structural elements for speed control; and adding 35km to its existing bike network before the end of the year.

The city launched its docked bike rental scheme, BikeMI, in 2008.

Image Credits: Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

“As the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy foresees, the current health crisis can be an opportunity to decide to give more space to people and improve the environmental conditions in the city, increasing more sustainable, non-polluting, means of travel and redefining the use of streets and public spaces for commercial, recreational, cultural, and sport purposes, while respecting physical distance requirements,” city authorities write in a memo on the plan.

The overarching policy push is toward the same goal as Paris’ vision: Supporting what’s described as “the neighbourhood dimension” — aka making sure every citizen has access to almost all services within 15 minutes’ walk.

This is a strategic aim while residents are forced to live alongside the virus — and some of the measures are being couched as ‘temporary’.

But while the pandemic is acting as a catalyst/justification for rapid changes, city authorities were already looking for ways to repurpose urban infrastructure to deliver health benefits to citizens, environmental gains and boost local commerce by getting people out of cars and peddling/walking through the neighbourhood.

So, it’s hard to see where the impetus would come from to advocate a reversal back to noisier, more polluted, less playful streets.

In Milan, it’s the same story: The direction of urban travel is about rethinking streets as open public spaces for people and hyper-local micromobility, rather than letting cars colonize the commons and render its roads default highways elsewhere. Addio macchina.

Image Credits: Mairo Cinquetti / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Mike Cagney is testing the boundaries of the banking system for himself — and others

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Founder Mike Cagney is always pushing the envelope, and investors love him for it. Not long sexual harassment allegations prompted him to leave SoFi, the personal finance company that he cofounded in 2011, he raised $50 million for new lending startup called Figure that has since raised at least $225 million from investors and was valued a year ago at $1.2 billion.

Now, Cagney is trying to do something unprecedented with Figure, which says it uses a blockchain to more quickly facilitate home equity, mortgage refinance, and student and personal loan approvals. The company has applied for a national bank charter in the U.S., wherein it would not take FDIC-insured deposits but it could take uninsured deposits of over $250,000 from accredited investors.

Why does it matter? The approach, as American Banker explains it, would bring regulatory benefits. As it reported earlier this week, “Because Figure Bank would not hold insured deposits, it would not be subject to the FDIC’s oversight. Similarly, the absence of insured deposits would prevent oversight by the Fed under the Bank Holding Company Act. That law imposes restrictions on non-banking activities and is widely thought to be a deal-breaker for tech companies where banking would be a sidelight.”

Indeed, if approved, Figure could pave the way for a lot of fintech startups — and other retail companies that want to wheel and deal lucrative financial products without the oversight of the Federal Reserve Board or the FDIC — to nab non-traditional bank charters.

As Michelle Alt, whose year-old financial advisory firm helped Figure with its application, tells AB: “This model, if it’s approved, wouldn’t be for everyone. A lot of would-be banks want to be banks specifically to have more resilient funding sources.” But if it’s successful, she adds, “a lot of people will be interested.”

One can only guess at what the ripple effects would be, though the Bank of Amazon wouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the company.

In the meantime, the strategy would seemingly be a high-stakes, high-reward development for a smaller outfit like Figure, which could operate far more freely than banks traditionally but also without a safety net for itself or its customers. The most glaring danger would be a bank run, wherein those accredited individuals who are today willing to lend money to the platform at high interest rates began demanding their money back at the same time. (It happens.)

Either way, Cagney might find a receptive audience right now with Brian Brooks, a longtime Fannie Mae executive who served as Coinbase’s chief legal officer for two years before jumping this spring to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), an agency that ensures that national banks and federal savings associations operate in a safe and sound manner.

Brooks was made acting head of the agency in May and green-lit one of the first national charters to go to a fintech, Varo Money, this past summer. In late October, the OCC also granted SoFi preliminary, conditional approval over its own application for a national bank charter.

While Brooks isn’t commenting on speculation around Figure’s application, in July, during a Brookings Institution event, he reportedly commented about trade groups’ concerns over his efforts to grant fintechs and payments companies charters, saying: “I think the misunderstanding that some of these trade groups are operating under is that somehow this is going to trigger a lighter-touch charter with fewer obligations, and it’s going to make the playing field un-level . . . I think it’s just the opposite.”

Christopher Cole, executive vice president at the trade group Independent Community Bankers of America, doesn’t seem persuaded. Earlier this week, he expressed concern about Figure’s bank charter application to AB, saying he suspects that Brooks “wants to approve this quickly before he leaves office.”

Brooks’s days are surely numbered. Last month, he was nominated by President Donald to a full five-year term leading the federal bank regulator and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation. The move — designed to slow down the incoming Biden administration — could be undone by President-elect Joe Biden, who can fire the comptroller of the currency at will and appoint an acting replacement to serve until his nominee is confirmed by the Senate.

Still, Cole’s suggestion is that Brooks still has enough time to figure out a path forward for Figure — and if its novel charter application is approved, and it stands up to legal challenges — a lot of other companies, too.

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We read the paper that forced Timnit Gebru out of Google. Here’s what it says

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On the evening of Wednesday, December 2, Timnit Gebru, the co-lead of Google’s ethical AI team, announced via Twitter that the company had forced her out. 

Gebru, a widely respected leader in AI ethics research, is known for coauthoring a groundbreaking paper that showed facial recognition to be less accurate at identifying women and people of color, which means its use can end up discriminating against them. She also cofounded the Black in AI affinity group, and champions diversity in the tech industry. The team she helped build at Google is one of the most diverse in AI, and includes many leading experts in their own right. Peers in the field envied it for producing critical work that often challenged mainstream AI practices.

A series of tweets, leaked emails, and media articles showed that Gebru’s exit was the culmination of a conflict over another paper she co-authored. Jeff Dean, the head of Google AI, told colleagues in an internal email (which he has since put online) that the paper “didn’t meet our bar for publication” and that Gebru had said she would resign unless Google met a number of conditions, which it was unwilling to meet. Gebru tweeted that she had asked to negotiate “a last date” for her employment after she got back from vacation. She was cut off from her corporate email account before her return.

Online, many other leaders in the field of AI ethics are arguing that the company pushed her out because of the inconvenient truths that she was uncovering about a core line of its research—and perhaps its bottom line. More than 1,400 Google staff and 1,900 other supporters have also signed a letter of protest.

Many details of the exact sequence of events that led up to Gebru’s departure are not yet clear; both she and Google have declined to comment beyond their posts on social media. But MIT Technology Review obtained a copy of the research paper from  one of the co-authors, Emily M. Bender, a professor of computational linguistics at the University of Washington. Though Bender asked us not to publish the paper itself because the authors didn’t want such an early draft circulating online, it gives some insight into the questions Gebru and her colleagues were raising about AI that might be causing Google concern.

Titled “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?” the paper lays out the risks of large language models—AIs trained on staggering amounts of text data. These have grown increasingly popular—and increasingly large—in the last three years. They are now extraordinarily good, under the right conditions, at producing what looks like convincing, meaningful new text—and sometimes at estimating meaning from language. But, says the introduction to the paper, “we ask whether enough thought has been put into the potential risks associated with developing them and strategies to mitigate these risks.”

The paper

The paper, which builds off the work of other researchers, presents the history of natural-language processing, an overview of four main risks of large language models, and suggestions for further research. Since the conflict with Google seems to be over the risks, we’ve focused on summarizing those here. 

Environmental and financial costs

Training large AI models consumes a lot of computer processing power, and hence a lot of electricity. Gebru and her coauthors refer to a 2019 paper from Emma Strubell and her collaborators on the carbon emissions and financial costs of large language models. It found that their energy consumption and carbon footprint have been exploding since 2017, as models have been fed more and more data.

Strubell’s study found that one language model with a particular type of “neural architecture search” (NAS) method would have produced the equivalent of 626,155 pounds (284 metric tons) of carbon dioxide—about the lifetime output of five average American cars. A version of Google’s language model, BERT, which underpins the company’s search engine, produced 1,438 pounds of CO2 equivalent in Strubell’s estimate—nearly the same as a roundtrip flight between New York City and San Francisco.

Gebru’s draft paper points out that the sheer resources required to build and sustain such large AI models means they tend to benefit wealthy organizations, while climate change hits marginalized communities hardest. “It is past time for researchers to prioritize energy efficiency and cost to reduce negative environmental impact and inequitable access to resources,” they write.

Massive data, inscrutable models

Large language models are also trained on exponentially increasing amounts of text. This means researchers have sought to collect all the data they can from the internet, so there’s a risk that racist, sexist, and otherwise abusive language ends up in the training data.

An AI model taught to view racist language as normal is obviously bad. The researchers, though, point out a couple of more subtle problems. One is that shifts in language play an important role in social change; the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, for example, have tried to establish a new anti-sexist and anti-racist vocabulary. An AI model trained on vast swaths of the internet won’t be attuned to the nuances of this vocabulary and won’t produce or interpret language in line with these new cultural norms.

It will also fail to capture the language and the norms of countries and peoples that have less access to the internet and thus a smaller linguistic footprint online. The result is that AI-generated language will be homogenized, reflecting the practices of the richest countries and communities.

Moreover, because the training datasets are so large, it’s hard to audit them to check for these embedded biases. “A methodology that relies on datasets too large to document is therefore inherently risky,” the researchers conclude. “While documentation allows for potential accountability, […] undocumented training data perpetuates harm without recourse.”

Research opportunity costs

The researchers summarize the third challenge as the risk of “misdirected research effort.” Though most AI researchers acknowledge that large language models don’t actually understand language and are merely excellent at manipulating it, Big Tech can make money from models that manipulate language more accurately, so it keeps investing in them. “This research effort brings with it an opportunity cost,” Gebru and her colleagues write. Not as much effort goes into working on AI models that might achieve understanding, or that achieve good results with smaller, more carefully curated datasets (and thus also use less energy).

Illusions of meaning

The final problem with large language models, the researchers say, is that because they’re so good at mimicking real human language, it’s easy to use them to fool people. There have been a few high-profile cases, such as the college student who churned out AI-generated self-help and productivity advice on a blog, which went viral.

The dangers are obvious: AI models could be used to generate misinformation about an election or the covid-19 pandemic, for instance. They can also go wrong inadvertently when used for machine translation. The researchers bring up an example: In 2017, Facebook mistranslated a Palestinian man’s post, which said “good morning” in Arabic, as “attack them” in Hebrew, leading to his arrest.

Why it matters

Gebru and Bender’s paper has six co-authors, four of whom are Google researchers. Bender asked to avoid disclosing their names for fear of repercussions. (Bender, by contrast, is a tenured professor: “I think this is underscoring the value of academic freedom,” she says.)

The paper’s goal, Bender says, was to take stock of the landscape of current research in natural-language processing. “We are working at a scale where the people building the things can’t actually get their arms around the data,” she said. “And because the upsides are so obvious, it’s particularly important to step back and ask ourselves, what are the possible downsides? … How do we get the benefits of this while mitigating the risk?”

In his internal email, Dean, the Google AI head, said one reason the paper “didn’t meet our bar” was that it “ignored too much relevant research.” Specifically, he said it didn’t mention more recent work on how to make large language models more energy-efficient and mitigate problems of bias. 

However, the six collaborators drew on a wide breadth of scholarship. The paper’s citation list, with 128 references, is notably long. “It’s the sort of work that no individual or even pair of authors can pull off,” Bender said. “It really required this collaboration.” 

The version of the paper we saw does also nod to several research efforts on reducing the size and computational costs of large language models, and on measuring the embedded bias of models. It argues, however, that these efforts have not been enough. “I’m very open to seeing what other references we ought to be including,” Bender said.

Nicolas Le Roux, a Google AI researcher in the Montreal office, later noted on Twitter that the reasoning in Dean’s email was unusual. “My submissions were always checked for disclosure of sensitive material, never for the quality of the literature review,” he said.

Dean’s email also says that Gebru and her colleagues gave Google AI only a day for an internal review of the paper before they submitted it to a conference for publication. He wrote that “our aim is to rival peer-reviewed journals in terms of the rigor and thoughtfulness in how we review research before publication.”

Bender noted that even so, the conference would still put the paper through a substantial review process: “Scholarship is always a conversation and always a work in progress,” she said. 

Others, including William Fitzgerald, a former Google PR manager, have further cast doubt on Dean’s claim: 

Google pioneered much of the foundational research that has since led to the recent explosion in large language models. Google AI was the first to invent the Transformer language model in 2017 that serves as the basis for the company’s later model BERT, and OpenAI’s GPT-2 and GPT-3. BERT, as noted above, now also powers Google search, the company’s cash cow.

Bender worries that Google’s actions could create “a chilling effect” on future AI ethics research. Many of the top experts in AI ethics work at large tech companies because that is where the money is. “That has been beneficial in many ways,” she says. “But we end up with an ecosystem that maybe has incentives that are not the very best ones for the progress of science for the world.”

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Daily Crunch: Slack and Salesforce execs explain their big acquisition

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We learn more about Slack’s future, Revolut adds new payment features and DoorDash pushes its IPO range upward. This is your Daily Crunch for December 4, 2020.

The big story: Slack and Salesforce execs explain their big acquisition

After Salesforce announced this week that it’s acquiring Slack for $27.7 billion, Ron Miller spoke to Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and Salesforce President and COO Bret Taylor to learn more about the deal.

Butterfield claimed that Slack will remain relatively independent within Salesforce, allowing the team to “do more of what we were already doing.” He also insisted that all the talk about competing with Microsoft Teams is “overblown.”

“The challenge for us was the narrative,” Butterfield said. “They’re just good [at] PR or something that I couldn’t figure out.”

Startups, funding and venture capital

Revolut lets businesses accept online payments — With this move, the company is competing directly with Stripe, Adyen, Braintree and Checkout.com.

Health tech venture firm OTV closes new $170M fund and expands into Asia — This year, the firm led rounds in telehealth platforms TytoCare and Lemonaid Health.

Zephr raises $8M to help news publishers grow subscription revenue — The startup’s customers already include publishers like McClatchy, News Corp Australia, Dennis Publishing and PEI Media.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

DoorDash amps its IPO range ahead of blockbuster IPO — The food delivery unicorn now expects to debut at $90 to $95 per share, up from a previous range of $75 to $85.

Enter new markets and embrace a distributed workforce to grow during a pandemic — Is this the right time to expand overseas?

Three ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending — All companies are digital product companies now.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

WH’s AI EO is BS — Devin Coldewey is not impressed by the White House’s new executive order on artificial intelligence.

China’s internet regulator takes aim at forced data collection — China is a step closer to cracking down on unscrupulous data collection by app developers.

Gift Guide: Games on every platform to get you through the long, COVID winter — It’s a great time to be a gamer.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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