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Remote personal assistant service Double will soon come out of stealth mode — just as the rest of the world has embarked on a giant unplanned work-from-home experiment.
Founded in 2018 by former Microsoft employees, Double seeks to pair executives with human assistants who help them out digitally from afar for as few as five hours per month. Now the company says it's secured a round of funding and wants to be part of the conversation about the future of work.
Protocol talked with CEO and co-founder Alice Default about how her company's "Doubles" are helping their bosses through the coronavirus pandemic and if the crisis might leave workplaces more comfortable with remote workers.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So you're coming out of stealth mode, now, while many people are suddenly being forced to work remotely. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your strategy?
Quite a bit. Obviously, it's still pretty recent, but we've been thinking about logistics, and for the last two weeks, we're still tracking to see how this is impacting our business. And we'll probably make adjustments in the future. For now, what we've decided to do is put all of our outreach efforts, my client acquisition efforts, on pause for now and really try to focus on our current clients. It's the most important thing right now that they have the best experience, especially in these stressful, stressful times. Obviously, one of our missions is to help our clients save time and save mental load and bring them that service. So yeah, focusing on bringing value to our clients, stopping outreach.
And the last thing that we should do is focus on more long-term marketing efforts. With direct email, for example, booking a lot more on building content that can be valuable right now, but also be valuable later down the road.
What sort of things are your Doubles doing during the pandemic?
So we've been doing a lot of things for clients. I think the first one obviously is scheduling and rescheduling things for afterward. A lot of travel was canceled, a lot of meetings moved to Zoom. Just being there for clients to help them manage all this chaos in their calendar was obviously a big one.
We've had a lot of clients who needed help figuring out the best setups for their remote teams. So just like getting them on Zoom, finding and taking all their events — like talks or conferences they were holding — and finding the best way to convert that into a webinar or virtual conference. We've been seeing a lot of just sending packages to their team members or helping their team members buy things to have a good remote setup: a big screen, a better chair. Obviously, we do a lot of personal tasks, so there's a lot of food delivery, researching health care options, helping finding activities for their kids to keep them busy and ordering board games and things like that. And the last bucket was helping with self care — finding gym classes to work out online, canceling gym memberships.
Do you think that our current nationwide, unplanned work-from-home experiment will make people more comfortable with hiring remote workers long term?
I hope so. If that's what comes out of this, it could definitely be great, especially because there's so many great talents who are working remote today and who were working remotely before this crisis started. I think for companies it's a massive opportunity, right, to find people that are not just in their city. That being said, I also think that it will depend on how the crisis and remote work is being managed by each company. Right now we are doing a work-from-home experiment, but we're also doing a worldwide economic crisis experiment — a "you can't go out of your home" experiment, which is not your typical work-from-home experience.
There's a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety. People don't know they're going to keep their jobs. But I'm just hoping that this is not going to add a negative connotation to just being remote and working from home. Hopefully, people realize that work can still be done remote, that you can trust your employees to do really great work, even if they're working from home, if they have more flexible schedules. And that's something that I'm actually pretty hopeful that will happen.
One of the things that we've seen a lot of the larger tech companies come out with is doing virtual assistants that are based on artificial intelligence with varying results — and sometimes using humans behind the scenes to supplement. What made Double focus on connecting actual people via tools instead of moving toward AI?
There's a few reasons. First, I think humans are great and that you shouldn't hide that. And the good things humans bring should be front and center instead of putting them behind a wall as some sort of a dirty thing. But importantly, we don't think AI is there yet to really bring a quality service, in terms of executive assistant. When you have an executive assistant, a lot of it is knowing about you, knowing your company, and being able to anticipate your needs. We don't think that AI is at a level where it can do that accurately right now. It can't really deliver a great experience.
The main way AI is working within virtual assistants so far has been on superfocused tasks: scheduling, for example. And they're getting better and better at these vertical tasks. But we really believe that as a client, you don't want to have to use a different tool for everything. If you have your AI assistant for scheduling and your AI for travel, and you're just adding on even more tools, they can get overwhelming.
So we think we're able to bring a way better quality of service by having these humans and just empowering these humans with tech and tools that are going to help them do a better job. We're actually building tools for both the assistant side and the client side.
And then the last thing is, for us, delegation is about trust, right? When you're delegating something, you're sharing a task with someone else. You need to trust that person with information about you — what's your preferences, credit card information, all these different things — and that they're going to do a good job. And so for us, that human relationship to create that trust is super important, versus validating something with AI where you don't really know what's going to happen with this data or algorithm.
Are you dogfooding? Do you have a Double who's helping you manage things?
Of course! Actually all the team at HQ has a Double — from engineers to our operations team — though we obviously have different needs. I've had a Double basically since the start, obviously to test the experience, and figure out what it is like for a client. I think it's super important that teams dogfood and talk through whatever experience they're building.
What kind of assistant tasks are easiest to manage remotely right now?
So we do a lot of things for clients remotely, actually. Most tasks can be done remotely as long as it's not going to pick up the mail or bring a physical package to someone. And even then you could figure out a way to find someone to do that, remotely.
Right now, we focus a lot more time for clients on scheduling. Obviously, one of the biggest things people ask us for is travel booking and admin tasks, whether it's expenses and invoices, onboarding new employees, things like that. And then we also do a lot of just project management, I would say, for our clients, whether it's helping them with their hiring funnel, or helping them prep for meetings, things like that. There's a lot of projects that can totally work remotely.
How large is your current pool of customers? And how many Doubles do you have?
We're still in stealth mode, and we've been like this for the past two years, intentionally keeping our pool small so we could really focus on building the best experience possible from a human point of view and building up on the operational side of the business and from a product perspective. So we have a bit over 100 clients in our setup right now and we've been growing that 20% per month over the last few months. Obviously, it's a bit different now. And we have about 30 Doubles to support people in our current system.
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So what's next?
There's so many things that we could do. But for now, the goal is to focus on making an assistant way more accessible to executives out there, without having to hire somebody in your office. We think that all of us need help, no matter what you spend time on during our day. We're all working on things that we don't really value doing — and actually way more than we think. And the goal for us is to make it easy to have someone help you out with any type of task, whether you expect to need help for two hours per week or three hours per day. So that's what we're going to focus on, which obviously means scaling the operational side of the business.
Andrea Peterson ( @kansasalps) is an independent journalist with extensive experience reporting on technology policy. Peterson was a staff writer for The Washington Post from 2013 through the end of 2016. Her byline has also been published by POLITICO, Ars Technica, The Daily Beast, Slate and other outlets.
Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.
Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.
Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.
Delta isn't just scaring Apple
"I know a couple companies that have just indefinitely put plans on hold," said Niki Armstrong, who serves as general counsel, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer at Pure Storage. "We really just don't know what the future's going to hold here in the next few months."
Pure is one such company. The nearly $6 billion data storage hardware and software maker initially planned to fully reopen its offices after Labor Day, but decided last week to delay its full reopening indefinitely.
Pure decided to indefinitely delay its full reopening because of concerns about the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19. Vaccinated people are far less likely than the unvaccinated to wind up in the hospital with COVID-19, but breakthrough cases do occur. Pure still plans to reopen on a voluntary basis next month, but only to employees who tell the company they're vaccinated.
Employees may also have concerns about bringing the virus home to unvaccinated family members or may be unvaccinated themselves for a medical reason, Armstrong noted.
"It's not 'vaccine and chill.' It's 'vaccine and still continue to be safe,'" Armstrong said. "It's not 100% guaranteed that you're not going to get it, even with the vaccine."
By delaying the full reopening, Pure is allowing employees to continue to live where they want, whether or not that's near the office, until it's clear when the company can safely reopen. Pure wanted to avoid uprooting employees and then changing plans, Armstrong said.
ServiceNow delayed its full reopening for similar reasons. The $114 billion software maker decided last week to delay its September reopening until January or later, spokesperson Caitlin Stewart said.
"We understand the complex realities everyone is facing, including concerns about the COVID-19 Delta variant," ServiceNow said in an emailed statement. "This extended period of employee choice will give our people time to transition back to the workplace safely and plan for personal situations."
Similar to Pure, ServiceNow is allowing employees to come into the office in the meantime if they choose. All but three of ServiceNow's 27 U.S. offices are partially open, Stewart said.
Salesforce, SAP, Airbnb also won't require employees back until 2022
Google, Amazon and Microsoft have all indicated September as their full reopening date, though spokespeople for both Facebook and Google told Protocol earlier this week that they were monitoring the changing situation.
And it's not uncommon for companies to look to October or later. Like Apple, Facebook doesn't expect to fully reopen until October. Salesforce, SAP, Twilio and DoorDash are letting employees work remotely until January 2022 or later.
Some are looking even further into the future for their reopenings. Airbnb won't require its employees to come back to the office until September 2022, CEO Brian Chesky revealed on the company's May 13 earnings call, telling investors that the company wants to "model the 'live anywhere' lifestyle" and would "allow a lot of flexibility."
Vaccine and mask mandates
Local government officials in the Bay Area have been urging people to wear masks in public, indoor places for the last week.
A similar recommendation in Los Angeles was quickly followed by an indoor mask mandate, which went into effect last weekend in L.A.'s public, indoor spaces, including offices.
It's possible that the Bay Area's mask recommendation could turn into a mandate if the case counts don't get under control, said Rachel Conn, a San Francisco-based partner in the labor and employment group at the law firm Nixon Peabody.
"Could I see the Bay Area fall in line and do something similar to L.A. in the future? I certainly could," Conn said. "We were, of course, the first to have a lockdown in the country."
A potential mask mandate in offices could throw a wrench in companies' reopening plans. Already, Google and Intel have begun urging even vaccinated employees to wear masks in the office again, given that both companies are allowing unvaccinated employees to come to work.
"A lot of times employers are getting feedback from their employees," Conn said. "If employers are seeing a rise in concerns with their employees about the Delta variant, or data they're seeing, they should consider all of that."
Officials in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties also recommended yesterday that given the rising case counts, employers should consider imposing vaccine mandates at the workplace. In a radio interview on WNYC today, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on employers to require vaccinations for workers.
Only a handful of large tech companies are currently barring unvaccinated employees from the office, including Adobe, Twitter, Asana and Twilio. Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are among the companies that aren't imposing such mandates.
As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"
In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.
People are often surprised to learn we have thousands of customers here in America, made up of U.S. brands, retailers, small businesses and even farmers.
Last year, thousands of these U.S. companies sold more than $54 billion worth of their high-quality products directly to Chinese consumers on our e-commerce platforms. These companies include large multinationals like P&G and Estée Lauder, family-owned businesses like BISSELL and Emily's Chocolates, small businesses like Antica Farmacista and Radha Beauty and agriculture-based companies like Sun-Maid and Califia Farms.
How does it work? Think of Alibaba as a massive digital mall. When a U.S. business opens a digital storefront on our platform in China, they gain access to our almost 900 million active Chinese consumers. But we do much more than provide traffic. We provide all the tools to help U.S. businesses build their brands in China to serve local Chinese consumers. This includes fully customizable online storefronts, marketing tools, inventory and management services, as well as translation and logistics.
We also offer innovations like livestream commerce, AR shopping and gamification to help businesses connect with consumers in highly engaging ways. One of our strengths is the deep insights we have into the Chinese consumer, which can be very valuable to U.S. businesses as they tailor and market their products to fit the demands of new Chinese consumers.
Importantly, what makes us different from other e-commerce platforms is that we are a marketplace, not a retailer. This distinction is critical because it means we connect U.S. businesses and their products directly to the Chinese consumer. The business owns the relationships and consumer insights, and has total control over pricing, marketing and merchandising decisions. It also means we are always a partner, and never a competitor to the businesses on our platforms. We will only succeed if the businesses we work with succeed.
These are the important reasons why so many U.S. brands trust us and work with us in the China consumer market. Even direct-to-consumer brands based in the U.S. like Allbirds, Rothy's, Everlane and Senreve partner with us in China. We give them all the advantages of going direct to consumers – control over branding, consumer relationships and all the data and insights – in addition to access to the nearly 900 million consumers on our marketplaces.
According to the
U.S-China Business Council, one million jobs in the U.S. are consistently sustained by helping U.S. businesses sell to China. We are proud to be an important part of that U.S. job creation opportunity.
Until recently, the China consumer opportunity would have been out of reach for most U.S. small businesses. That is why we have invested heavily in our Tmall Global platform, which was specifically designed for businesses without a local presence in China to be able to sell cross-border to the Chinese consumer. Over the past several months, Alibaba has seen a continuing flow of American brands starting to sell to China for the first time. More than 100 U.S. businesses have launched on Tmall Global since January 2021.
Take New Jersey skincare brand
Nuria Beauty as an example. Josh Ghaim founded Nuria Beauty just two years ago before the pandemic hit. Because of his prior experience at Johnson & Johnson, Ghaim was familiar with Alibaba and knew it could be a great solution for Nuria. In just three months, Nuria had a Tmall Global storefront up and running, and was enjoying steady sales growth. Ghaim expects the China market to grow and become his largest market.
This year, more than 50 percent of all retail sales in China are predicted to take place online—the first time this milestone has been reached globally. The digital economy and massive consumer market in China present big opportunities for Alibaba's U.S. customers.
So when people ask me what Alibaba is doing in America, my answer is simple: We give great American brands, retailers, small businesses and farmers direct access to the Chinese consumer opportunity that can power their growth and success for the long term.
A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.
Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.
The survey, conducted by Qualtrics and the online talent marketplace The Boardlist in June, asked 1,225 people over the age of 18 about their work experiences during the pandemic. Overall, 45% of working parents said they'd been discriminated against at work because of their family responsibilities. But that figure was even higher for parents in managerial and VP positions, 54% of whom said they'd experienced discrimination for their familial duties. Only 38% of lower-level employees said the same.
"It's very clear at leadership levels, as you ascend, there's a feeling of backlash, or at a minimum, prejudice for having these responsibilities," said Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder and chair of The Boardlist, which helps companies find potential board members who are women and people of color. The survey results, she said, suggest that while it's obvious working parents in general are looking for more flexibility and support, that doesn't become any less true as they climb the corporate ladder.
Of the working parents who said they'd been discriminated against, 43% said they'd received criticism inside the company and 33% said they'd been passed over for a promotion. Others reported having their leadership responsibilities taken away and being passed over for important projects.
The survey also confirmed what has been a long-running theme in research about parenthood during the pandemic: It found that 75% of working moms said they handled the bulk of child care, while just 62% of working men said the same. Some 58% of moms reported having exclusive responsibility for leading their kids' remote learning, compared to 34% of dads.
This imbalance no doubt contributed to the mass exodus of women from the workforce during the height of lockdown restrictions in the U.S. As the country opens back up and administers more vaccines, there are some signs that trend is receding, with women taking more than 50% of new jobs in May. And yet, women's overall labor force participation in June 2021 remained at a 30-year low.
For Cassidy, who has served on the boards of companies like Ericsson, Tripadvisor and Urban Outfitters, all of this amounts to a reminder that as companies work to bring more women — and particularly parents — into the board room and senior positions in their companies, they have to develop a supportive culture to go along with it. "I think it's very important that boards turn their attention to issues of talent, culture and flexibility, which historically has not been part of the board room," she said.
If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.
Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.
Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.
The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.
That's a laudable mission, but one that will require immense engineering work in order to build a product that can ultimately be deployed relatively easily at an enterprise-grade level, a challenge Tan-White openly admitted lay ahead.
"None of this is realistic or affordable to automate today," she wrote. "This all hints at the potential for Intrinsic's software to radically reduce the time, cost, and complexity required to use industrial robots."
Intrinsic has some heavy hitters on its side to help achieve that goal, including Chief Technology Officer Torsten Kroeger and Martin Haegele, a former winner of the Engelberger Award, which is essentially the Nobel Prize for robotics.
While it's possible to train robots to handle extremely repetitive tasks, those processes begin to break down as those tasks become more complicated. Other tech giants like Nvidia are also trying to improve the capabilities of industrial robots: The chip maker has an AI lab in Seattle that is testing out several different types of robotic systems.
For Alphabet, the software could help propel other parts of the business. Manufacturing has emerged as a key focus for Google Cloud, which recently released its first industry-specific tool: an AI-based visual inspection tool. It also hired sector veterans like former SAP executive Hans Thalbauer and Accenture's Suchitra Bose to help forge deeper partnerships with other software providers and build up its own product suite.
But other cloud vendors, namely Microsoft, also sense the opportunity in further digitizing an industry that has already embraced advanced tech like artificial intelligence. For Microsoft and Google, the industrial segment is attractive because many of the promised innovations of the future — like digital twins and generative design — are going to require huge amounts of data, which means they'll need lots of expensive computing and storage services.
One of Google's biggest differentiators in the market is its AI. The company is world-renowned for the technology; just look at Alphabet's announcement earlier this week that DeepMind would release a huge database of 3D protein structures.
If Intrinsic succeeds, it could give Google Cloud, which currently lags behind AWS and Microsoft in the overall cloud infrastructure sector, a huge presence in a critical market.
There's more to content moderation than deplatforming.
Yonatan Lupu is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Nicolás Velasquez Hernandez is a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs and a postdoctoral researcher at GW's Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' signing of a bill that penalizes social media companies for deplatforming politicians was yet another salvo in an escalating struggle over the growth and spread of digital disinformation, malicious content and extremist ideology. While Big Tech, world leaders and policymakers — along with many of us in the research community — all recognize the importance of mitigating online and offline harm, agreement on how best to do that is few and far between.
Big tech companies have approached the problem in different ways and with varying degrees of success. Facebook, for example, has had considerable success in containing malicious content by blocking links that lead to domains characterized by disinformation and hateful content, and by removing keywords from its search engine index that link to hate and supremacist movements. Additionally, Facebook and Twitter have both deplatformed producers and purveyors of malicious content and disinformation, including, famously, a former U.S. president.
But these "gatekeeper powers" often put Big Tech squarely in the crosshairs of U.S. politicians like DeSantis and other critics, who argue the platforms are censoring the American people. (Legal scholars have argued otherwise, noting that the right of private companies to remove malicious persons or content from their platforms is itself protected under the First Amendment.)
Although studies have shown that deplatforming, removing content and counter-messaging can effectively slow the spread of misinformation or extremist content, these tactics also come at a cost. Deplatforming is likely to continue raising the ire of critics accusing companies of censorship or political favoritism. Likewise, counter-messaging can be resource-intensive and even counterproductive: Conspiracy theorists, for example, often view counter-messaging as further evidence of their misguided beliefs. Moreover, these methods do not truly contain the growth and spread of malicious content or extremism.
To make matters worse, individuals and groups become increasingly savvy at subverting the moderation efforts of single platforms, and our research shows how malicious content can quickly and easily move between platforms. In fact, by mapping this network of hate communities across multiple platforms, our research team can see how groups exploit the multiverse of online hate. When a platform removes them, extremists often simply regroup on less-moderated platforms like Gab or Telegram and then find ways to reenter the platform from which they were initially removed. This points to a key challenge: Mainstream companies have made great strides in moderating the content on their own platforms, but they cannot control the spread of malicious content on unmoderated platforms, which often seeps back onto their own sites.
Likewise, when we investigate how extremist groups operate online, we see hidden, mathematical patterns in how they grow and evolve. The growth patterns of early online support for the U.S.-based extremist group known as the Boogaloos, for example, mirrored those for the terrorist organization ISIS; both movements' growth over time can be explained by a single shockwave mathematical equation. Though ideologically, culturally and geographically distinct, these two groups nevertheless show remarkable likeness in their digital evolution and "collective chemistry." By understanding how these groups assemble and combine into communities, we can effectively nudge that chemistry in ways that slow their growth or even prevent them from forming in the first place.
These types of system-level insights provide a deeper level of understanding as to how malicious online content spreads, persists and grows. They also point the way forward for social media companies to identify new strategies beyond content removal and counter-messaging to better slow the spread of malicious content, especially during high-stakes moments like a pandemic or social unrest.
For example, our research suggests that platforms could slow the growth of hate communities by intentionally introducing non-malicious, mainstream content onto their pages and crowding out malicious users. They could also modify their platforms to lengthen the paths malicious content would need to travel between hate communities (including those on other platforms) and mainstream groups, thereby slowing its spread and increasing the chance of detection by moderators. Even simple tactics like capping the number of users on extremist pages could be highly effective. One advantage of tactics like these is that their subtlety makes them less likely to draw backlash.
Although companies hoping to protect their secret sauce of success from competitors might be resistant to work together, it's clear that treating their individual platforms like semi-fortified islands is a limited solution. For example, when individual platforms remove malicious content, they understandably are reluctant to disclose details about what they removed, but finding ways to confidentially share such information with each other could greatly reduce time and resources spent on duplicate efforts. This could also prevent reemergence of malicious content elsewhere. Along similar lines, if mainstream platforms can find ways to share information with each other about users and content migrating to them from unmoderated platforms, this could help more quickly sever the connections between mainstream social media and the dark web.
It is asking a lot of huge, profit-driven corporations to cooperate with their direct competitors, but the need to do so is vital. Examples of interplatform coordination to reduce malicious content — such as the Global Alliance for Responsible Media — are encouraging. Through the Alliance, platforms like Facebook and YouTube are working to harmonize best practices and share data to clamp down on hate speech. Another example is the information-sharing platform run by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which allows platforms to identify certain types of malicious content.
In addition to interplatform collaboration, big tech companies would also benefit from greater collaboration with academic researchers, government agencies or other private entities. New perspectives and ways of thinking will ultimately lead to more effective strategies.
Given the sheer effort they expend to connect all of us, Big Tech should remember that they don't have to go it alone.