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Full transcript: Clear CEO Caryn Seidman Becker answers biometric security questions on Too Embarrassed to Ask

“Security is the core of what we do. The integrity of the data is the integrity of our company.”

On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode are joined by the CEO of Clear, Caryn Seidman Becker, to talk about Clear’s biometric identity product. Becker bought Clear at a bankruptcy sale in 2010 because she felt it was still a good idea, just poorly executed. Clear’s biometric identity verifier is now in 24 airports (34 next year) and eight sports stadiums.

You can read some of the highlights from the discussion here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.

Lauren Goode: I’m Lauren Goode, senior technology editor at The Verge.

KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.

LG: It could be anything at all, like whether we could outsource Kara’s job to someone wearing an exoskeleton suit.

KS: Absolutely, 100 percent.

LG: I think it’s quite possible.

KS: I can’t wait.

LG: And I’d like to get started. Did you see my latest Next Level Video?

KS: I did.

LG: In the senior finale I wore multiple exoskeleton suits.

KS: And you didn’t come for me, which was fascinating. You didn’t even bother to try to take me down.

LG: Not yet.

KS: Not yet, uh oh. All right, so send us your questions. Find us on Twitter or tweet them to @recode or myself or to Lauren — who does have a show called Next Level, which you should watch on YouTube and other places — with the #tooembarrassed.

LG: We also … Thank you for that plug.

KS: No problem.

LG: We also have an email address, it’s tooembarrassed@recode.net, because we love the net. Reminder, there are two Rs.

KS: There are two Rs.

LG: And two Ss in embarrassed.

KS: Yes, if you want to spell it correctly, otherwise you can spell it any way you want.

LG: Otherwise you may miss it. Spell it any way you want.

KS: Spell it any way you want.

LG: We’re just not going to answer your questions on the show.

KS: Exactly.

LG: A lot of our listens are probably going to find themselves traveling over the next few days if they haven’t been traveling already because it’s the holiday season and…

KS: Not me, I’m not going anywhere.

LG: Lucky you.

KS: I know.

LG: I travel back and forth to the East Coast a lot.

KS: I do too. I do also.

LG: I know that’s true, you do. You travel back and forth to D.C. …

KS: Yes, but not at Christmas.

LG: … Trying to talk some sense into the people down there.

KS: Right.

LG: If you don’t wait in ridiculously long airport longs it’s probably because you’ve gone through some type of advanced vetting process or a service like Precheck, Global Entry or Clear.

KS: Yes indeed. Honestly, we want to talk about the difference between all of these. I actually have Clear, which I love, and I’ve had it since it started, actually. I also have Precheck. I’m going to do Global Entry, so I’ve availed myself of these services a lot over many, many years, actually. I do think they’re fantastic, but we want to talk about what’s the difference, is one better than the other, should you think twice about where your fingerprint or other biometric information is going. Every time they take a picture of my eyes I think about that. In order to get access to these fast lanes and they certainly are…

LG: Speaking of fast lanes, are we talking about net neutrality again?

KS: No. If Comcast can find a way to screw this up they will. Anyway, oh they’re our owner, sorry. Too bad. Anyway, so…

LG: They’re not our owners, are they?

KS: Yes, they are one of our owners.

LG: We got masters.

KS: Masters, investors, whatever, they own a lot of us. In any case, we don’t care. We are for net neutrality. Is that right, we’re for it? That’s right.

LG: Everyone should go back and listen to last week’s episode with Jessica Rosenworcel from the FCC, because she joined us and it was great.

KS: So we’re not just talking about airports and other places, there’s all kinds of ways you can jump lanes, essentially. We’re delighted to be joined in the studio by Caryn Seidman Becker, the CEO of Clear. It’s now found in 24 airports and eight sport stadiums. Caryn, welcome to Too Embarrassed to Ask.

Caryn Seidman Becker: Thanks, happy to be here. Nothing’s embarrassing…

KS: Nothing’s embarrassing.

All questions are good questions.

LG: Oh good, that’s good. I have a question for you that I’m too embarrassed to ask. I was doing some research into your background, your career …

Oh lord.

LG: … in preparation for this podcast and I stumbled upon a Forbes articles. Literally the first sentence of this Forbes article — now literally, you are CEO and a chairwoman and you’ve got this impressive career — and the first sentence of this Forbes article is, “Anybody who has kids knows that raising them is a full-time job.” Then of course I went to the byline and it was a man who wrote it. I thought, “How have we started this article asking the question about kids and balancing?” Really? I can’t wait to read an article about a male CEO where the first sentence is, “Anyone who has kids …”

KS: She was mad.

LG: I’m not too embarrassed to ask what you thought about that.

So here’s what I think about that. I wrote once on LinkedIn where I said I don’t believe in work/life balance, it’s just about life. I wrote that on a plane coming home from vacation with my three kids where you hide in the bathroom with your cellphone to do work, and you go out and you smile, and you play, and then you run around the corner like you’re going to get a drink and you answer some more emails. It’s life and it’s…

KS: Do you pretend like that? I don’t pretend like that, I just do it.

I try.

LG: In any case, good for you.

You’re supposed to be present. I just came from this Deepak Chopra talk. My kids have made me more paranoid, and more neurotic, and were part of what fueled me to lead the acquisition of Clear out of bankruptcy. My view is if you want to include them in the story, great, they’re part of the inspiration and I’ll take all parts of it. Fair point, that that’s what he led with but I’m super proud of every aspect of my life so lead with whatever part you want.

LG: Yeah that’s not to minimize the role.

I wasn’t completely …

LG: You don’t see that a lot with profiles of male CEOs with the kids.

KS: That’s a whole other show, but you’re 100 percent right, I agree. I’ve had that happen to me a million times.

Anyway, let’s start on Clear. You talked about leading it out of … Give the background of Clear. I have had Clear for many years and then I couldn’t use it and then I could use it again. It was great, I was thrilled when it came back. Explain the background of Clear.

Clear was around, really it launched in 2005 so I have to assume it was really started in 2003 by Steve Brill, backed by GE and Lockheed …

KS: Famous publisher, everything.

… And Lehman Brothers as a response to 9/11. TSA was newly formed, it was like an amalgamation. Truly a startup, they put 60,000 employees together in a few months. I think they were looking at public/private partnerships. And that was the launch of Clear, a smart-card-based, biometric-based fast lane in the airport as another way to create known travelers.

KS: And they had lovely people and you went and got your eyes and your fingerprints. This was way before the TSA thing.

Correct, and very early on in biometrics. It also was leveraged, so it had about $ 30 million of debt, so that was interesting for a startup up and it had a big cost structure and it was in 18 airports, but 80 percent of their members came from six airports. The economic downturn came. Steve Brill, he exited the company in early 2008. Seats were down 22 percent, corporate spending on travel evaporated, the debt was coming due and they shut down.

KS: Great idea, bad execution.

And leverage.

LG: It went bankrupt in 2009.

It went bankrupt. It shut down in June 2009 because you’d be taking capital to fund new growth that you could no longer afford. It shut down on June 22nd and filed for bankruptcy end of 2009, and we bought it in April 2010.

KS: Why? What was the thinking? Great idea.

Two reasons, three reasons. One, I come from asset management. I had invested in subscription-based business like cable, wireless and satellite, Homeland Security, aerospace and defense companies. I was a big believe in biometrics and actually invested in them both publicly and privately. Huge outside the U.S., not inside the U.S. I’m a glutton for punishment, love a turnaround, I’m a contrarian by nature, Clear was the convergence of all that and I didn’t want to die and have people say, “She picked good stocks.” I wanted to build something that made the world a better place. Clear was that platform and so that’s why we bought it.

KS: What attracted you to that as a thing? I have to say, I’ve never been happier to pay for something, in a lot of ways.

Okay, so here’s what attracted us. The company went bankrupt, took your money, didn’t provide a service, didn’t answer the phone and tell you where your biometrics were. I’d be sitting next to people at dinner who would whip out their card and be like, “I love Clear.” So that dislocation between Wall Street and the mainstream.

KS: Yeah I was mad about this at first, too.

People loved it and it went out in the ugliest way. That says that there’s an opportunity there, that people valued it. We wanted to build a secure identity platform. I’d always invested in platforms, whether it be Apple or Priceline or health care companies. What we saw was that airports were just the first part of it. That’s the highest security point.

Think about it like Amazon with books. It’s the hardest place to master but if you can bring it there you can bring it to so many different places. And security and the challenges around it are a global secular trend, and customers are expecting a frictionless experience as of right here, just-in-time, point-and-click economy.

KS: Using technology.

That’s why …

KS: What happened?

LG: It’s like your favorite show getting canceled after the first season and you hear people and they’re like, “I love that show,” and it becomes a cult classic but then you don’t understand the machinations behind the scenes.

KS: Like “Double Trouble” in the ’80s. Still missing that one.

LG: What was also going on — in 2010 when you came in and you acquired it — what was going on in the market at that point? Because it was only two years after the collapse of all the banks. So had the travel market changed enough that you felt confident about it at that point?

No, what our due diligence said — and we used our own capital to buy the company, so we were owner/operators — what our due diligence said was, No. 1, that biometrics are actually incredibly economically efficient and this should have been a successful business model if the cost structure was different.

LG: Right.

No. 2, the platform could be used in a variety of other places. No. 3, we bought it for pennies on the dollar.

KS: So it was cheap.

Happiness is a low bar. And it was low.

KS: What happened to the biometrics that they had? I remember it was sort of like Russian nukes being loose or something like that.

So they weren’t. I think there was a lot of rumors and noise. Lockheed Martin was the back end for the old company, so all the biometric data was secured at Lockheed Martin. In fact, part of the process was that was securely transferred over to Clear. I think, again, there was a vacuum of information, like no one was picking up the phone.

KS: Who was watching it at Lockheed Martin? Why was Lockheed Martin watching?

LG: It’s like, “Don’t worry, the defense contractor has it.”

Lockheed and GE were two of the initial investors of the former Clear, so they were providing a lot of services. GE used to be really big in the security business.

KS: They were protected, allegedly.

It was protected.

KS: Protected, and then it was then transferred to the new company. Did you have to go through any hoops to do that? I think one of the things that people have a problem with biometrics, and we’ll talk a little bit about that, is that it’s everywhere. When I gave it up I remember thinking, “Oh well, someday when they come get me they’ll find me easily.” I remember thinking that.

Right, so that’s not the right way to think but I can understand.

KS: I understand that, but I had just … Do you remember “Barb Wire,” that movie with Pamela Anderson? No, you don’t. It’s a fantastic movie. Please rent it because there’s a lot of biometrics in it, if you like biometrics. It wasn’t supposed to be her starring in it, a friend of mine wrote it, Ilene Chaiken, and it was about using eyes. Just like they did in a bunch of movies, they’ve had the idea of eyes, especially eyes.

Look, security is the core of what we do. The integrity of the data is the integrity of our company. And we’ve started every day, from Day One … I come from investing in public companies, like we were a public company of doing everything in the highest security with the highest regulatory oversight. We’re a qualified anti-terrorism technology. It’s been the core of everything we do.

I think the biggest misnomer is it’s not your fingerprints and your iris image, it is templates. It is not your actual fingerprint, it’s templates that are deconstructed into ones and zeros that are then reconstructed, encrypted at rest, encrypted in transmission. I understand nobody wants to hear that but that is the reality.

LG: Could they be decrypted?

Again, there’s backward hash, they’re proprietary technology systems. So the answer is no.

KS: Presumably.

You do everything … Look, we spent some time in Israel this summer. The one guy said to me, “You could spend $ 2 billion and it doesn’t matter.” The fact of the matter is that we do everything to secure the data every day in every way possible and have constructed our systems accordingly.

KS: Well, it’s the heart of your business, one bad terrorist is going to ruin your business, essentially.

So …

KS: Like that you let through. Talk about how it works. Why don’t we talk about how it works now and how it’s different from when it did work.

Sure.

KS: Just from my experience, I go in, I show my iris or for some reason fingerprints don’t work as well because I must be an international criminal of some sort. Then it pops up my picture from 2005 or maybe earlier, it looks earlier.

Do you want to update it? Are you happy?

KS: No, it’s okay. I’m good. Then they ask me if I want a drink for some reason, recently. If I want…

LG: Really?

KS: Do you know you do that?

I do. That hasn’t been done for a few years, we were trialing…

KS: No, they just did it in San Francisco, they do it all the time.

LG: Like an alcoholic drink?

KS: No, like do you want water, or food, water, they order stuff, preorder.

We’re doing some touch-to-pay piloting.

KS: Yeah.

Right.

KS: Anyway, so then I go through and they take me to the front of the line, which is delightful and everyone looks at me, “Who are you? Who the hell do you think you are?” I get yelled at all the time.

Do you tell them you’re Kara Swisher?

KS: No, exactly. I said, “I’m very important. I’m a celebrity.”

LG: I’m on Silicon Valley coming to see me?

KS: But I do get a lot of grumbling and I don’t care, I don’t care, I pay for it and I gave them my iris so I can do this. I go right through, and it’s great, and they clear you through. You get waived past the security people.

Recently they’ve been making me reshow your license, which was interesting in D.C., that just happened. It’s a delight. It’s a delightful experience. All your people are lovely.

LG: So right now … Oh, I’m sorry to interrupt. Right now when someone goes to sign up they’re giving over that information, talk about what people are …

KS: Talk about what they do now.

LG: What would have to happen.

From an enrollment perspective, two points. We view biometrics as the bridge between strengthening security and delighting customers. Creating this frictionless experience and this customer-centric experience is really important. You can enroll in less than three minutes. If no one’s speaking to you and you’re actually just flowing with the … it’s three minutes. When someone’s talking to you it tends to be four or five.

What we’re doing is we’re digitally authenticating your ID document, that could be your driver’s license, your military card, your green card. This is definitively a real document because a fake ID you could not be the person on the ID, it’s a real document. You then take a personalized data quiz, you went through the old enrollment.

KS: I went physically down to the spot, that’s where I went.

This happens in person. You can do most of it online but this is a piece that happens in person today, we digitally authentic your driver’s license or whatever ID. You are the person on that driver’s license. We then take your fingerprints, your iris image and your photo, building an impermeable link between your identity and your biometrics. We also take your credit card. At the end of the day, when you enroll we essentially fuse you with your wallet. Why are you walking around with your driver’s license, your credit card, your Costco card, your health insurance card, your building access card? You are it, access and entitlements are rooted in identity. We also have your frequent flier number. We have a partnership with Delta. What we’re then doing is using that for a variety of different touchpoints.

When you talk about Clear, you started at the security checkpoint, but if you’re in D.C. or Atlanta we have biometric boarding and biometric lounge access. If you’re in Minneapolis we have biometric bag drop. We have biometric boarding pass where we also have the patent where we’ve built an API into the reservation system. The whole point is the seamless curb-to-gate experience that we’re putting together.

KS: Yeah, I don’t know why I need to check in.

You should take nothing out of your bag or your wallet when you go through the airport because you are you and that’s what you’re trying to prove 10 times over at the ticketing gate, at the agent. So that’s what we’re building. I think what transformed the company and the experience from when we started and from when you started was going to the cloud. In 2014, when we went over to the cloud we went to GovCloud and that was transformative because you lost the card, you didn’t need the card anymore, which is huge.

KS: No I don’t, but I still have it. I like it, I like it.

Interestingly so many people have it.

KS: I like it. It’s a pretty card.

LG: It’s like having a t-shirt from a startup in 2001.

KS: I have it in my wallet right now, I can show it to you before you go.

That’s so interesting. You could enroll and use it immediately. It went from a three-month sales cycle essentially to an immediate impulse purchase and that was really transformative.

KS: And then at the airport …

LG: I have some questions about the face scan.

KS: At the airport you have to authentic yourself, right? You have to go to a Clear stand..

Correct.

KS: At the airport.

Obviously that’s really important from a secure enrollment. It’s not your kid on your identity, on your cellphone at home attaching their fingerprints or iris to your identity. It is definitively you.

KS: That’s the last part, right.

That link is really important. We are looking at ways to do it in a mobile secure fashion, but today it is in person.

LG: Are you getting a 3-D face scan done? Is that part of the process?

Yes, we have facial recognition.

LG: But that’s volumetric? It’s not just someone’s flat face that could be spoofed with a photo but it’s actually interpreting volume.

That is correct, although I will tell you that we just went through this testing, fingerprint is five nines.

LG: Five nines? What do you mean?

Like 99.999% from a matching and an accuracy perspective.

LG: I see. Fingerprint ridges.

Facial for the highest security purposes is not ready for primetime in terms of five nines. People talk about 98.9, 99.2. The fact of the matter is that for high-security reasons in busy areas, depending on the lighting, depending on the things, you still need multi-factor authentication for facial, so we are not …

KS: Also “Mission Impossible” faces too.

LG: Also Kara Swisher sunglasses.

Today, for the security checkpoints that are using fingerprints and iris image, we are just rolling out this week in a pilot in the lounges facial where you don’t need five nines at a checkpoint to prove you’re you.

KS: Free cheese, whatever.

What we’ve done is taken all the biometrics — and I think there’s going to be more over time — whether it be face or gait or whatever the case may be, we’re agnostic. What you want to do is put different solutions together based on your use case. If it’s bottled water at the corner, facial is good enough. If it’s to get on an airplane, if it’s to come into the country, if it’s something where…

KS: Fingerprints are…

… You need to be five nines fingerprints.

LG: Is multi-factor. In the case of the Delta partnership you mentioned … And Delta also, I believe, bought a 4 percent stake in Clear. You’re working with Delta, that’s for boarding passes. Get rid of boarding passes, you have biometric boarding passes, that’s the idea. Does the airline then also have all of that biometric data that I’ve given to Clear?

Uh-huh.

LG: How does that work?

No. We have the data. We do not sell or share your data, that is rule one, secure the data, protect the privacy. What your biometrics are in that case is a frequent flier number. All we’re sending to Delta is your frequent flier number, which is you, which is then doing a match with all the other things that we have and they send back a ticket. At the end of the day, a boarding pass on your phone or a piece of paper is a physical manifestation of a digital record in the back end. It’s all in secure flight, then the reservation system of the airlines.

But we’re actually doing so much more with Delta. Part of their core focus is customer experience and innovation, and it’s great that we’re so focused on it but if no airline wanted to do it with us … It’s like if a tree falls in the woods. Delta’s been … Look, the company went bankrupt before and ticked off a lot of people. I think we had to prove that we were something very different, and really customer-centric, and partner-centric, and security-centric, and sustainability-centric. Delta really focused on customer experience and innovation throughout the …

KS: So it was looking for ways to differentiate itself.

From the time you leave your house to the time you get to where you’re going. When you look at what has changed over the past 50 years, airline travel is not one of them, from an airport perspective.

KS: Worse. It’s worse.

When you look at technology transforming so many different industries it is the time. When you look at the security needs you’ve got to evolve and technology’s going to take you there.

KS: Talk about the difference between you and TSA Pre, because I have both. I’m going to Global Entry, too, because I just have been traveling a lot abroad and I found that irritating, too. I have both and they actually put me in the front of the TSA line too now, which means no shoes and lesser scrutiny, essentially. What is the difference? Did you consider that a competing process? Because now TSA lines are long because a lot of people have them.

Actually, a significant percentage of our members are TSA Precheck eligible on any given flight. We don’t know whether they’ve enrolled or not because eligibility sometimes is there and sometimes isn’t. What we got excited about is that TSA was leaning in to risk-based screening, that TSA was thinking about the future, about it’s not just about the items but it’s about the person and creating that known traveling program. We really look at it as collaboration. We’re here to support them in their critical mission.

Again, tons of our customers are Precheck eligible, but again, we’re really about being that identity platform from curb to gate, biometric bag drop, boarding pass, identity, lounge access, boarding, payment. Precheck is a piece of that, it’s your ability to keep your coat and shoes on. It’s the ability for them to allocate their budget in a more sustainable way from a labor perspective.

KS: And what about global entry?

LG: But Precheck is at more airports though, isn’t it?

Absolutely.

LG: I believe it is. TSA Pre costs $ 85 for 5 years and Global Entry is $ 100 for 5 years. How much is Clear?

Well, it depends. Everyone gets a free trial for a month and I think that’s really important. What we’ve focused on is bringing the price down, so through Delta it’s free for Delta Diamond, $ 79-$ 99, depending on what you are, $ 50 to add the family plan and kids under 18 are free. It depends how many people you have, etc.

KS: I signed up my kids too.

LG: But without the free month and without the airline benefits.

So flat out you do nothing, you go online it’s $ 179 a year.

LG: A $ 100 a year, okay.

I think what’s really important are two things. One is how many times you’re flying, so cost per use is incredibly important. If you fly 10 times versus you’re flying 20 times. Our average customer is traveling about 10 times a year on Clear and a decent percentage of them are traveling just about every week, so cost per use is really what we’re focused on as well as bringing it to other verticals.

KS: There are actually two subscriptions I wouldn’t give up, the New York Times and this. That sounds crazy, but when I think of subscriptions — I sound like an ad for you but I really do use it a lot. Global Entry, I was thinking of doing it because there was no … The issue I had with Clear is it’s not in every airport. Sometimes I go to odd airports, and it’s now in D.C., it’s in a lot of the airports I fly into, but it’s often hard to find. It’s in D.C.

We’re working on signage and way-finding.

KS: I get that. I can find them, I see the blue sign, I can find them.

We’re working on it.

KS: But it’s the number of airports. I don’t remember if it was Chicago.

So today … Not yet.

KS: Yeah it wasn’t in Chicago, I was irritated by that.

Look, it’s been really interesting. Again, rebuilding a company, it takes a while, and what I didn’t know when we started is it’s about a five-year sales cycle. We now cover about 80 percent of the destinations in the U.S., we’re at 24, we’ll be at 34 next year, at least. It’s been a real moment over the last year. We’ve tripled utilization in terms of verifications, doubled enrollment.

KS: What about internationally? That’s why I’m saying Global Entry.

Correct. We are having those conversations, but Global Entry is about getting back in the U.S.

KS: Back in the U.S.

In my view, you should get everything that you can get your hands on for fast, frictionless, secure travel.

KS: Yeah, because they seem to just walk right through those lines.

LG: I’m a TSA Pre person but I don’t have Clear, although I’ve been tempted to get into Clear because there was one time when I was approaching an airport line and it was really, really, really long, it was probably coming back from some tech conference. Someone nearly sold me on it and then I was like, “No, I have TSA Pre.” For someone who has TSA Pre and you’re not getting that curb … What did you call it? The curb to …?

Curb to gate.

LG: Curb-to-gate service, but you’re getting in an expedited line in some way. What’s a clear-cut example of what Clear — no pun intended — will offer me if I signed up for both?

First of all, you should try a free one-month trial, you don’t get charged until the end. Seeing is believing. It’s about consistency and predictability. So what Clear members know, I live on the Upper East Side, I’m going to La Guardia, I can leave my home with an hour to go, the traffic it takes me 20 minutes to get there, I know I’m getting through Clear in less than five minutes, I’m getting my coffee, I’m getting on the plane. It is about consistency and predictability that you are experiencing in every other aspect of your life that you absolutely should be experiencing in airports.

When you look at how much you pay for a ticket and you look at your experience from the time you walk in to the time you get on the plane, the plane experience has gotten a lot better, the restaurants have gotten significantly better. Waiting in line 20 minutes to drop your bag … Here’s the problem, even if you get there an hour in advance and there’s no line, you’re still pissed you wasted your time. This is about a consistent, predictable experience wherever you are.

KS: Yeah, I am.

When you go to AT&T Park in San Francisco, 50 percent of fans come to a baseball game within 30 minutes of game time. That’s 24,000 people converging on this one spot over 30 minutes, that’s more than an airport. At the Yankees game, Yankees fans — go, Yankees — it was 45 minutes to get into the game during the playoffs, 0 time through Clear.

KS: You have Clear spots through … I saw that it was at San Francisco. I went through.

Yeah and we have 1,000 basis points, better retention when you use it with baseball and the airport. This is all about bringing …

KS: What stadiums are you in? You’re in baseball, just baseball stadiums?

LG: Sportsball, Kara. Sportsball stadiums.

KS: I went to the one in San Francisco and I didn’t want to go and I was like, “Uh, a line.” Then I said, “Clear is here!”

Did you use it at AT&T Park?

KS: I certainly did.

All right.

KS: And then I completely didn’t watch the game.

LG: Kara went for Clear, not even baseball.

KS: I went and had a … I just went.

LG: Did they win the World Series that night? I’m just curious, did you miss that?

KS: No, I don’t know. I just … That Larry person made me go, Larry …

LG: Baer?

KS: Baer, yeah, that guy.

It changes your expectations. You … Think about some app that you’re using, Uber, Lyft, whatever, it changes your expectations, now you’re standing out with your hand flagging the taxi down, seven minutes …

KS: Yeah, it feels like using Uber/Lyft.

… And you’re like, “Why am I still doing this?” This is about a secure, frictionless experience wherever you are. Why am I showing my driver’s license downstairs? I should be in the system and my face should get me into the building. I should use it to pay. I should use it for health care. This is where the world is going. I hate the people that are wasting their time.

KS: Last question before we get to reader’s questions, are you working with government in any capacity, because extreme vetting or vetting programs or anything else? One of the things is, look, we don’t want our biometrics to be had by the government, on many levels it’s a scary idea is that everyone’s going to be chipped or they’re going to have … That’s one concept that I’ve heard recently, chipping yourself, or having something in your eye, or having some identifiers on your body. Of course, that has historical horror shows of that. Talk about that concept.

First of all, you have your identifiers on your body, your fingerprints, your iris image and your face. That is No. 1, so the … I read this article on implanting for a vending machine and I thought, “That makes absolutely no sense,” one. Two, I’m a big believer in public/private partnerships. So …

KS: But the government doesn’t have your fingerprints, not every …

Absolutely.

KS: Not everyone, you have to be arrested or work for …

Correct. My point is we don’t share our data with the government. We are very clear on our privacy policies, but we do work with them from a collaboration perspective and an innovation perspective. I happen to think that TSA has helped with our public/private partnership and helped partner with leading-edge technology companies to bring a better experience to travelers. We don’t sell or share your data, we don’t sell it, we don’t share it with the government.

I take a lot of pride as a private company in securing our member’s data. We are obsessed with our customer’s experience. You email me on a Saturday, you have a bad experience, we’re on it. We’re accountable to our partners.

LG: When you say you’re working with them on an innovation perspective, what does it mean that you’re working collaborating with the government.

There’s a governmental document called a CRADA, it’s a cooperative research agreement. We work with them on research ideas and things of that nature, on testing data, things of that nature.

LG: Does Clear use any type of social media for vetting or anything like that?

We do not.

LG: Okay, interesting. So you’re gathering all this biometric data. You say you don’t sell or share any of that biometric data. Any other personally identifiable information, any other … No. So when you’re working with the government it’s only on …

It’s secured with Clear. Again, we don’t share your biometrics with Delta, again, through the API. What we’re doing is sending over the frequent flier number. When you put your fingerprints down what we’re saying is, “Okay, we have frequent flier number 12345, do they have a ticket?” Then your biometric boarding pass pops up on the screen, not because we sent them your data but because your fingerprints in this case are your frequent flier number. It’s the same thing when we think about health care as an opportunity, if you came to an emergency room and put your fingerprints down, this is the insurance information …

KS: Which you probably should be able to do there.

… Do you have access to certain insurance. What we say, again, access and entitlements are rooted in identity. We’re not saying, “Hey, we have Lauren.” In this case we have frequent flier number 12345. We just got permission in the state of Washington to use your biometrics in place of your driver’s license to purchase alcohol. Think about it, why are you showing the concessionaire your driver’s license and your credit card? All we’re telling them, we’re not telling them it’s you, we’re saying, “Over 21,” because we’ve digitally authenticated your driver’s license, your birthday’s on your driver’s license, now your age is associated with your fingerprints. For this purpose, for the fast beer lane that we’ll be bringing forward.

LG: Fast beer lane.

Right?

LG: Fast beer lane.

Put your fingerprints down, it’s integrated with …

LG: Upcoming podcast.

KS: It makes sense.

It makes tremendous sense.

KS: Yeah it does.

You know, there’s a …

LG: Does that mean that data is being sold to advertisers in any way?

No. All it’s saying is that they’re not going to have to pay a quarter million dollar fine for selling alcohol to underage people. They’re going to be able to sell more beer because you’re going to move faster. Why are you waiting in line to buy a beer? And it’s a better customer experience than whipping out all this stuff.

KS: Authentications are kind of crazy.

So that’s the point.

KS: The last question before we get to some questions from our readers is the concept of safety, because there was just yet another story about TSA letting through whatever the heck they let through. It’s always disturbing what gets through. Is there a way by saying who a known traveler is to be able to do that? I don’t think I underwent a whole lot of TSA looking at me. That’s the question, is how do you make it safer for travelers?

What we’re doing today is automating the identity process for TSA. We have the capability, we have built predictive analytics models. Most terrorists, not to get heavy and dark, are actually not known criminals before they turn bad. It’s about predictive risk analytics. This is a great example. We worked with the Department of Homeland Security to create a predictive analytics model to create known travelers or known fans for sports stadiums.

Again, in the world of entitlements, I know that you’re you and I can confirm that you’re low risk. I’m not saying you’re high risk I’m just saying I can confirm that you’re low risk. When you think about risk-based screening and differentiated screening, if I know that you’re Caryn I can confirm that you’re low risk. How does somebody want to treat you? A sports stadium might want to treat you different than an office building or Amtrak, so differentiated screening, taking your finite resources on people you know less about. We are not doing that today in airports but we think it’s a big opportunity in the future.

KS: I just was talking to someone who was working on AI, it’s crap in, crap out. What if you have bad … Right now it’s by sight, of course. People stop people and people are worried about screening and selecting people that shouldn’t be selected and discrimination. Where is the data where you’re a low risk?

It’s using commercially available data to study past known people before they turn bad and building all sorts of algorithms around it, and then doing a lot of backward testing, and then continuing to feed in new people. So looking at the lone shooters … unfortunately it used to be really hard to find people for test data, there are over 19 lone shooters this year.

KS: So there’s a lot of data on what they’re like.

Machine learning can keep feeding it in. It’s actually quite depressing.

KS: Too bad, yeah, that we can feed this data in. But it is true data, the data that you feed in is it could be problematic data, the data sets are so important. That’s where I think a lot of people are worried is that it starts to pick certain people out, it starts to discriminate, it’s just as discriminatory.

LG: Like Kara is not a terrorist by traditional standards.

KS: No.

LG: But she’s a journalist, she’s a journalist and journalists have had some problems at airports.

Seriously?

KS: Not every airport, but some. China.

LG: If someone had let’s say if it was on a profile somewhere that Kara was a journalist and she was passing through …

KS: Oh yeah, I had problems when I was going to China, it was crazy.

LG: Or myself, but I’m really thinking Kara’s more of a target.

KS: Going to China it was slower. It was much slower for me than others. It was really interesting.

That’s extremely interesting.

KS: Well, they knew who I was.

That’s not the kind of data that we’re looking at.

KS: Yes, right, but that’s what I’m saying. It gets interesting.

Look, I think that this is the world that we live in from a technology perspective and integrity. Our brand is built on trust. Again, we’re owners, you put your name and your reputation out there. We represent 1.5 million members and growing and 1,000 employees and our job every day is to do the right thing to strengthen security and delight customers.

KS: I’m sorry, very last thing, how’s business?

It’s been a really amazing year. I call it 6.5 years and one year. So we’ve been at this 90 months, which feels like dog years. It’s been transformative. The network effect is powerful, and what we’re seeing is utilization up, retention up if you use it nine or more times. We have over 90 percent retention, NPS is increasing.

KS: How many users?

Over 1.5 million today.

KS: Customer subscribed?

Customers.

KS: And you could sell them other things?

What we want to do is not sell them but we want to add it, like going to the baseball stadium is free. I am a huge Amazon fan, Amazon Prime. We keep adding nodes and adding value and it becomes that virtuous cycle.

KS: How about traffic, why don’t you fix that? Traffic lanes.

Yeah, so I don’t have a way to do that, but I do have some ideas of amalgamating traffic data with Clear plus where your gate is to know how long it should take you to get from your house to your exact gate. Depending on where your gate is you could be there in 20 minutes or 25 minutes. Again, going back to that first line of that article, working mother of three, all I want is my life to work perfectly every minute of the day.

KS: What is the age that kids can go in that’s free?

Kids under 18 are free because they wouldn’t have identity so they don’t even need to enroll, you just bring them with.

KS: My kid is really tall so they keep not believing him recently because he looks like an adult. Anyway, in a minute we’re going to take some questions about traveling from our readers and listeners. Caryn is going to answer them. But first we’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. Ka-ching.

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We’re back with Caryn Seidman Becker, the CEO of Clear. I actually have been using Clear since 2005, I think I was one of its first customers, and I still have it and I really like it a lot. We’re talking about travel trips for the holidays since you’re about to embark on them now. We’re going to answer some questions from our readers and listeners. Lauren, would you read the first question?

LG: I would just like to say that I learned so much about your early adopter habits through this podcast.

KS: Oh yeah, that one I did. That one I liked.

LG: Couple of weeks ago you were like, “I was using AOL before everyone else was.”

KS: And I was. I was. That one I was.

LG: Now we’re talking about Clear.

KS: Clear, yes, yes.

LG: The first question is from a woman I work with, Liz Lopatto, she’s @mslopatto on Twitter, she’s The Verge’s health and science editor. “Does Clear share its biometric data with law enforcement?”

KS: Yeah, if there’s trouble.

We will not share your information unless subpoenaed to do so.

KS: Subpoenaed to do so. Then how do you assess that?

That would be a question for the lawyers on the assessment of a subpoena.

KS: Some companies resist. Twitter is more resistant than other companies, for example.

Has not happened yet.

KS: Has not happened yet?

Has not happened to us yet.

KS: You haven’t gotten one yet.

We have not gotten one.

KS: But you would share if you had a subpoena if there was a problem. All right, okay, well that makes sense. Anything else you’d like to add? No, you probably don’t.

Next question, Louisa, @wuluu, okay. “Maybe only partly related but is there a way authorities can look up someone’s travel history to verify if the information data cleared is correct, i.e. when someone uses a different passport to go in the Middle East than to immigrate to the United States.” People use different passports, they now have several.

So since we’re domestic-only I’m not sure that we would be involved or engaged to that.

KS: Let me add to that then, would you have someone’s travel history on Clear? Do you save that, like when I got to D.C. a lot?

We do have …

KS: You know I go to D.C. a lot.

We do have travel history.

KS: What do you do with that?

Right now, absolutely nothing.

KS: But you know where people go?

We do know where people go. We do read the boarding pass and we do save all that. Again, completely encrypted in our systems.

KS: What’s the reason for that? Why save it?

I think we always want to help optimize our customer’s experience over the long-term and if there’s a way that we can do that by understanding travel history then that’s …

KS: And where most of your customers are going to and from.

I think what we’re really looking for is … Upon launch, for instance, I’ll give you an example. When we launched LA, understanding early volumes would be important in knowing how many people every day were going from San Francisco to LA, and order how many pods, what should be the staffing, how are the hours, what’s the cut … Then we can better serve our customers. That’s a reason that we would be saving travel data and analyzing it to optimize the experience.

KS: And know when the flights are, presumably.

Well, we know. That’s all public information.

KS: No, but when people who are your customers are using Clear to get to their flights.

Correct, correct. We’re all data all the time. How many verifications per minute … Because then you know when you need to add pods or staffing: When you go over four a minute then we have capacity issues. We’re always about the customer experience.

KS: Explain a pod to people, by the way.

Oh okay. They used to be called kiosks, but as a girl who grew up in the ’80s I love myself a retro phone booth, so we built these pods which really hold all of our equipment and they look like retro phone booths.

KS: And you look into them and you put your boarding pass in there.

Essentially it’s commodity-based equipment, if you will, so a Windows Surface tablet, a fingerprint reader, iris reader, camera, the whole thing, but you need some place to hold it all together.

KS: Right, which you have. Then you have your little stamp, you still have a stamp.

We require a stamp, those are TSA requirements.

KS: Yeah I was noticing. I was like, “What’s with the stamp?” I kept asking and your staff was like, “We have to stamp it,” and I’m like, “Why do you have to stamp it?” I’m an irritating traveler.

I think it’s a really interesting point, though, which is technology, not only in travel, is leading regulation. The question is what do you do? From a mobile boarding pass, well, you can’t stamp that. When you think about a biometric boarding pass, well, you can stamp … Well, you can stamp your forward. I think that technology is creating more and more operational opportunities to figure out how to make it more seamless.

KS: I still don’t understand why they put the little pencil on it when they do your pen thing.

Because they want to know who to hold accountable.

KS: Yeah I know, but they’re sitting there, they should know they were there.

LG: Are you using a Windows Surface tablet because you’re using Windows Hello for facial recognition?

We are not using Windows Hello but we do use Surface tablets.

KS: What’s your facial recognition?

LG: Why Surface tablets?

I’d rather not say. That would be a question for our tech team, they love them, yeah.

LG: They love Windows Surface tablets, wow.

KS: And they like to dance, they like to do the Surface dance.

LG: Them and the NFL.

KS: A lot of people like that Surface.

LG: I’m making a face.

KS: A lot of people like that Surface, I’m telling you.

Versus …

LG: Oh no, I’m not saying … it’s not that …

KS: My brother loves his Surface.

LG: I have a Surface laptop on my desk right now that I like, it’s a beautiful build. In fact, I think The Verge voted it one of the best laptops of this year. However, the early Surface tablets, eh.

KS: I know, my brother loves his, he keeps writing me, “Are you still using that communist Apple?” and stuff like that. My brother’s a Trump kid, let’s not go into it.

LG: I’m asking also because Apple often beats the privacy drum and says that their software is more secure and all that.

KS: In any case …

LG: Thank you. Next question is from. ..

KS: You’re not going to tell us the facial recognition technology you’re using?

No.

KS: Okay. God, then.

LG: And emoji. Next question is from Chase Gallagher: “Why do I need Clear when I have Precheck?” Oh Chase, we got this question for you, buddy. I asked it. “Is it just to get through the queue to the metal detector more quickly?”

KS: We’ll let you repeat why, there’s more.

There’s more. Precheck’s the ability to keep your coat and shoes on, and about 70-plus percent of our members are Precheck eligible on any given flight. Clear is really about the platform of going frictionless curb to gate and also a consistent predictable experience in automating the identity process. We think the two work beautifully together.

KS: Also, you go to the front of the TSA line. That’s true. That’s my big … Because the TSA line is long now.

LG: And it’s getting longer. I had this incident when I was traveling for Thanksgiving. I was traveling from SFO to somewhere on the East Coast and I arrived what I thought was early and then I got there and of course it was a mess because you can never leave early enough on the holidays. They were just shepherding everybody through what was apparently the TSA Pre line and I was like, “What is going on here?”

KS: “Because I got TSA Pre.”

LG: Everyone was TSA Pre.

KS: Yeah, no, I know.

I just think there’s a … My husband tells me not to use this analogy because he says it makes me sound old. ATM machines and bank tellers, ATM machines scale, it’s objective, it’s consistent, you know what to expect when you got to an ATM machine. Bank tellers, it’s labor, it’s subjective. You need technology to automate these processes. Identity is one of the great things to automate.

LG: I will reiterate, you go to the front of the line, of the TSA line, people.

KS: It’s not fun, the front of the line.

LG: So Chase, the short answer is you can sleep in longer because you can actually predict what time you would be getting through, according to Caryn.

Mark Little: “Seems like this pre-screening would dramatically speed up the lines at airports,” why yes, “Why is enrollment in the government’s precheck program so incredibly clunky and confusing? Why wouldn’t they want to make it as simple as possible?”

KS: It is clunky.

LG: Some of it is. I had to go to Logan …

KS: I had to go to the weirdest office in San Francisco.

LG: And I had to go down to some lower level and find a guy sitting in a back office.

KS: I had to go near the Whole Foods, I don’t know why.

LG: This weird office, I was like, “Who are these people?” Were there juices?

KS: No, can I just … It wasn’t in the Whole Foods, I would have enjoyed that. No, it was in this weird building and I didn’t know who these people were and I didn’t think they were from the government because it seemed kind of sketchy. But it was weird. The process for TSA was the weirdest process.

LG: Was it Jeff Bezos holding up an organic kohlrabi?

KS: No. Explain that … Sorry, we’re going on. Why is it so incredibly clunky and confusing? Because it is. Yours is not, theirs is.

I can’t comment on that. What I can say is our obsession with the customer experience dictates everything that we do. I think, again, I keep beating a drum of: Innovation is the bridge. And biometric innovation is the bridge between security and the customer experience. We focus on continuing to improve that experience, drive down the time it takes to enroll, drive up the speed of verification. I hope what you’ve recognized in the past few years is that it is faster than ever to verify. Iris takes a little longer than fingerprints — I’m sorry that you have bad fingerprints — so we’re going to work on that.

KS: It’s just as fast.

But it is about speed of verification, speed of enrollment, ease of use. Now we’re focused on how do we take this securely to the mobile environment, that’s what we do every day, that’s our driving force. We don’t want to piss you off, we want you to be happy.

KS: Iris is not slow. I try not to get in arguments in airport lines but I end up doing it and then I worry about getting arrested.

Anyway, next question, go ahead Lauren.

LG: This is from Dion F. Lisle, he sent in two questions but I thought the second one was better: “I had the original Clear ID and recently went to put in my fingerprints. They already had them. Why?”

KS: Why?

LG: Why? Dun, dun, dun.

That is correct. When we bought the company, we securely transferred from Lockheed Martin the 190,000 members from Lockheed to Clear. About 75 percent of the former members came back and they were really excited that they didn’t have to re-enroll and it was an opt-in process and that was really important in the whole acquisition process. People had to affirmatively opt-in.

KS: I did that.

LG: This is one of those things that you do have to keep in mind if you’re giving up any type of personal data, health and fitness data, if you’re giving up biometric data. If a company does go under or it gets acquired or it gets merged or something else, you are in effect under new owners at that point.

KS: I wrote a mean letter to Steve Brill. But it’s like a lot of things like that. There’s a lot of stuff that has your personal data when companies go out of business. It’s a problem. It’s a problem. It’s washing all around out there and the Russians have all of it, by the way.

LG: Russell Brandom, who’s been following these topics for The Verge, too, asks, “My sense is that DHS is moving towards Clear-esque system, preclearance plus biometric verification in a bunch of different places at the airport. Clear focuses on the TSA line but I’m sure they see it expanding to airport retail — whether it’s lounges or duty-free stores, it seems like implementation would be easier if people want it,” which you were starting to do.

Yes. I think seven-and-a-half years ago when we restarted Clear, people would crinkle their nose and say, “Why are you doing biometrics?” I was like, “Because it’s the future.” I think that biometrics have gone mainstream.

KS: All right, okay then.

LG: Let me just add to that. Russell wrote a really good article on The Verge about the future of airports and how as there are more vetting processes could things potentially get a little more confusing. So you should go check that out if you’re interested in that.

Next question is from Eddie Ayala: “What does the future” — speaking of the future — “of biometrics look like? I imagine there are other industries besides travel that could employ this kind of ID verification.”

That is right, and we’re talking to them. When you think about health care, when you think about…

KS: Health care.

… Vehicles, when you think about you are your driver’s license, you are your registration, you are your insurance, you are your payment. The connection, shared, or autonomous vehicle identity is the key …

KS: Health care.

… No pun intended. Health care, huge. Customer experience, high regulatory environment, looks a lot like aviation, privacy, security, they care more and more about customer experience. Retail, everyone’s talking about the frictionless retail experience. That’s going to be based on facial. I think that there should be some multi-factor authentication on the payment side. Again, going back to what we got permission for in the state of Washington, how do you buy alcohol, or cigarettes, or whatever people are purchasing where there’s age, how do you gamble online. You’ve got to know definitely …

KS: How old someone is.

Yeah.

KS: Or whatever. Also, you remember the “Minority Report” where they had the eyes …

I do. What were those people called, prequels?

KS: Pre, oh whatever, prequel, something like that. Precogs.

Yes.

KS: Precogs.

Prequel’s something different.

KS: That was when he went into the store with the eyes that he had replaced and he says, “Hello Mr. Hashimoto. Would you like another fleece from the Gap?” because it was constantly taking pictures of eyes, that’s what they were doing to locate people.

I haven’t seen the movie in ages. I should watch it.

KS: You should because they do, they go chk-chk like they’re shooting the picture.

Retail, look, casinos … Again, when you think about where strengthening security and customer experience are converging: Hospitality, hotels and casinos…

KS: Checking into hotels, yeah.

These things were built to be open but you live in a world where you’ve got to be really thoughtful about that.

KS: Getting into elevators and stuff like that.

You can’t put metal detectors everywhere, that is not the solution. Risk-based security is built on a multi-layered approach and identity and entitlements around that identity are a new and important layer to that approach. I think it’s really, it’s where the future is.

KS: You need to watch “Minority Report” again because there’s a lot of …

It’s been a few years.

KS: Just try to avoid the Tom Cruise bad acting, which is real hard, but there’s a ton of little stuff if you look throughout, done by the imagineers at Disney, I think, who were thinking up these things which are now …

That was probably 15 years ago plus.

KS: Yes, I know. It’s amazing when you look at it, especially the iris … I remember at the end that thing was looking at him.

Biometrics have been used in the defense industry domestically for decades.

KS: And we see the movies where they’re always trying to trick it.

You know, Estonia, the entire country, biometrics is the national ID, 1.2 billion people in India and Aadhaar, entitlement programs in South Africa …

KS: Oh, entitlement programs.

… A company, UEPS Biometrics, Brazil, it’s voting. I believe that it’s coming to so many different industries and I believe that people are focused on doing it securely.

KS: If we trust our government.

LG: But do you envision …

KS: I don’t trust our government at all.

LG: I was just going to say, you are a private company that is owning all of this data right now, but what you’re describing sounds to me a lot like this idea of the future of a federated identity where you’re no longer carrying your wallet and your license and your social security card, passport and everything else. It’s all just this one aggregated identifier. The social security card, if we’re going to use that, or the passport as it exists now, they’re government issued and you’re private. Who actually will own this idea of the federated identity in the future?

I think that there’s going to be converging data streams. I think different people and different things, but you could feed in. A social security card is a piece of paper with, I think it’s red ink with your number on it. How is that secure?

KS: So not.

And now it’s all been hacked 100 times over and it’s all out there. I think, again, in the world of public/private partnership, I think different people will own different things and you could feed your data stream into this and somebody else could feed their … I don’t think it’s going to be one person who owns the whole thing. You’re right, in India it’s government owned. I’m a believer …

KS: I think I trust Apple more than the federal government, honestly.

Right, so I think Apple has stuff. Different people will have different things for different use cases.

KS: It’s interesting. Less in the biometrics — then we’ll ask our last question — what about voice? Because voice is getting such a big play everywhere.

So it’s something that …

KS: Amazon.

Again, in the world of multi-factor authentication, it could be good enough to use your Echo to call something.

KS: Now with Apple they’re using face, then they gave a finger, but they’re giving …

Super frustrated with that face thing.

KS: Really? It works great. I love it.

I like putting my thumb down.

KS: Do you?

LG: I do too.

KS: I’m over it. I’ve only had it for a few days.

LG: I’ve had mine since around Thanksgiving and I’m …

KS: You probably still want to do …

The 11.7 seconds that you spent on the rotary phone, that feels like a lifetime now.

KS: Yes, I want the rotary phone. I have one at home, I like it. It’s very enjoyable. Anyway, but it takes a long time, you’re like, “What the hell did I do this for?”

But look, we’re living in the world, we’re talking about it, face, fingerprint, iris, voice, you’re using all of them. Biometrics have gone mainstream.

LG: Oh yeah, those moments now when I use Apple Pay to pay for something on the web and I do the thing where a website will just say to me, “Use Apple Pay,” and I go, “Yes.” Then it says, “Authenticate on your phone.” I pick up the phone and I go like this, and then I’ve made another holiday purchase that I needed to order.

It’s so easy.

KS: I do it within stores, although I don’t understand why you need to put a phone there. I’m like, “Why doesn’t it just know me?”

My view is that, again, when you walk into a store, they should have a camera and it’s facial recognition. Why do you need an intermediary?

KS: I had a discussion with a person at the Walgreens and he was ignoring me completely. I was like, “You know, you won’t need your phone someday. Someday it’s just going to be me and you’re just going to give me the things.” He was like, “Mm-hmm.” He was not … And the drag queen behind me was pissed. He said, “Shut up, move along.”

Maybe now that CVS …

KS: She was pissed, she was pissed. This is the Castro.

I just think there’s different use cases. It goes back to the modularity of the platform. Sometimes you just got to be 21, sometimes you get to be your frequent flier number, sometimes it’s voice, sometimes it’s face, sometimes fingerprint. It’s always about security, it’s always about protecting the privacy.

KS: It should be your DNA. It’s going to be your DNA, isn’t it?

By the way, I was just learning about that. DNA biometrics is a really big deal.

KS: It is, it’s going to be.

LG: Wow.

KS: Sorry people, there is no privacy. Last question.

But I think it still can be private and protected because it’s about entitlements, what do you need to know? You don’t need to know anything except 21, green, 21. That’s all you need to know in this use case. You need something else at Walgreens so I just …

LG: I was just going to say, that’s the ideal until something’s hacked.

KS: Yeah, exactly. All right, last question.

LG: It wasn’t exactly a question.

KS: What’s the question, go ahead.

LG: Jason Gay, who’s a columnist for the WSJ, wrote to me via Twitter and he said — I can give him a shout-out here. He said he’s a big fan of Clear. “Don’t tell anyone about it. I want it to be just me in line.” Well, Jason …

KS: Sorry.

LG: Story’s blown. He said, “I did it one day because I was at the airport and they had a discount for Amex and thought, ‘Well maybe this will be good one time.’ Now I’m bummed when airlines don’t have it.”

KS: Airports.

LG: Then he said, this is the most profound statement of the podcast, “I will let a security company remove my eyeball and cut it in half if I don’t have to wait in line.” Jason, I feel like there’s a column brewing here for you for WSJ.

KS: Any comment? Will you cut people’s eyeballs in half?

That seems not customer-centric, but we love his passion. His passion fuels us.

LG: So can you do it with just half an iris?

No, you can’t do it with half, but you can wear contacts, you can have cataract surgery. You can do a lot of things.

KS: What would be the craziest way to authenticate someone biometrically. It’s probably blood.

The DNA.

KS: DNA.

Two pieces. One, I’m not there yet, behavioral biometrics. People are talking a lot about again. I think that’s another modality for the multi-factor authentication.

LG: They’re doing them around loans.

Right. I don’t think that’s it, but again, that added to face could get you to the nine nines.

KS: Using your social tweets and stuff like that.

What do I think is the craziest? Gait.

KS: What’s that?

Walking.

KS: Oh the way you walk.

The way you walk.

KS: Gait.

LG: Like if you pronate, they’re like, “I know it’s you, Lauren.”

The way you walk, I think, is something people are talking a lot about.

KS: Wow. We’re watching.

LG: “You had two knee surgeries, Lauren, I can tell from your gait.” Oh God.

KS: Your gait.

It doesn’t seem as unique as fingerprints.

KS: But it is. A lot of things are.

But by the billions, a billion people all walk differently.

LG: That’s so interesting. They’ll be able to tell that Kara walks heads down on her phone all the time?

KS: Every self …

By the way, I sprained my ankle. I am a cautionary tale, do not do that.

KS: No, don’t do that.

LG: Oh, while you were on your phone?

On my phone down the stairs.

KS: I actually don’t walk and look at my phone. I am one of those people who do not. In fact, I don’t know if you know this, I go up behind people in San Francisco when they’re doing it and I go, “Hey,” and they go like this and drop their phone.

It’s terrible, people need to look around more.

KS: I yell at them like, “Stop it.”

A friend of mine just said, “Banish the pixels,” and I was like, “Yeah.”

KS: So far nobody’s attacked me for doing … Because it’s super rude. They’re embarrassed, they’re like, “Oh I’m so sorry.” I’m like, “You should be.” So I’ll do it to you next time and then you’ll …

Well, I’m not doing it anymore.

KS: All right, good, good. Caryn, this has been a delight.

LG: You need to go down to Silicon Valley where you’re going to see a 16-year-old driving their parents’ Maserati up Sand Hill Road while they’re Snapchatting at the same time.

KS: What?

LG: And I need you to scare them.

KS: No, that’s not happening. I really hate that.

That would be really bad for society.

KS: I think cars should not start if you’re doing that, the car should.

Biometrics, a lot of cars are being fitted with facial recognition and iris cameras in their rearview mirror.

KS: Oh so you’re watching, so you have to be looking. Oh, that’s a smart idea.

LG: But if you’re looking in the rearview mirror then you’re not looking at the road.

Well, you’ve got to register yourself in there and then all sorts of interesting things can happen.

KS: My son can drive, you have a year to do it.

LG: The self-driving cars.

KS: Actually, he’s really good about that. We yell at people who do that, which is good.

Anyway, this has been a delightful episode and a fascinating episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Caryn, thank you for joining us.

Thank you.

KS: I am a very satisfied customer. You don’t even have to buy ads on this, I’m telling you. Get Clear, it’s worth every penny.

LG: Thank you, Caryn, very much for taking the time to answer our many, many questions. One of these days I am going to try Clear.

Sooner than you think.

KS: Do it.

LG: I’ll let you know. I’m going to do a review of Clear, TSA Pre and Global Entry.

We love them all.


Recode – All

Full transcript: Seismic founder and CEO Rich Mahoney answers robot questions on Too Embarrassed to Ask

Modern robotics haven’t caught up with science fiction robots … yet.

On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, the team tackles the robot question: When will robots take our jobs? And really, is that even a question we need to be asking? Seismic’s founder and CEO, Rich Mahoney, has been building robots for years, and he says, in short, don’t worry. Robots are here to help us. And if you think your robot is edging over to the dark side, simply unplug it. Today’s battery technology is nowhere near being able to power something like an Iron Man suit.

You can read some of the highlights from the discussion here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.

Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode, senior tech editor at The Verge.

KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed To Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.

LG: It could be anything at all, like whether Kara Swisher is here in studio for this podcast, or if it’s a replicant of Kara Swisher.

KS: I’d like to have a replicant.

LG: Or if Kara Swisher is getting her sons a Boston Dynamics robot for Christmas.

KS: No, they just got a PlayStation 4. Oops, I just said it out loud, anyway. There we have it. Send us your questions, find us on Twitter, tweet them to @Recode, or to myself or to Lauren, with the hashtag #tooembarrassed.

LG: We also have an mail address, although email is probably going to go away soon. If not, robots will be answering them for us. The email is tooembarrassed@recode.net. A friendly reminder, there are two Rs and Ss in embarrassed. Do you think that’s true, that robots are going to be answering our emails?

KS: I don’t think we’re going to have emails. I think hopefully we’re not going to have them.

LG: I will speak up in defense of emails.

KS: All right, go ahead, Grammy.

LG: No, you know, let’s not get into it now.

KS: Alright, we’ll do a whole show on it. We’ll do a whole show on it.

LG: We should do a whole … that’s a great idea.

KS: I know.

LG: Would you guys like that? If you would like that, please go to our iTunes page, leave us a review. You can tweet at us. You can go to our Facebook pages.

KS: Why are you making all these suggestions?

LG: Because I like input from the people, Kara.

KS: Not me. Let’s do what we want.

LG: You’re going to make a great mayor.

KS: I’m not going to listen to anyone, I’m going to just fix the city. Anyway, moving along.

LG: We’re back in studio together. It’s great to see you again.

KS: Yes, it’s good to see you.

LG: I missed you.

KS: I know. I was in D.C. I was in LA. I was all over, New York.

LG: Hanging out with podcast people.

KS: Podcast people. I was doing some great podcasts with all women, actually, which was really interesting — Greta Van Susteren, Tina Brown, Christine Brennan — for different podcasts. It was really fun. It was good.

LG: That’s great.

KS: And seeing my kids, who are great.

LG: I was in Detroit.

KS: Yeah, how was that?

LG: I was in Massachusetts a couple times.

KS: Good, well now we’re here together.

LG: It was good. Now we’re here together, at long last. Today on Too Embarrassed to Ask we are delighted to have Rich Mahoney, the founder and CEO of Seismic, in studio with us.

KS: Explain Seismic. Seismic is a wearable robotics company, formerly known as SuperFlex, which is a fantastic name, Rich. Why did you get rid … I love that name.

Rich Mahoney: SuperFlex was a DARPA program, so we want to be a …

KS: I just love that. It feels like a superhero.

Yeah, we can still use it. We’ll find a way to use it still.

KS: I had to endure “Justice League” over Thanksgiving because I have two sons, but thank God for Gal Gadot. She was amazing, but everyone else …

LG: By the way, if you’re going to say that you have to change your company name, it’s pretty cool to say, “Well, that was with DARPA.”

KS: Yeah, I know, that’s fair.

LG: “That was the DARPA project.”

KS: That’s fair.

LG: “So now I have to come up with something else.

KS: I’m going to call it SuperFlex. I’m going to ignore …

That’s okay.

KS: SuperFlex, it would be a superhero.

LG: Yeah, it would, Kara, SuperFlex.

KS: What do they do, they flex?

LG: He’s going to tell us about it. Tell us quickly about your background in robotics. You worked in robotics for a long time. At one point you were the director of robotics at SRI.

That’s right. I started out in robotics doing graduate work, like a lot of people. I have a PhD in robotics, but quickly realized that I wanted …

KS: Were you at MIT?

Cambridge, England, is my PhD.

KS: England, okay, all right.

I quickly realized I didn’t want to do research and was more interested in commercialization. Ultimately that led me to the position at SRI where I was running the robotics lab there, and responsible for their DARPA programs but also for … what attracted me there is spinning out technologies and starting companies.

KS: Explain SRI for people.

SRI is formally Stanford Research Institute. I think it’s celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

KS: It is. It’s cool.

It’s really an amazing place. I gave a talk at my kids’ high school two years ago on their technology weekend. Asked how many people knew SRI, and the only two people that raised their hand were my two sons that were sitting in the audience. It’s a shame that people don’t know about it.

KS: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

It’s a nonprofit. It’s essentially a spinoff from Stanford University. They do contract research, so their business is to do research for other people that want to pay them to do research.

KS: I think I saw some surgical robotics there. It was cool. It was such a cool place.

Yeah, that’s right. The surgical … the group at SRI that I was managing was where the da Vinci system was developed and spun out. When the internet, I like to say, was two computers, one of them was SRI. From that starting point they have dozens and dozens of new technologies they developed.

KS: You were working on a robotic warrior suit for DARPA?

Yeah.

KS: DARPA is the … Explain DARPA.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it is the part of the Department of Defense that funds advanced research. Its main mission is to avert technical surprise. So after Sputnik, the military wanted to promote investment in a way that would allow the U.S. to constantly be out in front in terms to technical innovation. Pretty much every technology that’s surrounding us right now was at some time invested in by DARPA.

KS: We had Regina Dugan onstage many years ago at All Things D. She talked about the mach-whatever 10 airplane or something.

Yeah, it’s amazing. I remember Pat Lincoln when I first went to SRI — he’s running the computer science lab there — saying that to him DARPA is the best use of his tax dollars that he can think of in terms of the impact.

This SuperFlex program that we were running at SRI was our project as part of a DARPA program called Warrior Web, which was a wearable robotics program that was an alternative to exoskeletons — so something that was more lightweight and focused on reducing injuries and fatigue for soldiers carrying heavy backpacks than it was leaping over tall buildings or carrying big heavy loads like you often see in “Aliens” or other science-fiction movies.

KS: Or a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Did you see that movie?

LG: No I didn’t.

KS: What was it called?

LG: I mean, I’ve seen “Iron Man.”

KS: Jean-Claude Van Damme had a movie where he wore an exoskeleton. It was fantastic.

LG: Kara, you look excited.

KS: I’ve seen it 17 times.

LG: Let’s bring it back quickly, because we’re talking about power suits, exoskeletons, all this stuff. And by the way, shameless plug, on the latest episode of Next Level, my Verge video series, we actually talk to Rich and other experts in the exoskeleton field and wearable robotics field, all about exoskeletons. You should go check out that video. But for people who don’t know what an exoskeleton is, talk about that. And then talk about how what you’re doing is a variation on that.

Seismic now is bringing to market something we’re calling powered clothing. It is a form of wearable robotics, like exoskeletons. Exoskeletons are bigger, bulkier. They’re skeleton frames that you wear around your body. There are stronger motors that are helping to carry the body. The early applications — beyond being able to help in construction and lift heavy things — are for people, for instance, with spinal cord injuries, to be able to carry the body and help them be able to have therapy and learn how to walk.

In our case, and what I saw and the reason I ended up leaving SRI to lead this company was, we developed under that DARPA program some more lightweight actuators, electric muscles that we were integrating into clothing. I like to make the point that all of us in this room right now are wearing clothes. None of us are wearing robots.

LG: You can tell them the truth.

KS: Yeah.

LG: None of us are wearing clothes in this room right now.

KS: No, we are, because we find it’s appropriate to dress in the workplace. Thank you. Sorry, no more sexual harassment. Anyway, because a lot of wearable clothes, when you think of powered clothing, you think those idiotic t-shirts that light up and some of the ones that’re going to track you or your sweat or your heartbeat or things like that. This is different.

Yeah. We thought about maybe actuated apparel as a way to describe it, but we thought that, yeah, that was kind of too technical. Powered clothing isn’t really used to describe …

KS: I’d like to keep all your names.

I know. Exoskeleton is cool.

KS: So cool.

It also does create an image of something that’s heavy and non-consumer oriented. I think that’s the other thing we were trying to do is we do want to make something that’s more consumer oriented. So the idea of powered clothing is just to think about, we’re integrating this extra strength — wearable strength is another way we describe it — into clothing. We really are a clothing innovator. We want to add new functionality to clothing.

KS: That’s super clothing.

I actually like super suit, I think.

LG: You really don’t like their name.

How about Seismic suit? That’s something …

KS: I like that.

LG: A Seismic suit?

Yeah, I think I’m okay with people referring to it that way.

KS: Seismic suit is good.

LG: Yeah, but one of the things I noticed when I visited their lab down in Menlo Park not too long ago for this Verge episode we were taping, one of the things I noticed that was very different about your lab versus some of the other exoskeleton companies I’ve seen is that those feel like very industrial workspaces and the product is kind of something you have to attach on. They’re soft goods but they’re also like hard goods and metals against the body.

KS: Very “Terminator.”

LG: Your place looked like a fashion house in the way things were laid out and designed. It’s like seeing racks of clothing around, rather than metal parts.

Right, and that was intentional. Part of it, that came from the DARPA program wanting to create something that was more lightweight. But when we started to put the company together, we realized that, again, going back to clothing is something that people know, we want to innovate around clothing. We really built our team around apparel, fashion, textile, design, and then we come from a robotics lab, so we definitely have hardcore robotics capability.

But our workspace, as you were describing, looks … half of it is apparel development, sewing machines, big white tables, lots of fabrics, materials, mannequins everywhere. The other half is bench shop, electromechanical work stations. And then actually, for me, what’s more exciting about that is not how the space looks but the interaction of the teams … when I talk about powered clothing, to me it’s not just this technology that is our product, it’s a new type of company. It’s a new type … it’s this interaction of this fashion apparel design and this electromechanical design.

KS: Could you give examples of what you use? Again, I’m going to geek out, because a lot of the super … People think of what’s on the suit and what it does for them.

Yeah, yeah.

KS: It’s lightweight, right?

LG: Imagine like …

KS: The Flash’s clothes had special …

LG: I’ll let Rich answer because he’s the expert. But imagine if you’re not looking for super powers or to lift 200 pounds during your day to day. But imagine you have a hip problem or a knee problem or something like that, and then you’re like, “I just need a little …”

KS: Extra.

LG: “I just need a little boost.”

KS: My brother has muscular dystrophy, he would love clothing that would …

Yeah. We actually have a program where we’re working with the group to develop a suit, evaluating it for kids with muscular dystrophy. That makes perfect sense. That’s how to think about it. Wearable strength, we have electromechanical muscles that are integrated into clothing in alignment with your anatomy. There are sensors, inertial measurement units, IMUs, that are the same thing you have in your phone, that are tracking the movement of the body. And then they turn on the muscles as you’re moving to align with your movement.

KS: These are electric muscles.

They’re electric muscles, so it’s all battery powered.

KS: So is it the clothing that moves or the body?

Yeah, so it’s … The clothing has muscles that are harnessed to the body. Think about compression wear, that’s grabbing the body. If you go inside your body and you think about how muscles grab your bones and they contract in order to help you move, our muscles do the same thing. They contract and they’re grabbing the body. As they contract, they’re contracting with your hip muscles to provide extra strength.

Actually, think about a power electric bicycle. When you’re pedaling that you get this extra power. Now think about getting up out of a chair and I have these muscles that are working in my clothes to add extra power assist for me to help get up out of the chair.

KS: Right, what else? What other things?

The product is focused on the core, and so we’re really looking at — and it’s a programmable suit, so initially we’re looking at things like standing support, so people that are on their feet for a long time. We’re focused on the core initially because we do see the senior population as a really strong initial market. But anybody that’s working hard and develops fatigue around their core muscles from standing all day …

KS: So jobs, those kind of jobs.

Yeah, so jobs, anybody, any kind of job, a sales job, someone behind a counter all day. We have a lot of activity in Japan. There are … the average of a construction worker in Japan for instance is 48, and so we’re talking to a lot of companies in Japan about how we can build some powered clothing solutions to support the workers there.

KS: Amazing. Let’s talk broader about things.

LG: Yeah, let’s talk about robotics.

KS: Robotics, in general, where it’s going.

LG: One of the things that we put out a call for questions around was this idea of robotics and how lately they seem to instill a lot of fear in people.

KS: Fear, jobs.

LG: You may have seen the Boston Dynamics back-flipping robot, that people went nuts about on Twitter. In fact, I saw one tweet that went viral, where someone simply said, “We dead,” I saw. It may have been Kara Swisher. Why do you think people … and then of course we’ll get into what this automation and robotics means for jobs.

KS: Job replacement.

LG: Why do you think people have had such a strong reaction to this Boston Dynamics robot?

Yeah. I think there’s already a ton of automation in the world. People don’t really react to that, right? I think it’s because those robots are starting to look like us. People relate to them somehow as being superior, physically at least. And then with all the AI talk as well, that there’s, from an intelligence point of view, that they could be superior to us. That creates fear.

And then on top of that there’s a whole body of science fiction, like the first movies, the first use of the word robot was about a play were robot workers overcame their human masters. So even the origin of the word evokes that kind of fear. I think it’s part of the culture. I don’t think there’s any way to move past it. I do know from working in Japan that that is not part of the culture in Japan.

KS: Because they love robots.

Yeah, they love it. They’re not afraid. When I talk to our Japan staff, they don’t even understand. It takes them a little while to understand, “Oh, so people are afraid of robots.”

KS: Where is it from? One, there’s definitely … I just was visiting the Amazon warehouse and I was like, “Wow.” It was the same to me as bac- flipping robots when I saw those things moving. It was sort of scary and fantastic at the same time. I had both feelings. I think that’s how people felt about that robot, it was like, “Wow,” and, “Whoa.

I think it’s from movies, and “Terminator” probably the most. But there’s a million movies where robots kill us, and there’s just a few where they’re nice to us, essentially.

LG: Yeah, but there’s also that uncanny valley thing, too. Where, as Rich touched on a little bit, that idea that because they’re getting more … I don’t know if you would use the word human-like,, they’re starting … you look at some of the way that their legs are moving and the way things are shifting, and there’s something very fluid about it. You think, “That’s human-like.”

KS: And also with Elon Musk talking about it, he’s always … He did a, “We dead,” around that one, too. He’s always …

Yeah, I think he responded to that one, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

LG: Where do you put the Boston Dynamics robots on the scale of uncanny valley?

KS: Yeah, where is it …

When I saw that video, I was energized by it. I definitely wasn’t afraid of it. I didn’t react to it in the same way. When we were at SRI, when I was at SRI, we actually had another DARPA program where we built a humanoid, so actually what I saw in that … I knew where some of the component innovation was occurring that was allowing them to do that. I was excited that they had reached that point.

But I also, I didn’t just … I went to their website. I wanted to see what the latest was on the website, and actually I was interested in the fact that they actually have specs on it there. That it weighs 75 kilograms, it’s battery powered, it can carry, I think, 11 kilograms. That’s actually what I was really wanting to see, because they were just purchased by SoftBank. Basically you have another organization with a bottomless pit of money, because they were bought from Google, is now owning them, and money is not the issue. It’s really, what are you doing? How are you figuring out how to transition this to something that’s useful?

The big question that I have is just the battery, like how long can the battery last? Because that’s what I tell people, “If you’re worried about robots right now then just unplug them, or just wait till their batteries run out in 15 minutes.” That’s the classic issue that everything has. Until we figure out the arc reactor, that part of the equation, we’re really not going to be able to do … we’re going to be limited in what robots can do.

LG: The humanoid robot that you worked on for DARPA, was that ever deployed?

No. That specifically was to look at this issue of power efficiency. So we built a humanoid that had a human-like gait that could walk for seven hours on a single battery charge. When you look at a robot that can do that, we didn’t invent any new batteries, we actually went back and just looked at all the parts.

Actually, the other thing I saw in what Boston Dynamics has done, and I think what we’re seeing, I think we’re doing this a little bit in our project at Seismic, is that the last 25 years of robotics development has really been about industrial grade robots, and robot technology is trying to be applied outside of those industrial applications. What we’re seeing in some of these new robots that we haven’t seen before is really new kinds of components, robotic components, that are enabling robots that are more able to work safely with people, or able to do different types of activities.

Every industrial robot that you ever see in a factory is plugged in, power is not an issue, the efficiency of power isn’t an issue and no one’s really thought about that before. So Gill Pratt, when he was running DARPA, the robotics work at DARPA, had programs on efficiency of those. Going to things as simple as gears: Can we make gears that are more efficient for these applications? Our gears and our joints are very efficient as humans, there’s almost no friction there, so we’re not losing power to gears. But any kind of industrial robot is very inefficient that way.

KS: I want get to the jobs things in a second. But do you do any … Hire any anthropologists or sociologists to talk about this to? Because that’s one thing that seems left out. I know Google, for example, is working with anthropologists on VR. I think one of the things that you’re seeing now in some of these issues around social media and the weaponization of social media is that they never thought … For some reason these people never thought that there were some societal issues related to it.

LG: Right, it’s like humans were left out of the equation of how to be of service to humans.

KS: Yeah, like, “It’s cool.” And I could see it because I know a lot of the people at MIT and I know lots of robotics people, and they just … the cool part takes over to the point where it’s maybe not so cool to everybody.

Yeah. I think … Our answer to that question is we have to … we have biomechanics experts, so we are looking at how the body moves and how can we integrate our components into clothing in a way that works well with the body. And then, from the anthropological point of view, we’re looking at traditional industrial design, user experience. We have industrial designers. We’re actually recruiting …

KS: They try to make them cute. I’ve seen so many robots that are adorable, they’re fat or …

Yeah. I think that’s part of also … that’s what you need to have successful products.

KS: What’s the “Star Wars” one? The fat “Star Wars” one? The tall skinny one?

LG: R2D2?

KS: Yeah.

C3PO, the original one.

LG: C3PO

KS: Yeah, C3PO.

LG: Or Pepper, speaking of SoftBank. Their robot Pepper is quite adorable. It’s a retail robot. It’s supposed to greet you and it’s supposed to help you buy things once you’re in the store, but it just looks adorable.

KS: Can I ask a strange question? When I was at MIT many years ago, because they’re all in, robotics is a big deal there. One of the things they were … someone was talking about the eyes, that they had problems with the eyes, always. That was one of the … they were doing a medical one, to talk patients through simple problems, because I guess the top 20 issues in an emergency room are all the same, essentially. It’s very easy to just diagnose and move people out so you can get to the real cases. They said the people had problem with the eyes. That’s why people … [The robots] were better in every way except they didn’t have …

Yeah. When you look at the social interaction between people, the eyes are so important. I think that was definitely overlooked in early robotics work. And then there’s been a lot of work, especially at MIT. Rodney Brooks, Cynthia Breazeal more recently has done that work. There’s actually an approach in robotics where it’s just a screen for the face and you can actually put a human face there or some other kind of eye animation.

KS: You’ve seen that with the rolling-around ones.

Right, right. I think it’s part of this evolution that has to occur, that I don’t think has been solved yet. Robots don’t have to look like people, but the ones that you want to look like people, for them to be accepted …

KS: Caregivers.

Yeah, they have to solve those kinds of interpersonal issues. It’s still evolving. I haven’t seen a robot yet that I think would be accepted into everyday life.

LG: Should we talk about jobs?

KS: Jobs. We should, but also, I’m curious if you like the depictions, the media depictions of robots as a person who … Because then we’ll get to jobs because it’s leading into this.

Yeah. I’ve given a number of interviews and a lot of times they’re not video-recorded in real time. It will still give you my reaction but there’s a lot of reporters that will start and they’ll go right to that jobs question. I’ll be like, “Really, that’s your question? That question has been asked forever and it’s been answered a million times. Don’t you have a better question for me than just going back to the old jobs question?” I do think the …

KS: Well you know, people are having their jobs replaced, so that’s why we keep doing it.

Yeah, but I think that’s not necessarily always the fact of what’s happening. But it’s hard to tell the story of what actually is happening. It’s not as easy as saying … You just say “jobs” and people can react to that, where the story of what’s actually happening is a little more complicated, a little bit more …

LG: Yeah, it’s more nuanced in that it’s not just so, introduced robots to market, therefore replacement. This is … we’ve interviewed a lot of people about this.

KS: They all talk about it like that though.

LG: Well yeah, and there tends to be sometimes … You know, from covering Silicon Valley, there’s a little bit of a techno utopia approach, too: “Robots are just going to help us level up.” The problem is not that the jobs are being replaced, the problem is you need to figure out how to level up, because the robots are going to allow you to do something else. I think that’s a hard … that may be true in some ways but it’s a hard pill to swallow for people who maybe feel like they’re getting phased out of the workforce. But the truth is also that automation has existed in factories for a long time now.

KS: With much social unrest attached to it. I’ve had this long-running debate with Marc Andreessen, we just did it on a stage. There’s social unrest that they tend to overlook.

Right, and so part of my answer is that I think people already know that somehow robots will impact the workforce. Most of our thoughts around that are just reacting to it. There’s not good planning from a government point of view, or even an understanding of how things will evolve. I sometimes … This gets really … I don’t have a economics degree but I look at how our democracy was set up 250 years ago, and we created this economic structure that, it was based in technology and understanding 250 years ago. We have technologies now that could let our economy work differently, where we could use those technologies and manage them in a way that let our economy work differently.

I tend to look at robotics as affecting quality of life and the quality of what we’re doing, not jobs. We tend to focus on the people that have jobs, and we tend to focus on our country where jobs drive the quality of your life in general. But the world overall, there’s lots of people that aren’t living a high quality of life. Even two people that have the same dollar in their hand don’t have access to the same quality of health care.

KS: That’s a fair point.

And education and other things like that. I do think robotics can help to create more equality in terms of the standard of living that people have. In some ways it’s already happening in manufacturing. If you accept that the use of robotics in manufacturing has allowed the cost of durable goods to be cheaper, like how car’s are cheaper.

KS: Someone is always benefiting.

Right, so more people are able to buy cars that are of high quality with the same dollar than they would otherwise if we weren’t using automation to maintain quality and reduce cost.

KS: And the fact that some jobs are repetitive and should not be done by human beings. We get that.

Yeah, I think that’s totally … my perspective on jobs is actually, when I was at SRI one of the trends that I was really early, because we were doing DARPA work but we also were doing, again, contract work for companies that wanted to see robotics developed to solve some of their problems. What I was seeing is that they weren’t coming in and saying, “We need to reduce our cost. Let’s get rid of workers.” They were saying, “We can’t get enough workers.”

Manufacturing is experiencing this in China, in the U.S. and other places. There’s huge turnover, there’s lots of safety issues. The new generation, and this happens in every developing economy where manufacturing drives standard of living, that the next generation doesn’t want to go to the factory every day. You end up … what I was seeing is across mining and agriculture, manufacturing, retail, that people were trying to find robotic solutions to fill what I refer to as the labor gap.

KS: Yeah, no, the job loss … It’s interesting. I think the issue is a lot of people, when tech told us social media would be great 100 percent of the time, it’s turned out maybe not to be so much. Or the government was supposed to be paying attention to jobs, and they’re not even paying attention. That’s really the issue, is they’re not even thinking about it.

Right. It’s hard. It’s hard to figure out how to shape the economy around what jobs can offer.

KS: Or what jobs should be.

Or how jobs can evolve from, based on robotics.

KS: It’s a big topic. We’re going to talk about … of course we have tons of great questions from our audience. We’re not giving you a hard time, Rich, we’re just … You know?

Yeah, it’s part of my …

KS: We’re so sick of listening to Silicon Valley people some days.

It’s an occupational hazard for me, so I don’t go out to dinner without having this …

KS: Twitter is going to be great. Really? God, what did Donald Trump do today? Something awful again. In just a minute we’re going to take some questions about the future of robots from our readers and listeners, and Rich is going to answer them. But first we’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsor. Lauren?

LG: Ka-ching.

KS: All right, that’s good.

LG: I am your robot overlord.

KS: You’re doing like, “Danger, Will Robinson.”

LG: Can you put in an effect on that, that I just said that? Okay, cool.

KS: Is that it, “Danger, Will Robinson”?

LG: What you just heard was my real voice.

KS: I’m dating myself with Will Robinson. We have to think of a new thing besides ka-ching for 2018.

LG: That sounds good.

KS: Let’s put a pin in that. Let’s put a pin in that.

LG: All right.

KS: All right.

LG: Let’s do it.

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KS: We’re back with Rich Mahoney, the founder and CEO of the wearable robotics company Seismic, which I like to call SuperFlex. We’re talking about the future of robots, and, no surprise, our audience has a lot of questions about that topic. We got a ton … people love robotics.

LG: So many questions.

KS: Yeah, Lauren, would you read the first questions?

LG: I’d be happy to.

KS: There’s areas. We have areas to talk about.

LG: Yes. The first section is really about robot safety, the uncanny valley. Elon Musk’s comments, because we just can’t seem to get Elon Musk out of our podcast these days.

KS: You know what would be a mind fuck? I bet Elon Musk is a robot, and then he’s doing it to make us hate robots so that he could be the … Anyway, just thinking out loud.

LG: Elon, you’re welcome to come on the show anytime.

KS: No.

LG: Even if you’re a robot.

KS: Yes.

LG: All right, the first question is from Brianna Wu.

KS: Great, Brianna Wu.

LG: She says — hi Brianna — she says, “Because I’m a Boston resident and I don’t have access to a 40-watt phased plasma rifle, how can I protect myself?” We’re getting right into it.

KS: See, it’s not just us.

LG: How could she protect herself?

KS: Rich, it’s not just us, it’s Brianna Wu.

Today, just wait 15 minutes or unplug the robot. Don’t recharge it. That’s the biggest … There just is not a battery solution that will let robots do … Pick any movie that you want of a robot destroying us, the power supply for those robots …

KS: They’d take over the electric grid secretly. Have you seen “Terminator”?

LG: Yeah, but haven’t you seen “Short Circuit” with Johnny 5, who was no longer alive?

I always say, just unplug them.

KS: That is not good enough. I think everyone should have a 40-watt phased plasma rifle.

LG: There you go. Yeah. That’s really reassuring, actually, when you think about these giant war robots with human-like gears who’s going to destroy us all. Just unplug it.

Yeah, that’s what I would do.

Right, I always say, what’s the battery …

KS: They could go to a laundromat, airports, and plug themselves into …

LG: All right, ask, what’s the battery …

KS: Alright, next question. Pranav, @MrPranavesh: “Everyone says that humans are in control of AI and can turn AI off if something goes wrong, like a kill switch. My question, what happens if AI learns how to disable or override the kill switch? Is it possible?” It’s literally all the “Terminator” people, my people, my base. I have a base.

Apart from going back to “just turn it off,” I think that the other thing to look about, and I think about, I really like looking at how technologies actually really do become adopted and a part of our society. I read a book, “The Age of Edison,” a little while ago. I don’t know if you know it. It was about, from the invention of the light bulb to when the country was fully electrified. It was about 10 years, which is kind of ridiculous.

You think about, we went from having no electricity to having a light bulb, and then all of this technology. But if you follow what happened there, in terms of there was this crazy period of wires being run everywhere and people dying from wires falling on them and non-regulation. And then from that mayhem emerged regulation and reaction to how … So, at some level what Elon is saying will happen. Cars are regulated. Nuclear technology is regulated.

We learn from the technology. It’s not like we’re going to be like, “Why did we suddenly decide not to regulate this technology?” if it was somehow affecting us. And then the other part of it is that if you think about AI, because then there is this view of AI that there’s emergent behaviors, we don’t know what we don’t know about what can happen with AI. I accept that, but at the same time right now it’s not pervasive. It’s not like we all … Like “I, Robot,” the movie, where everybody has this humanoid robot in their house. Yeah, when we get to that day, we better make sure that we have some failsafes there that those robots aren’t taking over. But today we don’t have that, and so there’s a lot of time between now and then for that to happen. Regulation and understanding will emerge during that time.

KS: We’ll see. Until then, 40-watt phased plasma rifle, please. Next one.

LG: This was a good question.

KS: It was. It’s about the humanity.

LG: There was a little video linked, a gif linked to it that you can’t see because you’re listening to a podcast, but I’ll explain it. This is from Ian Fay: “How is it that I am terrified of our upcoming ‘Terminator’ future? Yeah, I feel viscerally horrified when someone kicks a robot like this.” He linked to a video of someone kicking one of the robot dogs. That’s a good sort of psychological or sociological question. Why is it that we feel bad about …

KS: Does a robot dog have a soul?

LG: Right, do robots have a soul?

I don’t know if I can answer the soul question, but I think when you look at, people have a personal relationship with their cars, they have a personal relationship with …

KS: My phone.

Yeah. So it’s part of being human to actually relate to things and to somehow give them human emotions. I think when you have something like this robot that is even more like us, that it’s built into our DNA, how we interact that way. I think that is really natural. I think it’s … I’ve faced this when early in my career people were looking at, how could you use robots as social devices for the senior population, and be like, “Well that’s inhumane, they should have people coming and talking to them.” Well, if people aren’t available, there’s a lot of older people sitting in homes staring at walls. Why isn’t it okay if they get value from some kind of robot or other interaction that’s not real, but still bringing value to them? I think you have to always go back to what’s real that way.

LG: We attach our emotions to things. I had this incident not too long ago, I was taping another video. I was talking to a video of a holocaust survivor. It’s on at USC, at Shoah Foundation, where they’ve captured all these testimonies of genocide survivors. They’ve applied their own natural language processing system to these videos, so that you can have a very natural sounding Q&A. At one point I interrupted the video and I apologized. I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And then I was like, “I’m a apologizing to a video because it felt so real to me.”

KS: You should apologize.

If you saw the new “Blade Runner” movie, there’s actually a relationship between a robot and a animated being that is like a visual representation of a being. We can relate to that as people, so it’s not …

KS: Yeah, I think that was very easy. We had a great interview with Jared Leto who played the trillionaire, and how when he killed the replicant because it wasn’t pregnant, I guess, right away everybody was horrified. I was, “How did you think about that?” Because people … it was like a human being. He said, “I just was throwing my iPhone at the wall,” which I thought was a great answer. If you remember how he said that.

LG: That’s interesting.

KS: You were here.

LG: I know I was there, I was just …

KS: You were just staring at Jared Leto. Okay, next … Anyway, it was true. It was like …

LG: Hi Jared.

KS: It’s just like breaking an iPhone, who cares? That was a really great mental leap that he made there, I thought.

This is from Carrie Watkins: “Understanding that robots will quickly be moving into the health care space, how are companies dealing with the uncanny valley? Is it better to get your pills from R2D2 or a robot that looks like a human?” That’s an interesting question. That’s a design question.

Yeah. I think that’s right, it is a design question, it’s a product question. The reality is that just because you make that doesn’t mean that the market will use it. That’s what I’ve learned in working on a lot of early-stage commercialization, is that in the case where using the robot is better, it’s because we built a better robot that people accept and solves a problem in a way that is better than what’s happening now. There’s lots of low-quality care and experiences in health care, so I think there’s a low bar at some level in terms of sometimes what we’re trying to accomplish for people. But I think in the end it’s a product, and how good is the product development that was done?

KS: All right, this next question …

LG: There are lots of questions about Elon Musk.

KS: People got tired of talking about his jacket.

LG: So after this new video of the back-flipping robot came out, Elon tweeted, “This is nothing. In a few years that bot will move so fast you’ll need a strobe light to see it. Sweet dreams …” Which is as ominous sounding as you could possibly be.

KS: He’s always fucking with us.

LG: He’s like, “Hi, I’m Tony Stark.” People on Twitter, including Sally Kuchar from Curbed who works with us here in the office, and a bunch of other people wrote to us when we said we were doing this episode. They were like, “What’s he talking about this? Is this is a reality? Are these things going to be exponentially faster in just a few years?”

KS: We’ve had Elon onstage talk about this quite a bit. He threw everyone into a tizzy when he talked about the fact that we were in a simulation. That went forever. So he’s always doing this. This is an Elon special, it’s a trademark, TM, peak Elon. But you know, he’s doing it a lot around AI, around robots, around … You must all be like, “Bad Elon, stop it.”

Yeah. It doesn’t affect my day to day, for the reason I was saying, we have to make a product, I have to make payroll, I have to raise money for the company, I have to find customers. But in terms of robotics in general, I’ve talked a little bit about it, that there’s a natural progression that’s going to occur. It’s not like we’re going to wake up tomorrow and everyone opens their front door and there’s a robot standing there.

But there’s also — going back to what I said before about Boston Dynamics — it’s that there’s a ground truth about what technology can do now. If this robot is going to move at those speeds then there needs to be a motor that’s moving it. There needs to be a power source that’s controlling it. There’s some technology that was shown from MIT recently for gripping and this really lightweight gripper, and then he talked about needing air. They’re using air pressure to control it. Well, the compressor is part of that equation. So we have to remember that it’s not just that gripper, there’s all this other technology that’s behind it.

I think the AI question is … I actually would make the case that AI is already regulated. The FDA, for instance, regulates all medical devices. If you’re saying you’re using AI somehow to solve a medical problem, that’s any kind of computer code, any kind of electronics that is part of a medical device, is regulated by the FDA. So there’s already processes for this, so it’s already there, yeah. Robots themselves are already regulated. The robotics industry is regulated. So it’s not like this isn’t there already, it’s just that it will evolve in a way that’s responsive to what the technology can actually do.

KS: We’re going to move to other things, but let me just say to all those people, there’s always liquid nitrogen. Remember, just get yourself a liquid nitrogen tank and point it at that robot that’s running fast, and you’ll be — probably — be okay.

LG: You sound like such a prepper. Are you saying this from your bunker?

KS: No, that’s from “Terminator,” like, 10. Thank you. I’m obsessed with “Terminator.”

But he’ll also control who gets to go into space, so I think you shouldn’t have robots on those spaceships. So people should just be able to go places where there aren’t robots, so if they’re really worried about them …

KS: There’s got to be robots in space. You’ve got to bring them on, come on. Who’s going to go out and get the milk?

LG: I’m going to start doing pull-ups like Sarah Connor did, just to be ready.

KS: Next question. Jane Thurber. This is about home care and elder care. “Okay, as boomers age, how long until robots can help us stay independent at home? Guide us on walks, monitor health biometrics?” She needs this in 10 to 15 years, so get on it.

LG: Yeah, we got a lot of questions about this.

KS: Get on it.

LG: You know, for the sake of time I’ll just … All of these were very similar. We had one from Liz NASTY Weeks: “Why isn’t anyone talking about the possible efficiency and quality of life gains for home service care of robots?” Paul Page: “Can the tech in these robots be used to replace or advance wheelchairs, walkers, other devices that help the disabled?” Tony Fratto says, “When I’m old, I hope there will be a robot to help me around the house, pour drinks, pick me up if I fall down. If it can do back flips too, I guess that would be cool.”

KS: Talk about the care thing, because it is an interesting area. You were talking about also helping … these robots, you wear them. Dean Kamen, I remember, had that seat that helped people get downstairs in New York who were in wheelchairs, a new kind of wheelchair.

Most of my career before SRI, I worked in developing rehabilitation uses of robotics.

KS: Right, new arm and the grabbing.

I’ve done some working using robots for stroke rehabilitation. I actually understand that area. What I would say is that I’d left probably one of the best jobs in robotics, running the lab at SRI, to do this company, to solve the problems that they’re talking about in that question. We want this suit to be … our initial focus is a wellness focus. We want it to solve that problem. We want it to be available to people who are starting to lose strength because they’re aging, and being able to be more independent, live in their homes longer, using this super suit, Seismic suit tech.

It cuts both ways when you look at, now going to what other kinds of robots, like a robot waiter or maid in your home. Having a … The Boston Dynamics technology that you’re seeing is the precursor to those kinds of robots that can do more. I think the thing that’s missing in that robot and the thing … What Boston Dynamics is really known for is walking robots.

KS: Walking robots, yeah. It’s hard to do.

Yeah. What they’ve done — and they are the best at it bar none — but what you’re not seeing is arms and dexterous hands. That’s really one of the last horizons. So, the Amazon challenge … If you’re aware of what … What Amazon is interested in now they have all these mobile robots that they bought with Kiva, but they want hands at the end of those robots that can reach into bins and pick out one …

KS: Which people are now doing.

Right, which people are now doing. Again we have issues with having enough people to do it and it’s not a great job.

KS: Yeah, it’s a really interesting …

I actually think the arms … there’s a company called Moley Robotics, which is touting a set of arms that are a kitchen device, basically an appliance that you can have over your stove and they can make and prepare food for you. They look like two human arms with dexterous hands at the end. I think that kind of solution … I know it’s difficult to build something that’s consumer grade right now. We’re getting closer and closer, but even …

KS: What’s the timing? Kiva’s one of the most important acquisitions Amazon made. People don’t talk about that.

Think about this 10-year window that I just described. Even the iPhones that we all have, the smartphones, they took 10 years to become pervasive and also to create the kinds of applications that we’re now seeing, and even still there’s innovation. So if we say that within the next five to 10 years we can see that tech … which I think we’re right there.

Actually I’ve made this statement before, that I don’t think there’s a technology hurdle there. I think it’s a people hurdle. People ask me what was the key to our success at SRI. It wasn’t the technology, it was the people. It’s always the people. You know this when you’re interviewing about companies here, it’s really about the individuals that had the insight and that were able to apply the technology the right way.

KS: But in terms of technology, is this woman going to have to have HurryCane when she’s 10 to 15 years older, or is she going to have a HurryRobot?

LG: What do you mean by hurricane?

KS: HurryCane is a cane that old people use. It’s a very innovative cane. The HurryCane.

LG: Right. It sounds like what he’s saying is that when it comes to home care, the dexterity of robot hands is really going to matter.

KS: And movement, I think movement is one of those …

I think within 10 to 15 years we will see the first of those products emerging, and that will be useful.

KS: What about advanced wheelchairs and things like that?

People have been working on that for a long time. I don’t know why we haven’t been able to do better, so …

KS: I know, wheelchairs, they still regular wheelchairs. They work pretty well, like a book.

I’ve seen better design. But look at the technology we now are applying to cars. Why can’t you get in a wheelchair and have it move you around? They are a form of robot, in some regard, if you think about a mobile robot, and someone’s sitting in this mobile robot. But we haven’t quite figured out how to integrate the technology.

KS: The “X-Men” one was cool.

Yeah, it is.

KS: It just looked, like, bad … They look terrible.

Yeah, and so that comes back to a lot of … If I look at what I’m doing, I’m just in a startup trying to get … Like, how do you get it funded? How do you get your first … That process of getting the resources together, the team together, is part of the challenge in robotics to have this.

KS: Wheelchairs are mechanical. They’re not digital. I guess they just work.

You look at Google taking a shot at it, you’ve got Toyota putting a ton of money, you now have SoftBank putting a ton money. It’s not the money, it’s some combination of technology platform and people that know how to transfer it out.

KS: We have even more questions from our readers and listeners, but we’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. We’ll be back in a minute with Rich Mahoney from Seismic.

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Next questions, go ahead.

LG: These questions are about …

KS: We’re back to jobs.

LG: We’re back to jobs, but more broadly industry and the economics of robots. Unni Sankar asks, “Why should a humanoid robot that back-flips comically, without earning a single dollar, get all the attention when more than 300,000 industrial robots silently work 24/7 in factories worldwide? Which impacts the bottom line of their owners and the top line of the vendors.” I think he’s more making a statement than asking a question, but it sounds like he’s saying these back-flipping robots are getting the attention and meanwhile …

Yeah, the reason for that is, I kind of alluded to it earlier.

KS: I’m sorry, I think it’s cool.

Yeah, besides that it’s cool — and I definitely think it’s cool — there’s not a lot of those videos that I see that I think are cool and that one I was excited about.

KS: Because you look at this videos, it’s like, “Eh, so what?”

Most of them, yeah.

KS: You’re one of those robot snobs. I know them.

I get my fix …

KS: My ex did a lot of robot stuff and she’d always like, “It’s nothing.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? It just pushed a tennis ball up a hill!” “So what?”

LG: Yeah, then Megan would take out a napkin and draw some design on it and be like, “This is how it should work.”

KS: She won at the robotics challenge at MIT.

That industrial automation that the question refers to is like a first case. We overlook it sometimes because we say industrial but it is a service robot application: People making things for other people. And we started to use robots to do that in a way that, yeah, at some level it was reducing labor, but we did it for a reason, because we could make higher-quality parts, we could make them faster.

If you look at … There was a chart I saw a few years ago, that the cost of durable goods compared to any other product has leveled off since the mid-1980s. The reason for that is because the use of technology automation has reduced, has maintained a fixed level of cost for those things.

So now you look at, again, the Boston Dynamics robot. Why is that important? Because we’re starting to see now new technologies, not just industrial-grade technologies but new component technologies in robotics that can serve the rest of the service industry, which is orders of magnitude bigger than manufacturing itself. So having robots that can go … Like, there’s a company, Savioke, that does bellhop kinds of robots in hotels.

KS: Yeah, the ones that come to the door, room service. There’s not going to be room service people any more.

LG: It’s remarkable, not only because it’s looks cool, but because you’re seeing that the components that are used to make those gears and make things work and stuff like that, are inherently more accessible now and affordable.

KS: I think room service robots is four years or five, I think …

They’re already deployed, they’re already happening.

KS: They’re deployed in restaurants, robot in the restaurant.

Any mobile robot that’s not manipulating something is just good business.

KS: So, this is one, “Shouldn’t robots pay taxes?” This is an issue, I think it was brought up by Mark Cuban, or someone was talking about this, or Bill Gates. “How would society function in the future with more robots than unemployed humans? So shouldn’t robots pay taxes?”

Then the second was, “Do you think there should be licensing requirements the way we have for those for architects, engineers and lawyers? How do we balance that against the employment opportunities created if the barriers to entry remains low?” Let’s talk about taxes and regulations and licensing.

LG: Licenses.

I don’t think just a tax on service robots is going to be useful in any way. Because I think anything that impedes the application of them in an artificial way, I think, is not necessarily good. I think we do have to look at what the real impact is on the economy.

Right now — I think I was starting to say earlier — that this gap, this service gap, there’s a big demographic shift that’s going on. The population is aging. It’s already really intense in Japan and other Asian countries, that there’s not enough people to do the service jobs. I actually think that gap is going to drive the innovation. There’s a company in the Valley, Dishcraft, that is focused on dish-washing robots. It sounds very basic and simple, and why do we need this? But if you think about it …

LG: Sounds magical.

Yes, right. So imagine having that at home, but there’s huge industries, like restaurants and any kind of conference facilities, all need that kind of technology.

KS: Absolutely. All right, that leads us to the last question, go ahead.

LG: Sure, the last question is from Steve O’Dell.

KS: I’m for robot taxes, I say yes.

LG: But who’s going to represent them?

KS: They’ll get some robot lawyer.

LG: “No robot taxation without representation.”

KS: Going to be a real good lawyer. Robot lawyers, fine. I’m good with that.

LG: They’re going to have to go to robot school, like lawyers go to law school in order to get their license.

KS: No, they probably just shove that stuff in.

LG: There’s going to be a robot Bar exam.

KS: It’ll take two seconds, in two seconds to learn what it takes my brother 900 years to learn.

LG: All right, Steve O’Dell, @MileHighDevs.

KS: This is the last question for you. Rich has been so patient with our idiocy.

LG: I know, he really … [to Kara] Speak for yourself. “I keep seeing U.S.-built robots doing cool stuff with questionable utility, while Korea and Germany keep churning out products that immediately go to work. Where do you see the educational and R&D center of gravity in 10 years?”

KS: Yeah, that’s a good question. We’re stupid, we like them doing dumb things.

Yeah, I guess I don’t see that actually.

KS: I agree with Steve.

I think the U.S. is absolutely the innovative leader in robotic application and development. We’re not always — I definitely see this — that we’re not always the earlier adopters of that technology, and some of it is cultural, related to jobs and reaction to robots. Germany, Japan in particular, both adopt our technology sometimes faster than we …

KS: That’s interesting. Why is that? Because Cuban, I think, would say that China could get ahead of us in these areas, and we’re already at the forefront, and the worry was that …

Right, especially like China right now has much higher government support for the use of robotics. In the U.S., we have no support for the use of robotics. We actually have this issue that robots are bad and politicians are afraid to talk about robots because of the job issue. Whether for better or worse, it is what it is. It means that the application … If I look at Japan, there’s actually subsidies for products for seniors, robots that support seniors, because of the demographics, because of the cultural views of robotics in Japan. It is something that we have to pay attention to.

KS: What’s the difference? Why is it … because our politicians are freaking idiots.

I do think that we need some … we need a view of robotics that isn’t just a cultural reaction to them and right now there’s not …

KS: That is very true.

Yeah, there’s just not a good … The U.S. funds robotics, DARPA funds a tons of robotics, our innovators drive. Boston Dynamics is in Boston, the people came from MIT, it’s an American company that is capturing the attention of the world. But as a country we’re not necessarily early adopters and we’re …

KS: I think we’re in peak technology hating right now. All I’m getting is books about how technology is going to kill us.

Yeah, and for robots, though, that is definitely true. Other technologies maybe not as much. Maybe people aren’t realizing that there’s automation there that’s impacting us in ways that we’re afraid of for robots, but not totally following …

LG: Yeah, well, it’s really interesting, you brought up Kiva Systems, which was also a Boston company that Amazon ended up acquiring for their warehouses. It’s like, people probably aren’t making the connection when they go to amazon.com and they put, “I want same-day delivery,” “I want two-day delivery,” that they’re experiencing a really great convenience but the place it’s coming from is at least partially automated.

KS: Lots. Go look at all the videos.

LG: I mean, you can look at the food we eat every day. If you’re getting something from Big Ag, there’s some process that’s automated.

Yeah, and here’s another thing to think about in terms of what’s going to happen, is that that innovation and the problems that Amazon is focused on right now, this each pick problem, before when the robots were solving problems in manufacturing, they kind of put them in cages and they stayed there. When Amazons solves each pick, this dextrous picking of things, now I have something that can do things in my home, that can do things in restaurants. So I do think that the innovation that manufacturing and logistics are focused on now is going to open up more service applications.

KS: Absolutely, it’s going to be like AWS. It’s going to be … Amazon will have a … You can’t call it Amazon Logistic Services, ARS maybe. They’ll be the ones that will …

LG: You are in a name-picking mood today. I like this.

KS: What?

LG: Really, you’re brainstorming today for names for things.

KS: I like names.

LG: ARS.

KS: You can’t call it ALS, that’s a terrible disease that this perhaps will help solve.

But in any case, this has been fascinating. When we come back we’re going to talk about cyborgs and when we’re going to get human-looking … When’s that happening?

I think it’s already starting to happen. You’re seeing it. Yeah, you’re seeing it in the … Lauren was saying earlier, robots are moving, humanoid robots are moving like people.

KS: I mean face.

Oh, the face.

KS: You know, like “Humans,” that show. Do you like that show?

I do. I’m a science-fiction nut. So any kind of …

KS: I’m rooting for the … I can’t wait till they …

“Battlestar Galactica,” you’re talking about …

KS: No, no, no. “Humans.”

Yeah, sorry. I haven’t spent much time with that one yet.

KS: Yeah, they’re always mean to the robots so I’m rooting for the robots. I can’t wait till they wipe out the human race in that particular series, because they’re real mean.

That is part of the problem. Robots really won’t do anything to us that people don’t tell them to do right now.

KS: Steven Spielberg did a great … It wasn’t a great film but it was interesting, about that, about the humanity, and of course in “Blade Runner,” you don’t realize who’s a robot and who’s a replicant, which is interesting.

LG: I have one more question before we let you go. Which is, if you are someone who’s interesting in getting in the robotics industry …

KS: Yeah, where do you go? MIT.

LG: You’re looking at the next 10 years, are you looking … Should you be looking at programming robots? Should you be looking at programming automated systems? Where are the jobs going to be?

It’s a really good question. The thing about robots …

KS: It’s a good question.

LG: Just when I leave you Kara, I’m going to do robot stuff.

But that’s just that robots are everything. I look in my company, I’ve got electrical engineers, mechanical engineers. I’ve got data scientists. I’ve got software engineers. I now have UX designers. I have public relations specialists. As the robotics industry grows, every aspect of business operations is going to be needed.

KS: We need someone to tell the story, to tell the story.

What I always tell people is, whatever they’re interested in, the best thing you can do and that is really amazing in robotics now is just make them. You can buy robot kits. There’s so much available to you.

KS: What’s a popular one this year, the little tiny round one. It’s super popular. What’s it called? My kid wants one. Mini? There’s a new robotics kit out this year.

Yeah, I don’t think I know that one.

KS: Yeah, it’s real popular. It was in one of The Verge’s lists, or one of them was.

LG: Was it?

KS: Yeah.

But that’s why, when I’m looking to hire people, I’m really looking for people that are obsessed with making them, that they can talk about the different types of motors and the different types of software. It’s so accessible.

So my access to robots came through science fiction. I read avidly growing up. There weren’t really the clubs and kits that are available now. That’s what I really tell people to do. And then just look for — and it’s in every company also, all companies are really looking at … I saw something recently about a new C-suite title called chief robotics officer, that companies, automobile manufacturers, have used robotics. But think about Pepsi or whomever, with their warehouse and logistics, they understand how to use robotics. So it really is going to be pervasive across all the industries.

KS: What’s the best school right now, schools?

The top schools are, everybody knows, MIT and Stanford and Berkeley.

KS: Of robotics.

For robotics. Carnegie Mellon has a really longstanding relationship — I’m sorry, reputation — for robotics. I think that there are lots of other. Any good engineering school that … Any good mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, computer engineering, all of those degrees are going to support, are going to be useful for robotics.

KS: Yeah, and there’s also the robotics challenges, like Dean Kamen does. What’s that called?

FIRST Robotics.

KS: FIRST Robotics. There’s all kinds of stuff like that.

Yeah, there are so many people, so many young people that get to participate in robotics. It’s really great. Even if you look at high school clubs — again, it’s not every person has to be a programmer. You need someone who’s a project manager. I’ve got a son now I’m advising for college and I’m like, “You’re so good at thinking about lots of different things.” A mechanical engineer isn’t necessarily a great project leader, and so we need people that can manage teams and think about the market. I think there’s a lot of opportunities …

KS: So there’s a growth area in building robots that will replace us. No, I’m teasing you. After all that …

That will enhance the quality of our lives, is how I like to think of it.

KS: I’m teasing you. We want you to come back and talk more about robotics and cyborgs in the future.

Thank you.

KS: We’ll be back, right?

LG: Yeah, maybe next time it will be the real Kara too, not a replicant.

KS: You totally missed my joke. Eric got my joke.

LG: I got the joke, Arnold.

KS: Arnold. “I’ll be back.” He’s got to stop saying that, I think, and so do I.

All right, this has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed To Ask. Rich, really, thank you so much for putting up with us.

Thank you.

KS: We appreciate it.

LG: Thank you, Rich.


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