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Joi Ito resigns as MIT Media Lab head in wake of Jeffrey Epstein reporting

Joichi Ito, the embattled director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, has stepped down according to a statement by MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif. The news was first reported by The New York Times, which had received a copy of an email sent by Ito to university provost Martin A. Schmidt.

“After giving the matter a great deal of thought over the past several days and weeks,” the now-former director writes, “I think that it is best that I resign as director of the media lab and as a professor and employee of the Institute, effective immediately.”

In addition to resigning as director, Reif’s statement also confirmed that Ito resigned as a professor of the university.

The ‘matter’ to which the letter refers to is Ito’s reported connections to Jeffrey Epstein. The financier died in prison by hanging on August 10, following an arrest a month prior on federal charges of sex tracking minors.

Ito was among several high profile and powerful people whose alleged ties to the disgraced billionaire came into sharp focus following his arrest. In the immediate aftermath of that arrest, it came to light that the MIT Media Lab and Ito personally received funds from Epstein, to which Ito apologized in an August 15th letter.

The allegations against Ito intensified overnight following a report by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker that Ito’s engagement of Epstein were far deeper than had been previously been acknowledged. According to emails and documents discovered by Farrow, Ito and MIT Media Lab’s head of development, Peter Cohen, worked in tandem to conceal Epstein’s contributions from MIT’s central fundraising office, such as by marking donations anonymous and keeping his name out of disclosure statements.

Ito has long stood firm that the facts of his relationship with Epstein have been misreported. In an email to the Times, Ito said that the New Yorker piece was “full of factual errors.”

In response to Farrow’s piece, M.I.T, president L. Rafael Reif in today’s statement said:

Because the accusations in the story are extremely serious, they demand an immediate, thorough and independent investigation. This morning, I asked MIT’s General Counsel to engage a prominent law firm to design and conduct this process. I expect the firm to conduct this review as swiftly as possible, and to report back to me and to the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation, MIT’s governing board.

The MIT Media Lab is a storied research center with a long legacy of contributions to science, technology, and innovation. There are no indications yet on who might replace Ito.

In addition to the MIT Media Lab, Ito sits as a board director for The New York Times Company, where he sits on the company’s audit committee.

One can’t help but point out a perennial tweet that Ito wrote more than a decade ago about fundraising:

reminder to self: don’t invest with or take money from assholes

Joi Ito (@Joi) March 12, 2008

Ethics in the age of autonomous vehicles

Earlier this month, TechCrunch held its inaugural Mobility Sessions event, where leading mobility-focused auto companies, startups, executives and thought leaders joined us to discuss all things autonomous vehicle technology, micromobility and electric vehicles.

Extra Crunch is offering members access to full transcripts of key panels and conversations from the event, such as Megan Rose Dickey‘s chat with Voyage CEO and co-founder Oliver Cameron and Uber’s prediction team lead Clark Haynes on the ethical considerations for autonomous vehicles.

Megan, Oliver and Clark talk through how companies should be thinking about ethics when building out the self-driving ecosystem, while also diving into the technical aspects of actually building an ethical transportation product. The panelists also discuss how their respective organizations handle ethics, representation and access internally, and how their approaches have benefited their offerings.

Clark Haynes: So we as human drivers, we’re naturally what’s called foveate. Our eyes go forward and we have some mirrors that help us get some situational awareness. Self-driving cars don’t have that problem. Self-driving cars are designed with 360-degree sensors. They can see everything around them.

But the interesting problem is not everything around you is important. And so you need to be thinking through what are the things, the people, the actors in the world that you might be interacting with, and then really, really think through possible outcomes there.

I work on the prediction problem of what’s everyone doing? Certainly, you need to know that someone behind you is moving in a certain way in a certain direction. But maybe that thing that you’re not really certain what it is that’s up in front of you, that’s the thing where you need to be rolling out 10, 20 different scenarios of what might happen and make certain that you can kind of hedge your bets against all of those.

For access to the full transcription below and for the opportunity to read through additional event transcripts and recaps, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Megan Rose Dickey: Ready to talk some ethics?

Oliver Cameron: Born ready.

Clark Haynes: Absolutely.

Rose Dickey: I’m here with Oliver Cameron of Voyage, a self-driving car company that operates in communities, like retirement communities, for example. And with Clark Haynes of Uber, he’s on the prediction team for autonomous vehicles.

So some of you in the audience may remember, it was last October, MIT came out with something called the moral machine. And it essentially laid out 13 different scenarios involving self-driving cars where essentially someone had to die. It was either the old person or the young person, the black person, or the white person, three people versus one person. I’m sure you guys saw that, too.

So why is that not exactly the right way to be thinking about self-driving cars and ethics?

Haynes: This is the often-overused trolley problem of, “You can only do A or B choose one.” The big thing there is that if you’re actually faced with that as the hardest problem that you’re doing right now, you’ve already failed.

You should have been working harder to make certain you never ended up in a situation where you’re just choosing A or B. You should actually have been, a long time ago, looking at A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and like thinking through all possible outcomes as far as what your self-driving car could do, in low probability outcomes that might be happening.

Rose Dickey: Oliver, I remember actually, it was maybe a few months ago, you tweeted something about the trolley problem and how much you hate it.

Cameron: I think it’s one of those questions that doesn’t have an ideal answer today, because no one’s got self-driving cars deployed to tens of thousands of people experiencing these sorts of issues on the road. If we did an experiment, how many people here have ever faced that conundrum? Where they have to choose between a mother pushing a stroller with a child and a regular, normal person that’s just crossing the road?

Rose Dickey: We could have a quick show of hands. Has anyone been in that situation?

Theranos documentary review: The Inventor’s horrifying optimism

A blood-splattered Theranos machine nearly pricks an employee struggling to fix it. This gruesome graphical rendering is what you’ll walk away from HBO’s “The Inventor” with. It finally gives a visual to the startup’s laboratory fraud detailed in words by John Carreyrou’s book “Bad Blood”.

The documentary that premiered tonight at Sundance Film Festival explores how the move fast and break things ethos of Silicon Valley is “really dangerous when people’s lives are in the balance” as former employee and whistleblower Tyler Shultz says in the film. Theranos promised a medical testing device that made a single drop of blood from your finger more precise than a painful old-school syringe in your vein. What patients ended up using was so inaccurate it put their health in jeopardy.

But perhaps even more frightening is the willingness of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes to delude herself and everyone around her in service of a seemingly benevolent mission. The documentary captures how good ideas can make people do bad things.

“The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley” juxtaposes truthful interviews with the employees who eventually rebelled against Holmes with footage and media appearances of her blatantly lying to the world. It manages to stick to the emotion of the story rather than getting lost in the scientific discrepancies of Theranos’ deception.

The film opens and closes with close-ups of Holmes, demonstrating how the facts change her same gleaming smile and big blue eyes from the face of innovative potential to that of a sociopathic criminal. “I don’t have many secrets” she tells the camera at the start.

Though the film mentions early that her $9 billion-plus valuation company would wind up worth less than zero, it does a keen job of building empathy for her that it can tear down later. You see her tell sob stories of death in the family and repeat her line about building an end to having to say goodbye to loved ones too soon. You hear how she’s terrified of needles and how growing up, “my best friends were books.”

But then cracks start to emerge as old powerful men from professors to former cabinet members faun over Holmes and become enthralled in her cult of personality as validation snowballs. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney has a knack for creeping dread from his experience making “Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” He portrays Holmes’ delusions of grandeur with shots of her portrait beside those of Archimedes, Beethoven, and her idol Steve Jobs.

The first red flag comes when Holmes names her initial device Edison after the historic inventor the film assures you was quite a fraud himself. Soon, sources from inside the company relay how the Edison and subsequent Theranos hardware never worked right but that demos were faked for customers and investors. Instead of sticking to a firm timeline, Gibney bounces around to hammer home the emotional arcs of employees from excited to dubious, and of Holmes from confidence to paranoia.

Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood” meticulously chronicled every tiny warning sign that worried Theranos’ staff in order to build a case. But the author’s Wall Street Journal day job bled through, sapping the book of emotion and preventing it from seizing the grandeur of the tale’s climactic moments.

Gibney fills in the blanks with cringe-inducing scenes of Theranos’ faulty hardware. A ‘nanotainer’ of blood rolls off a table and fractures, a biohazard awaiting whoever tries to pick it up. The depiction of working in Theranos’ unregulated laboratory scored the biggest gasps from the Sundance audience. Former employees describe how Theranos recruited drifters they suspected of hepatitis as guinea pigs. Their stale blood evaporates into the air surrounding machines dripping with inky red, covered in broken test tubes. Gibney nails the graphics, zooming in on a needle spraying droplets as a robotic arm sputters through malfunctions. I almost had to look away as the film renders a hand reaching into the machine and only just dodging an erratic syringe.

A still from The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley by Alex Gibney, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Drew Kelly.

At times, Gibney goes a bit too melodramatic. The toy music box twinkling foreshadows a dream becoming a nightmare, but it gets maddening after an hour straight. The pacing feels uneven, sometimes bogged down in Holmes’ personal relationships when later it seems to speed through the company’s collapse.

Though elsewhere, the director harnesses the nervous laughter coping mechanism of the former employees to inject humor into the grim tale. With accuracy so low, Shultz jokes that “if people are testing themselves for syphilis with Theranos, there’s going to be a lot more syphilis in the world.” Visual dramatizations of journalists’ audio recordings of Holmes and the eventual legal disputes bring this evidence to life.

Alex Gibney, director of The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The most touching scene sees Fortune’s Roger Parloff on the brink of implosion as he grapples with giving Holmes her first magazine cover story — momentum she used to eventually get Theranos’ useless hardware in front of real patients who depended on its results.

The Inventor succeeds at instilling the lesson without getting too preachy. It’s fine to be hopeful, but don’t ignore your concerns no matter how much you want something to be real. It takes an incredibly complex sequence of events and makes it at once gripping and informative. If you haven’t read “Bad Blood” or found it drab, “The Inventor” conveys the gravity of the debacle with a little more flare.

Yet the documentary also gives Holmes a bit too much benefit of the doubt, suggesting that hey, at least she was trying to do good in the world. In the after-film panel, Gibney said “She had a noble vision . . . I think that was part of why she was able to convince so many people and convince herself that what she was doing was great, which allowed her to lie so effectively.” Carreyrou followed up that “she was not intending to perpetrate a long con.”

Yet that’s easier to say for both the director and the author when neither of their works truly investigated the downstream health impacts of Theranos’ false positives and false negatives. If they’d tracked down people who delayed critical treatment or had their lives upended by the fear of a disease they didn’t have, I doubt Holmes would be cut so much slack.

Some degree of ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ might be essential to build hard technology startups. You must make people believe Inc something that doesn’t exist if you’re to pull in the funding and talent necessary to make it a reality. But it’s not just medical, hardware, or “atoms not bits” startups that must be allegiant to the truth. As Facebook and WhatsApps’ role in spreading misinformation that led to mob killings in India and Myanmar proved, having a grand mission doesn’t make you incapable of doing harm. A line must be drawn between optimism and dishonesty before it leads to drawing chalk outlines on the ground.

Snap’s exec team continues to shrink as more reports of internal drama surface

Days after Snap announced the departure of its CFO, reports have emerged that the company’s HR chief was asked to leave following an internal investigation late last year that had led to the firing of its global security head.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Snap fired global security head Francis Racioppi late last year after an investigation uncovered that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an outside contractor he had hired. After the relationship ended, Racioppi terminated the woman’s contract, the report says.

Racioppi denied any wrongdoing in a comment to the Journal. A report from Cheddar also adds that one of Racioppi’s assistants was fired for aiding in an attempt to cover up the scandal.

The investigation’s findings reportedly contributed to CEO Evan Spiegel asking the company’s HR head Jason Halbert to step down. Halbert announced his plans to leave the company this week.

While today’s news pins two high-profile executive departures to a single incident, Snap’s executive team has seemed to be losing talent from its ranks at a quickening pace.

Snap’s ephemeral C-suite https://t.co/cdNDFyVEGS

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) January 16, 2019

Snap did not comment on the reports.

How Silicon Valley should celebrate Labor Day

Ask any 25-year old engineer what Labor Day means to him or her, and you might get an answer like: it’s the surprise three-day weekend after a summer of vacationing. Or it’s the day everyone barbecues at Dolores Park. Or it’s the annual Tahoe trip where everyone gets to relive college.

Or simply, it’s the day we get off because we all work so hard.

And while founders and employees in startup land certainly work hard, wearing their 80-hour workweeks as a badge of honor, closing deals on conference calls in an air-conditioned WeWork is a far cry from the backbreaking working conditions of the 1880s, the era when Labor Day was born.

For everyone here in Silicon Valley, we should not be celebrating this holiday triumphantly over beers and hot dogs, complacent in the belief that our gravest labor issues are behind us, but instead use this holiday as a moment to reflect on how much further we have to go in making our workplaces and companies more equitable, diverse, inclusive and ethically responsible.

Bloody Beginnings

On September 5th, 1882, 10,000 workers gathered at a “monster labor festival” to protest the 12-hours per day, seven days a week harsh working conditions they faced in order to cobble together a survivable wage. Even children as “young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country.”

This all erupted in a climax in 1894 when the American Railway Union went on a nationwide strike, crippling the nation’s transportation infrastructure, which included trains that delivered postal mail. President Grover Cleveland declared this a federal crime and sent in federal troops to break up the strike, which resulted in one of the bloodiest encounters in labor history, leaving 30 dead and countless injured.

Labor Day was declared a national holiday a few month later in an effort to mend wounds and make peace with a reeling and restless workforce (it also conveniently coincided with President Cleveland’s reelection bid).

The Battle is Not Yet Won

Today in Silicon Valley, this battle for fair working conditions and a living wage seems distant from our reality of nap rooms and lucrative stock grants.  By all accounts, we have made tremendous strides on a number of critical labor issues. While working long hours is still a cause for concern, most of us can admit that we often voluntarily choose to work more than we have to. Our workplace environments are not perfect (i.e. our standing desks may not be perfectly ergonomic), but they are far from life-threatening or hazardous to our health. And while equal wages are still a concern, earning a living wage is not, particularly if the worst case scenario after “failing” at a startup means joining a tech titan and clocking in as a middle manager with a six-figure salary.

Even though the workplace challenges of today are not as grave as life or death, the fight is not yet over. Our workplaces are far from perfect, and the power dynamic between companies and employees is far from equal.

In tech, we face a myriad of issues that need grassroots, employee-driven movements to effect change. Each of the following issues has complexities and nuances that deserve an article of its own, but I’ve tried to summarize them briefly: 

  1. Equal pay for equal work – while gender wage gaps are better in tech than other industries (4% average in tech vs. 20% average across other industries), the discrepancy in wages for women in technical roles is twice the average for other roles in tech.
  2. Diversity – research shows that diverse teams perform better, yet 76% of technical jobs are still held by men, and only 5% of tech workers are Black or Latino. The more alarming statistic in a recent Atlassian survey is that more than 40% of respondents felt that their company’s diversity programs needed no further improvement.
  3. Inclusion – an inclusive workplace should be a basic fundamental right, but harassment and discrimination still exist. A survey by Women Who Tech found that 53 percent of women working in tech companies reported experiencing harassment (most frequently in the form of sexism, offensive slurs, and sexual harassment) compared to 16 percent of men.
  4. Outsourced / 1099 employees – while corporate employees at companies like Amazon are enjoying the benefits of a ballooning stock, the reality is much bleaker for warehouse workers who are on the fringes of the corporate empire. A new book by undercover journalist James Bloodworth found that Amazon workers in a UK warehouse “use bottles instead of the actual toilet, which is located too far away.” A separate survey conducted found that 55% of these workers suffer from depression, and 80% said they would not work at Amazon again.Similarly, Foxconn is under fire once again for unfair pay practices, adding to the growing list of concerns including suicide, underage workers, and onsite accidents. The company is the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, and builds products for Amazon, Apple, and a host of other tech companies.
  5. Corporate Citizenship & Ethics – while Silicon Valley may be a bubble, the products created here are not. As we’ve seen with Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica breach, these products impact millions of lives. The general uncertainty and uneasiness around the implications of automation and AI also spark difficult conversations about job displacement for entire swaths of the global population (22.7M by 2025 in the US alone, according to Forrester).

Thus, the reversal in sentiment against Silicon Valley this past year is sending a message that should resonate loud and clear — the products we build and the industries we disrupt here in the Valley have real consequences for workers that need to be taken seriously.

Laboring toward a better future

To solve these problems, employees in Silicon Valley needs to find a way to organize. However, there are many reasons why traditional union structures may not be the answer.

The first is simply that traditional unions and tech don’t get along. Specifically, the AFL-CIO, one of the largest unions in America, has taken a hard stance against the libertarian ethos of the Valley, drawing a bright line dividing the tech elite from the working class. In a recent speech about how technology is changing work, the President of the AFL-CIO did not mince words when he said that the “events of the last few years should have made clear that the alternative to a just society is not the libertarian paradise of Silicon Valley billionaires. It is a racist and authoritarian nightmare.”

But perhaps the biggest difference between what an organized labor movement would look like in Silicon Valley and that of traditional organized labor is that it would be a fight not to advance the interest of the majority, but to protect the minority. In the 1880s, poor working conditions and substandard pay affected nearly everyone — men, women, and children. Unions were the vehicles of change for the majority.

But today, for the average male 25-year old engineer, promoting diversity and inclusion or speaking out about improper treatment of offshore employees is unlikely to affect his pay, desirability in the job market, or working conditions. He will still enjoy the privileges of being fawned over as a scarce resource in a competitive job market. But the person delivering the on-demand service he’s building won’t. His female coworker with an oppressive boss won’t. This is why it is ever more important that we wake up and not only become allies or partners, but champions of the causes that affect our less-privileged fellow coworkers, and the people that our companies and products touch.

So this Labor Day, enjoy your beer and hot dog, but take a moment to remember the individuals who fought and bled on this day to bring about a better workplace for all. And on Tuesday, be ready to challenge your coworkers on how we can continue that fight to build more diverse, inclusive, and ethically responsible companies for the future. 

These are the 10 best tech companies to work for in the U.S., according to Glassdoor

 Glassdoor just released its top 100  U.S.-based companies to work for next year. Since we cover technology over here at TechCrunch, we broke out the top 10 tech companies from the list.
The rankings are based on employee feedback from companies with more than 1,000 employees. Through Glassdoor, employees rate companies based on things like their CEO, career opportunities, compensation and… Read More

LG shakes up its struggling mobile division with new top executives

 If you’ve stopped paying attention to LG in the last couple of years, you’ll learn everything you need to know from the first paragraph of its latest press release that highlights a “sweeping realignment to better address the challenges ahead.” The company’s in a tough spot. It makes good and innovative phones, but just seem to make a dent in a crowded mobile… Read More

Uber’s VP of product and growth has left the company

BEIJING, CHINA - 2016/10/08: UBER art station in Beijing CBD.  There are 8 UBER art stations in Beijing, each with a sculpture made by some of China's promising modern designers, provided especially for the carpooling riders and drivers to gather and find each other easily. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images) Ed Baker, Uber’s VP of product and growth, has resigned from Uber, Recode first reported. Uber declined to comment on the story but TechCrunch has confirmed that Baker has left the company, and that Daniel Graf, Uber’s head of marketplace, will be the interim head of product and marketplace. “I have always wanted to apply my experience in technology and growth to the… Read More

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Thrive Capital hires Obama’s Director of Product Josh Miller to focus on tech for the underprivileged

josh_miller_white_house Connections between the Obama administration and Silicon Valley abound, but particularly for Josh Kushner. The latest? Kushner’s venture firm Thrive Capital just hired Josh Miller, a member of the White House Office of Digital Strategy under President Barack Obama.
Miller, just 24 when he left Facebook to serve as the White House director of product, starts Monday at Thrive and… Read More

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