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The metaverse will be filled with ‘elves’

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The metaverse will be filled with ‘elves’

Some say the metaverse is nothing but marketing hype, while others insist it will transform society. I fall into the latter camp, but I’m not talking about cartoon worlds filled with avatars like many are pitching.

Instead, I believe the true metaverse – the one that will change society — will be an augmentation layer on the real world, and within 10 years it will be the foundation of our lives, impacting everything from shopping and socializing to business and education.

I also believe that a corporate-controlled metaverse is dangerous to society and requires aggressive regulation. That’s because the platform providers will be able to manipulate consumers in ways that will make social media seem quaint. Most people resonate with concerns around data collection and privacy, but they overlook what will be the most dangerous technology in the metaverse – artificial intelligence.

The most dangerous part of the metaverse: agenda-driven artificial agents that look and act like other users but are actually simulated personas controlled by AI.

In fact, if you ask people to name the core technologies of the metaverse, they’ll usually focus on the eyewear and maybe mention the graphics engines, 5G or even blockchain. But those are just the nuts and bolts of our immersive future – the technology that will pull the strings in the metaverse, creating (and manipulating) our experience, is AI.

Artificial intelligence will be just as important to our virtual future as the headsets that get all the attention. And the most dangerous part of the metaverse will be agenda-driven artificial agents that look and act like other users but are actually simulated personas controlled by AI. They will engage us in “conversational manipulation,” targeting us on behalf of paying advertisers without us realizing they aren’t real.

This is especially dangerous when the AI algorithms have access to data about our personal interests and beliefs, habits and temperament, all while monitoring our emotional state by reading our facial expressions and vocal inflections.

If you think targeted ads in social media are manipulative, it’s nothing compared to the conversational agents that will engage us in the metaverse. They will pitch us more skillfully than any human salesperson, and it won’t just be to sell us gadgets – they will push political propaganda and targeted misinformation on behalf of the highest bidder.

And because these AI agents will look and sound like anyone else in the metaverse, our natural skepticism to advertising will not protect us. For these reasons, we need to regulate AI-driven conversational agents, especially when they have access to our facial and vocal affects, enabling our emotions to be used against us in real time.

If we don’t regulate this, ads in the form of AI-driven avatars will sense when you’re skeptical and change tactics in mid-sentence, quickly zeroing in on the words and images that impact you personally. As I wrote in 2016, if an AI can learn to beat the world’s best chess and Go players, learning to sway consumers to buy things (and believe things) that aren’t in our interest is child’s play.

But of all the technologies headed our way, it’s what I call the “elf” that will be the most powerful and subtle form of coercion in the metaverse. These “electronic life facilitators” are the natural evolution of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, but they won’t be disembodied voices in the metaverse. They’ll be anthropomorphized personas customized for each consumer.

The platform providers will market these AI agents as virtual life coaches and they will be persistent throughout your day as you navigate the metaverse. And because the metaverse will ultimately be an augmentation layer upon the real world, these digital elves will be with you everywhere, whether you are shopping or working or just hanging out.

And just like the marketing agents described above, these elves will have access to your facial expressions and vocal inflections along with a detailed data history of your life, nudging you toward actions and activities, products and services, even political views.

And no, they won’t be like the crude chatbots of today, but embodied characters you’ll come to think of as trusted figures in your life – a mix between a familiar friend, helpful adviser and caring therapist. And yet, your elf will know you in ways no friend ever could, for it will be monitoring all aspects of your life down to your blood pressure and respiration rate (via your trusty smartwatch).

Yes, this sounds creepy, which is why platform providers will make them cute and non-threatening, with innocent features and mannerisms that seem more like a magical character in your own “life adventure” than a human-sized assistant following you around. This is why I use the word “elf” to describe them, as they might appear to you as a fairy hovering over your shoulder or maybe a gremlin or alien – a small anthropomorphic character that can whisper in your ear or fly out in front of you to draw attention to things in your augmented world it wants you to focus on.

This is where it gets especially dangerous — without regulation, these life facilitators will be hijacked by paying advertisers, targeting you with greater skill and precision than anything on today’s social media. And unlike ads of today, these intelligent agents will be following you around, guiding you through your day, and doing it with a cute smile or giggly laugh.

To help convey what this will be like, both positive and negative, I’ve written a short narrative, Metaverse 2030, that portrays how AI will drive our immersive lives by 2030 and beyond.

Ultimately, the technologies of VR, AR and AI have the potential to enrich and improve our lives. But when combined, these innovations become especially dangerous, as they all have one powerful trait in common – they can make us believe that computer-generated content is authentic, even if it’s an agenda-driven fabrication. It’s this powerful ability for digital deception that should make us fear an AI-enabled metaverse, especially when controlled by powerful corporations that sell third-party access to its users for promotional purposes.

I raise these concerns in the hope that consumers and industry leaders will push for meaningful regulation before the problems become so ingrained in the technology of the metaverse that they’re impossible to undo.

Source: Tech

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Dashworks is a search engine for your company’s sprawling internal knowledge

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As a company grows, the amount of important information employees need to keep track of inevitably grows right along with it. And, as your tech stack gets more complicated, that information ends up split up across more places — buried in Slack threads, tucked into Jira tickets, pushed as files on Dropbox, etc.

Dashworks is a startup aiming to be the go-to place for all of that internal knowledge. Part landing page and part search engine, it hooks into dozens of different enterprise services and gives you one hub to find what you need.

On the landing page front, Dashworks is built to be your work laptop’s homepage. It’s got support for broadcasting company wide announcements, building out FAQs, and sharing bookmarks for the things you often need and can never find — your handbooks, your OKRs, your org charts, etc.

More impressive, though, is its cross-tool search. With backgrounds in natural language processing at companies like Facebook and Cresta, co-founders Prasad Kawthekar and Praty Sharma are building a tool that allow you to ask Dashworks questions and have them answered from the knowledge it’s gathered across all of those aforementioned Slack threads, or Jira tickets, or Dropbox files. It’ll give you a search results page of relevant files across the services you’ve hooked in — but if it thinks it knows the answer to your question, it’ll just bubble that answer right to the top of the page, Google Snippets style.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Right now Dashworks can hook into over 30 different popular services, including Airtable, Asana, Confluence, Dropbox, Gmail, Google Drive, Intercom, Jira, Notion, Slack, Salesforce, Trello, and a whole bunch more — with more on the way, prioritized by demand.

Giving another company access to all of those services and the knowledge within might be unsettling — something the Dashworks team seems quite aware of. Kawthekar tells me that their product is SOC-2 certified, that all respective data is wiped from their servers if you choose to disconnect a service, and that, for teams that are equipped to host the tool themselves, they offer a fully on-prem version.

This week Dashworks is announcing that it raised a $4M round led by Point72 ventures, backed by South Park Commons, Combine Fund, Garuda Ventures, GOAT Capital, Unpopular Ventures, and Starling Ventures. Also backing the round is a number of angels, including Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear and Gusto co-founders Josh Reeves and Tomer London. The company was also a part of Y Combinator’s W20 class.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Source: Tech

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Daily Crunch: Google will offer G Suite legacy edition users a ‘no-cost option’

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To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PST, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for January 28, 2022! It’s nearly blizzard o’clock where I am, so please enjoy the following newsletter as my final missive before hunkering down. In happier and better news, TechCrunch Early Stage is coming up in just a few months and not only am I hype about it, I’ll hopefully be there IRL. See you soon! – Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Google invests up to $1B in Airtel: With a $700 million investment and $300 million in “multi-year commercial agreements” with Airtel, and Indian telco, Google has made its second major bet on Indian infra. Recall that Google also put money into Jio, another Indian telco. The deal underscores the importance of the country in the future of technology revenues.
  • What’s ahead for Europe: On the heels of news that European startups had an outsized 2021 when it came to fundraising, TechCrunch explored what’s ahead for the continent. Some expect a slowdown from peak activity, while others anticipate further acceleration. Regardless of which perspective you favor, European venture investment is expected to remain elevated for some time to come.
  • Zapp raises $200M: And speaking of European startups, Zapp, the U.K.-based quick-convenience delivery startup, just raised a massive Series B. The company previously raised $100 million, meaning that this round was big in absolute and comparative terms. As we see some consolidation in the fast-delivery space, this deal caught our eye.

Startups/VC

  • Are charter cities the future for African tech growth? TechCrunch’s Tage Kene-Okafor has a great piece up on the site noting that “African cities have the fastest global urban growth rate,” which is leading to overcrowding. Some folks think that “charter cities offer a solution.” Special economic zones of all types have been tried before – will they offer African tech a faster route forward?
  • Personalized learning is hot: Our in-house edtech expert Natasah Mascarenhas has a great piece out today on personalized learning startups – Learnfully, Wayfinder, Empowerly, and others – that are taking the lessons of remote schooling to heart and working to make products that work better for our kids. It’s an encouraging, fascinating story.
  • Rise wants to remake team calendaring: There is no shortage of apps in the market to help individuals and teams work together. But we might not need as many as we have. That’s why Rise is making me think. The team calendaring app just raised a few million, and could replace a few tools that myself and friends use. I wonder if the solution to the Tool Overload of 2022 is tools that do less, intentionally.
  • Canvas wants non-tech folks to be able to squeeze answers from data: Developers are in short supply, so no-code tools that allow folks who don’t sling code to do their own building are blowing up. Similarly, a general dearth of data science talent in the market is creating space for tools like Canvas, which “is going all in with a spreadsheet-like interface for non-technical teams to access the information they need without bothering data teams,” TechCrunch reports.
  • Zigbang buys Samsung IoT business: The IoT promises of yesteryear are coming true, and not. Samsara recently went public on the back of its IoT business. That was a win for the category. That Zigbang, a South Korean proptech startup, is buying Samsung’s IoT unit feels slightly less bullish.
  • Series F-tw? Once upon a time I would have mocked a Series F as indication that the company in question had failed to go public. But that was then. Today Series Fs are not that rare. Indian B2B marketplace Moglix just raised one, which doubled its valuation to $2.6 billion. Tiger co-led the $250 million round.

And if you are looking down the barrel of a blizzard, TechCrunch’s Equity podcast has your downtime covered. Enjoy!

European, North American edtech startups see funding triple in 2021

Image Credits: Bet_Noire (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Pre-pandemic, VCs were notoriously reluctant to invest in education-related companies. Today, edtech startups are seeing higher average deal sizes, more seed and pre-seed funding from non-VC investors, and an influx of generalists.

According to Rhys Spence, head of research at Brighteye Ventures, funding for edtech startups based in Europe and North America trebled over the last year.

“Exciting companies are spawning across geographies and verticals, and even generalist investors are building conviction that the sector is capable of producing the same kind of outsized returns generated in fintech, healthtech and other sectors,” writes Spence.

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Northern Light Venture Capital’s He Huang says the Chinese robotics market is overheated: Per the investor, robotics in China is “riddled with speculation and overvalued companies,” calling the situation a bubble. It’s worth noting that China’s central government is working to retool where its tech investment dollars flow.
  • Robinhood goes down, back up: This morning, in the wake of the company’s lackluster earnings report, TechCrunch dug through why Robinhood’s stock sold off in after-hours, pre-market, and early trading sessions yesterday and today. And then Robinhood turned around and gained ample ground during the rest of the day. It’s a weird market moment, but good news for the U.S. fintech all the same.
  • Google to allow legacy G Suite users to move to free accounts: After angering techies still using the “G Suite legacy free edition” by announcing that it was ending the program and requiring payment, the search giant has decided to ”offer more options to existing users,” TechCrunch reports. Somewhere inside of Google, a business decision just met the market and was flipped on its head. Makes you wonder who is calling the shots over there, and if they previously worked for McKinsey.

TechCrunch Experts

Image Credits: SEAN GLADWELL / Getty Images

TechCrunch wants you to recommend growth marketers who have expertise in SEO, social, content writing and more! If you’re a growth marketer, pass this survey along to your clients; we’d like to hear about why they loved working with you.

Source: Tech

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3 experiments for early-stage founders seeking product-market fit

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At Human Ventures, we have a fund for pre-seed and seed-stage investments, a venture studio and an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program.

Through this work, we’ve discovered a lot about how different founders fulfill their journey of customer discovery and product-market fit. One of the largest challenges for pre-seed and seed stage founders is determining where to start: There are a million things to do. What should you do at each stage?

We interviewed three founders from our portfolio, all of whom ran discovery experiments to find their product-market fit at different stages of their company’s development.

Here’s what they had to share:

Pre-MVP/customer discovery phase: Tiny Organics

Tiny Organics is a plant-based baby and toddler food company on a mission to shape childrens’ palates so they’ll choose and love vegetables from their earliest days. The company raised $11 million in their Series A in 2021 and is growing at over 500% annually.

Founders Sofia Laurell and Betsy Fore joined our venture studio as EIRs and went through a six-week discovery sprint. As Sofia explains, they knew they wanted to build something to make parents’ lives easier and threw a lot of initial ideas at the wall from the Finnish baby box 2.0 (Sofia is Finnish) to an easier way to create Instagrammable baby pictures.

They went through multiple exercises to test the viability of new parents’ most pressing and urgent needs:

  • Conduct a “Start with Why” exercise
  • Define the “Jobs to be Done”
  • Create a lean canvas for each (viable) concept
  • Define the user journeys
  • Conduct user surveys using platforms like pollfish.com and 1Q (instant survey tool)
  • Identify and define their customer personas
  • Conduct customer interviews and synthesize them
  • Construct concept prototypes

They also met prospective customers, conducting a focus group of 10-15 moms. When the founders asked them to text them what they were feeding their children along with pictures for a week, they realized the lack of healthy finger foods in the market, thus sparking the idea for Tiny Organics.

Source: Tech

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