The Weirdest Shit to Come Out of Silicon Valley in April
There’s a drinking game I like to play with my friends back home: Two Truths and a Lie, the Silicon Valley Start-up Edition. I tell them about three companies, and if they fail to identify the fake one, they have to down a shot. This has become more surreal in recent years. Here’s an example: a start-up that provides the blood of the young to the old, a tampon that diagnoses health problems and a picture-free porn company.
Spoiler: they’re all real companies (though the blood-for-youth one recently shuttered).
We’re living in the future, so they say, and it’s a wonderful, scary place to be. One the one hand—yay, innovation. But on the other, we’re mainly just dealing with entitlement and apps for the 1 percent (remember those too-lazy-to-do-laundry start-ups?). The “move fast and break things” (and say sorry later) philosophy of yore doesn’t gel well when we’re looking at autonomous vehicles or AI in the justice system. Or…Theranos.
Some people get it right—and some don’t. So I bring you a new TBI series that takes a dip into some of the weirdest shit to come out of the Valley each month, starting in April. Find some gems in May? Shoot me a message to include next month.
Five years ago, 25-year-old software engineer Robert Rhinehart decided that he could “fix” food. Eating solids was sooo 20th century. Enter Soylent, a beige meal-replacement shake that promised all the nutrients of food without any of the fun. It was embraced by the tech-bro crowd despite the stories about squelchy farts and diarrhea (happily reported by Redditors).
“In the past, food was about survival. Now we can try to create something ideal,” he boasted. For him, the future was liquid—to the tune of $72.4 million in investment. But now, a step back.
Enter Soylent Squared, a 100-calorie protein bar available in Chocolate Brownie, Citrus Berry and Salted Caramel. It’s not the first “real food” product they’ve launched. In 2016, there was a short-lived Soylent “Feed bar” that was withdrawn after (you guessed it) more diarrhea stories. So Silicon Valley’s reinvention of eating is…a mix of solid and liquid food. Game changer.
Forget drones, scooters and autonomous cars; the latest transport innovation in the Valley takes a stab at seafaring. The City of Oakland has granted entrepreneur Jessica Schiller permission to change up the commute; starting in July, she’ll be offering commuters an alternate mode of transportation: the electric water bike. It looks like a cross between a unicycle and a catamaran, but it’s no joke. Its 750-watt motor can reach 10 mph, cutting down the 30-minute bus journey to a few minutes. She’s launching an initial fleet of 25 water bikes (rental price TBD) that can be accessed via their app after you watch a brief tutorial video. Initial service will run between Oakland and Alameda, but if it’s successful, Schiller hopes this will open up a route to San Francisco docks.
On April 1, Burger King announced that they’d be stocking the Impossible Burger — otherwise known as the $387.5 million “veggie burger that bleeds” — in 59 of their locations in St. Louis, Missouri.
No, this is not a joke. I can’t decide if their timing of this announcement was fiendishly clever or if someone got fired, but either way, Missouri, a state that ranks sixth in the nation for cattle and the first state to regulate the use of the word “meat” (“to prevent misrepresentation of products as meat that are not derived from livestock or poultry”), now has a step up over every other state. Reviews of the vegan Whopper have been varied; one Redditor gave it a 6.5 out of 10 and said it tasted like a regular Whopper, while another reviewer complained that the same grill was used for the meat and veggie patties.
To be fair, Impossible’s aim is not to court vegans and vegetarians; they’re going after meat eaters. “We have to produce foods that consumers prefer over what they’re getting today from animals,” said Dr. Pat Brown, Impossible’s founder, to TIME magazine. As for the test location, it looks like the thinking goes, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Every company has to draw the line somewhere, and this month, Patagonia, purveyor of the puffy jacket and fleece vest that have become a staple of the tech-bro crowd, has taken their stand. In April, Binna Kim, CEO of Vested, a financial-communications agency, placed a corporate order for a number of branded Patagonia fleece vests (she ordered through a third party). She’d made similar orders before, but not anymore.
An email informed her that the company would not be fulfilling her request. “Patagonia has nothing against your client,” their email stated. “Due to their environmental activism, they are reluctant to co-brand with oil, drilling, dam construction, etc.—companies that they view to be ecologically damaging. This also includes any religious groups/churches, food groups, politically affiliated companies/groups, political institutions and more.” Weird flex but OK. Stripping the fintech crowd of their favorite outdoor apparel isn’t going to make them rethink corporate greed, but hey, every little bit counts.
We can all agree that we don’t want minors (or adults, really) smoking tobacco in any form. It’s bad for their brains, their bodies and their parents. But adults can make their own choices — so most of the concern is about the kids. Over the last two years, the $13.6 billion start-up Juul Labs, purveyor of pocket-friendly vaporizers, has come under a lot of heat for encouraging underage smoking with their flavored cartridges (the CDC reports that high school e-cig use rose from 2.1million in 2017 to 3.6 million in 2018). “Juuling” has even become a common term in schools statewide.
To counter the bad press, Juul Labs has taken a new tack: narcing. All Juul vapes have a serial number next to their logo, and they’re now encouraging adults or teachers who confiscate Juuls to input this into their new track-and-trace website. They say they’ll investigate each case and try to stamp out the distribution links, whether it’s stores that sell to minors or one adult buying to resell. But to be fair, in 2010, the office of adolescent health reported that 10.7 percent of American 12th-graders used nicotine daily (this includes cigarettes, pipes, e-cigarettes, etc.). By 2018, this number had fallen to 3.6 percent. Juul’s flavors might encourage youth to try smoking, but big tobacco is where the bigger problem is.
It often feels like Silicon Valley news is following some dystopian movie script, but it turns out that that’s kinda true. California start-up SciFutures’ stable of writers whip up stories for start-ups—but for good. Here’s how it works. As technology outpaces regulation, there’s an inherent danger in adoption because of the knowledge gap. For example, will people pet their robo dog, or will that invention encourage animal cruelty? That’s when Ari Popper, CEO of SciFutures, gets a call. His clients include NATO, Intel and VMWare. He matches them with a writer, who maps out a narrative of how their future products could be used; this storytelling opens people’s minds to the possibilities of their product, and algorithms can be tweaked accordingly. Real-life example: Kids treated Alexa like a slave and then acted out that behavior with human carers; then SciFutures devised a Mary Poppins mode, and behavior changed accordingly.
Regardless of one’s age, job interviews are stressful situations. You want to make a good impression, making yourself appear efficient and responsible, and make it look like you didn’t have one too many kombuchas, beers or microdoses the night before. With the advent of VCV.AI, which just announced a funding round of $1.7 million, this will get a bit harder. Ostensibly, it’s an AI tool that cuts down the time spent on candidate screening and interviewing, but really, this is an all-knowing AI that uses voice and facial recognition to apply Freudian reasoning to your behavior. Candidates are screened via a video call, and the AI creates a report of your aptitude — from both your answers and a bunch of uncontrollable microexpressions you make.
They say they’ll eliminate “human bias” in hiring. We say, sure, that’s worked out well before. To be sure, they’re not the only company in the AI-for-recruitment space, but whereas companies like GapJumpers try to build to minimize unconscious bias, it’s hard to see how this doesn’t cater exactly to that.
In the olden days, people would consult the stars before making a major life decision. They believed that the movement of these celestial bodies, in relation to their birth date, could provide them insight into the future. Centuries later, this idea is still with us, most recently to the tune of $5.2 million in seed money for the astrology app Co-Star (bringing their total funding to $6 million). “There are people out there who think astrology is silly or unserious,” Co-Star CEO Banu Guler told TechCrunch. “But in our experience, the number of people who find value and meaning in astrology is far greater than the number of people who are turned off by it.” The difference between Co-Star’s predictions and those of Sylvia Browne? Custom algorithms that offer a “personalized” experience. That’s how Facebook suckered people in as well. ’Nuff said.
The Weirdest Shit to Come Out of Silicon Valley in April
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