Iridium – The Making of the Largest Satellite Constellation in History

The Making of the Largest Satellite Constellation in History

How Iridium rose from its ashes to launch the era of satellite megaprojects.

An artist’s rendering of an Iridium Next satellite in orbit. Image: Iridium

Matt Desch didn’t set out to change the world, but he just might do it anyway. As the CEO of Iridium, the only company that provides satellite communications to every inch of the globe, he is at the helm of Next, a fleet of telecommunications satellites that is arguably one of the most ambitious space projects ever undertaken.

By this time next year, Iridium will have sent 75 Next satellites into orbit. Each one will be replacing a first-generation Iridium satellite that has been in orbit for almost two decades. Once these new satellites are in place, they will establish radio contact with one another over thousands of miles of empty space to create the largest and most complex mesh network ever placed in orbit.

Like the first-generation network, these Iridium Next satellites will provide critical phone and data services to everyone from scientists in Antarctica and military contractors in the Middle East, to drug mules in Central America and climbers on the summit of Mount Everest.

A payload capsule filled with 10 Iridium Next satellites on board a Falcon 9 rocket ahead of the Iridium-3 launch in October 2017. Image: Daniel Oberhaus/Motherboard

But the Next constellation also comes with a suite of new features. Not only will it provide an orbital backbone for the expanding Internet of Things, the satellite network will also be tracking planes and ships in regions they’ve never been tracked before. Almost 70 percent of the Earth isn’t covered by radar, which is why the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight was able to disappear into the ocean in 2014 without a trace. Iridium hopes to make these sorts of tragedies obsolete.

That’s if everything goes according to plan, of course, and Iridium isn’t exactly known for its successes. A little under 20 years ago, it was the subject of one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in history. Indeed, the original fleet of satellites that Iridium is replacing with its Next constellation came within hours of a fiery demise, after the company decided to cut its losses after filing for bankruptcy and deorbit them.

In this sense, each Iridium Next launch not only represents the culmination of several years’ worth of intensive design, research, and testing by an international team of scientists and engineers, but also the dogged pursuit of a (quite literally) lofty goal in the face of overwhelmingly bad odds. In order to get a better understanding of the stakes, I followed the next generation of Iridium satellites from their birth in a warehouse in the Arizona desert to their delivery to orbit nearly 500 miles overhead.

*

Last October, I met Desch, who has been Iridium’s CEO for nearly 12 years, for breakfast at a restaurant in Solvang, California. We had just finished watching the third batch of ten Iridium satellites get delivered to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was well before noon, but both Desch and I had been awake for hours.

A SpaceX rocket carrying the third batch of Iridium satellites launches from Vandenberg Air Force base on October 9, 2017. Image: Daniel Oberhaus/Motherboard

As we devoured our avocado toast, Iridium engineers on the East Coast were busy maneuvering the satellites into their orbital planes while Desch explained why SpaceX and Iridium are ideal partners.

“In many ways, the Falcon 9 was built around the Iridium payload because we were the first ones to work with SpaceX,” Desch told me. “Launching is about a third of our costs and if SpaceX wasn’t around, I just couldn’t afford it.”

On the other hand, Iridium, which was SpaceX’s first customer and remains its largest, provides SpaceX with a major source of revenue that it won’t find anywhere else in the commercial sector. As Desch bluntly put it, “Nobody launches 75 satellites.”

Desch’s faith in Elon Musk’s rockets hasn’t wavered over the years, but watching the Falcon 9 rocket explode on the launch pad in September 2016 made an impression on him. The first ten Iridium satellites had been scheduled to head to orbit a few weeks later, but the explosion delayed deployment until last January.

SpaceX touts its “flight proven” rockets as a cost-saving measure, but the extra risk that comes with flying on a used rocket is part of the reason why Iridium’s original contract with the private spaceflight company specified that its cargo would never be flown on a Falcon 9 booster that had previously been to space. On the other hand, the rocket that claimed a Facebook satellite that September had been brand new, a forceful reminder that when it comes to space travel there are no guarantees.

Flying “used” would save Iridum some money, but it’s a gamble: Each of Iridium’s payloads is worth a quarter billion dollars and the loss of even a single one would be disastrous. After lengthy talks with SpaceX and his insurance providers, however, Desch recently opted to send the fourth and fifth batches of Iridium satellites on flight-proven rockets. Given the high stakes of each launch, this speaks volumes about his confidence in Musk’s company.

On December 22, SpaceX carried a batch of Iridium satellites to orbit on a previously flown rocket for the first time. Whatever Desch’s anxieties were about flying used, they proved to be unfounded—the launch went flawlessly.

How to Build a Satellite

Iridium’s journey to space begins in a nondescript building in pastoral Gilbert, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb. This building is home to Orbital ATK, the aerospace company overseeing the manufacturing process of the Iridium Next constellation, and sits just across the street from a farm where a handful of cows spend their days idly chewing cud. The sterile hallways of the Orbital ATK building are cavernous and lined with doors plastered with warnings that these rooms house strictly controlled materials.

Technicians prepare an Iridium satellite at the Orbital factory. Image: Iridium

Under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), many satellite parts are subject to the same stringent oversight as weapons like tanks and hand grenades. These technologies are usually off limits to civilian eyes and can’t be shared with foreign governments. This regulation has been a pain the side of the space industry for years, but for a visitor to Orbital ATK’s facilities like myself, it mostly meant I wouldn’t be bringing a camera inside.

The facility consists of five massive clean rooms for storing and assembling satellites. Orbital ATK has registered each of these as a Foreign Trade Zone, a legal distinction that is the industrial equivalent to a duty free shop at an airport and saves the company paying steep taxes on imported parts. The largest FTZ is reserved for the manufacture of Iridium satellites, consists of 18 workstations, and has technicians in cleanroom suits working on site 24/7.

Most satellites are unique and their production is a painstaking process that can last years. This wasn’t going to work for Iridium: The company needed to manufacture 81 satellites (75 to be placed in orbit with six remaining on the ground as spares) in the amount of time it usually takes to make one. In short, Iridium tasked Orbital ATK with doing for aerospace what Henry Ford had done for the automobile.

This was a challenge for a relatively small company, but it had some experience in the area. In the late 90s, Orbital also oversaw the construction of the first constellation of Iridium satellites, when the idea of mass producing satellites was totally unprecedented and deemed by many to be impossible.

Many of the engineers that worked on that first constellation are still at the company today, but this time the design of the Next satellites was overseen by the French aerospace company Thales.

Thales had a legacy satellite design that was adapted for the Iridium payloads, but according to the Orbital ATK and Thales engineers I spoke with, the design collaboration process could still be painstakingly slow due to ITAR restrictions. Often, Thales would send its preliminary designs to Orbital ATK, only to find a number of adjustments needed to be made, even though the exact nature of these adjustments was unclear due to restrictions on the sharing of component designs.

After a drawn-out revision process, the satellite designs were passed off to Orbital ATK, which began to manufacture seven of the planned 81 satellites. These seven satellites are the only ones that run the gamut of testing, which includes subjecting them to intense vibrations, electromagnetic interference and acoustic tests that Michael Pickett, Orbital ATK’s director of program management, described to me as “blasting the satellites with the biggest, baddest rock concert speakers you can imagine.”

The point of these tests was to validate the design process—if the satellites still worked after this mechanical torture, it meant the other 74 satellites that would pass through the assembly line should work fine, too.

After the design validation tests, Orbital ATK kicked its 18-station assembly line into high gear. Until the last one is finished, sometime in early 2018, the assembly line will see five to six satellites from start to completion each month. The process starts with assembling the different parts of the satellite body—called the “bus”—which is about the size of a Mini Cooper. Once the bus is completed, Orbital ATK technicians begin testing the satellite’s electronic components and communication modules, antenna alignment, and insulation.

Toward the end of the assembly line, each satellite is placed in a thermal chamber for 12 days and is subjected to extremely high and low temperatures to see how it will hold up in the hostile space environment. If the satellite survives, it progresses to station 15, where the star tracker that will be used to track the satellite’s position in orbit is installed. This station also holds sentimental value for the Orbital ATK engineers—the point where a plate dedicating the craft to a specific employee or investor is installed on the craft.

10 Iridium satellites are loaded into a specially designed payload capsule to be placed atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Image: Iridium

Next, the satellites’ fuel tanks are filled with helium and placed in an airtight tent that is pumped full of nitrogen. Due to the size difference of these molecules, the engineers are able to look for any leaks that might’ve cropped up during the assembly process.

Finally, the solar panels that will serve as a power supply for the satellite are installed and the craft is basically ready for orbit. Iridium then has to decide whether or not the satellite will be one of the ten going up on the next SpaceX rocket. If not, it will join a few dozen other satellites stacked two-high and covered with black tarps inside a large storage room, until they’re ready for launch.

If a finished satellite is destined to go up on the next launch, its batteries will be removed from cold storage and installed on the craft at the last station. Here, the satellite’s software is uploaded to the craft and Iridium technicians at its Satellite Network Operations Center in Virginia establish contact with the satellite to make sure they will be able to communicate with the craft while it’s in orbit. The satellite is then loaded into a custom shipping container for its journey to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, its final stop on Earth.

After liftoff, Iridium’s global network of technicians takes over to make sure the satellites are communicating with one another and the gateways on Earth as they are maneuvered into orbit—a process that can take up to a month. Once they are properly in orbit, the satellites will not only begin talking to one another and Iridium devices on the ground, but also one of the three gateways that link the satellite constellation to the telecommunications infrastructure that most of us use on a daily basis.

*

When I visited Iridium’s main gateway in Tempe, Arizona, it was a hive of activity. (The other two gateways are exclusively for the US Department of Defense and Russia, respectively.) Iridium technicians sat in a darkened control room watching satellites tear across a projection of the Earth as they monitored calls being routed through the network for any signs of an error.

Iridium’s main satellite network operations center in Virginia. Image: Iridium

According to Stuart Fankhauser, Iridium’s vice president of network operations, it wasn’t so long ago that the operating room was a dead zone as the company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

“I was one of the last guys here,” Fankhauser told me. “It was just me and four others, and we ran everything. It was very quiet, very eerie.”

Iridium was spun off as a subsidiary of Motorola in the 1990s. Its first-generation constellation was originally expected to cost around $3.5 billion, but by the time the satellites were functional, Motorola had sunk almost twice that much into the revolutionary project.

To make matters worse, in the early 90s there were hardly any customers for Iridium’s satellite phone service, the constellation’s raison d’être. This was partly due to the unwieldy size of the company’s satellite phone (affectionately known as “the brick”), but mostly a consequence of its cost: thousands of dollars for the phone and then around $7/minute to make a call. Before it filed for bankruptcy, Iridium had roughly 60,000 customers, but increasing cell phone coverage in the United States and Europe meant that the very populations that could afford the device had increasingly little need for it.

In August 1999, Motorola pulled the plug on its ambitious satellite project and Iridium filed for bankruptcy, just nine months after the satellite constellation went live. Unless another company bought it out—and by 1999, no investor in their right mind would touch this space-age Icarus—Iridium would be done for.

Enter Dan Colussy, the former president of Pan American airlines who had been monitoring Iridium’s troubles with great interest. Just hours before Motorola was scheduled to begin the deorbiting process, Colussy was busy negotiating terms with the Department of Defense, Saudi financiers, and Motorola executives that would allow him to formally purchase the company for around $35 million, a fraction of the billions of dollars the tech giant had sunk into it.

Iridium VP of satellite operations Walt Everetts with one of the company’s grounded test satellites in Tempe, Arizona. Image: Daniel Oberhaus/Motherboard

As detailed in Eccentric Orbits, journalist John Bloom’s tell-all memoir of Iridium’s unlikely rise and spectacular failure, Colussy, who didn’t respond to my requests for comment, knew the satellite constellation would be good for something, he just wasn’t sure what. Iridium was an unprecedented technological feat that simply seemed too valuable to allow it to burn up in the atmosphere. Sixteen years later, Colussy’s intuition is finally being proven correct, but Iridium’s employees told me it was an uphill battle to make it here.

“We had to be pretty scrappy back then,” Fankhauser told me as we walked through Iridium’s Tempe gateway facility. “We were burning our investors’ money so we bought supplies off eBay and liquidators from failing dotcoms. It was humbling.”

The gateway is one half of Iridium’s backend operations. The other half, a test facility just down the road, is constantly probing the satellite network for weaknesses or seeking ways to improve Iridium’s service. Inside the test facility are two large Faraday cages filled with every type of Iridium phone and IoT device that operates on the Iridium network.

These devices are used to call two partially disassembled satellites in another room that have been programmed to “think” they’re in orbit in order to test the load-bearing capacity of the operational network and the compatibility of various devices. On the day I visited, Iridium engineers had successfully managed to place 1,700 simultaneous calls through a single satellite, a company record.

Walt Everetts is Iridium’s vice president of satellite operations and ground development and oversees the day to day activities at the test center. He showed me a large interactive map in the test center’s lobby that depicted calls on the network in real time. Small colored dots indicated different types of services: someone in Dubai calling someone in China or a sailor in the Atlantic checking their email. But the vast majority of the dots indicated machines talking to other machines.

Iridium satellites waiting to be loaded onto a Falcon 9 rocket. The white box at the top is the Aireon hosted payload, which will track planes in regions of the world that are outside of ground-based RADAR range. Image: Iridium

As Everetts and Desch both pointed out, the growth of the Internet of Things is a key reason why they believe Iridium will be a viable company this time around. Although facilitating calls between humans is still a core component of the company’s business, most of the network is used to route information between computers, whether these are tsunami monitoring buoys in the middle of the ocean, or chips implanted to track endangered animals. In fact, Desch said over half of Iridium’s almost 1 million subscriptions are now IoT companies looking to connect their devices.

End of an Era

Iridium is one of the few companies in the aerospace sector, alongside SpaceX, that can claim to have anything close to a fan club. Aside from the customers actually using its products, there are a number of astroheads around the world cataloging a phenomenon known as Iridium flares. The original satellites were designed with a large reflective surface, meaning at certain angles the sunlight produces a bright flare that can be seen with the naked eye at night, even in light polluted cities.

This passion was also expressed by Iridium technicians I spoke with, who had an uncanny habit of referring to the satellites in the same manner a parent might speak about their child. Indeed, each one has a name—Everetts has named two after his sons—and this adds a degree of gravitas to the deorbiting process, which can take anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on how much fuel is left in a satellite. At the time of writing, six of the original Iridium satellites launched in the late 90s have been successfully deorbited. Several others will meet their demise later this year.

Yet the end of the original Iridium network is also the beginning of something new—not just for the company, but for space exploration as a whole.

Today, companies like OneWeb, Boeing, and SpaceX are in a race to create massive broadband networks consisting of hundreds of satellites, but Iridium doesn’t see them as much of a threat. In the first place, most of these planned constellations are for consumer broadband, whereas Iridium provides specialized services. More importantly, however, none of these companies has even come close to getting those projects off the ground.

This race to take the internet to space calls to mind other ambitious and ill-fated satellite telecommunications companies of the 90s, like Teledesic and Globalstar. Both these companies collapsed after Iridium filed for bankruptcy and demonstrated that there wasn’t a real market for satellite phones. It’s highly likely this new crop is carefully watching Iridium, just like the space industry did back in the 90s, to see whether its ambitious program will work. So far, everything has gone off without a hitch.

But 35 more satellites still need to be launched. And there is plenty of opportunity for error. The gamble is a big one, and so is the reward—being the first, and only, company to provide communications coverage to every inch of the globe.

“We’re the only company that’s ever launched this many satellites and we’re the only one still doing it today,” Desch told me. “But because of our success, we’ve inspired a whole new industry: This is the era of Low Earth Orbit satellite megaconstellations.”

Source: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/d34bmk/iridium-next-satellite-constellation-spacex-desch

Advertisements

Secure your Privacy – HERE’S WHY YOU SHOULD USE SIGNAL

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/ditch-all-those-other-messaging-apps-heres-why-you-should-use-signal/

STOP ME IF you’ve heard this before. You text a friend to finalize plans, anxiously awaiting their reply, only to get a message from them on Snapchat to say your latest story was hilarious. So, you move the conversation over to Snapchat, decide to meet up at 10:30, but then you close the app and can’t remember if you agreed on meeting at Hannegan’s or that poppin‘ new brewery downtown. You can’t go back and look at the message since Snapchat messages have a short shelf life, so you send a text, but your friend has already proven to be an unreliable texter. You’d be lucky if they got back to you by midnight.

All of this illustrates a plain truth. There are just too many messaging apps. As conversations can bounce between Snapchat, iMessage, Skype, Instagram, Twitter, and Hangouts/Allo or whatever Google’s latest attempt at messaging is, they’re rendered confusing and unsearchable. We could stick to SMS, but it’s pretty limited compared to other options, and it has some security holes. Rather than just chugging along with a dozen chat apps, letting your notifications pile up, it’s time to pick one messaging app and get all of your friends on board. That way, everyone can just pick up their phones and shoot a message to anyone without hesitation.

Here comes the easy part. There’s one messaging app we should all be using: Signal. It has strong encryption, it’s free, it works on every mobile platform, and the developers are committed to keeping it simple and fast by not mucking up the experience with ads, web-tracking, stickers, or animated poop emoji.

Tales From the Crypto

Signal looks and works a lot like other basic messaging apps, so it’s easy to get started. It’s especially convenient if you have friends and family overseas because, like iMessage and WhatsApp, Signal lets you sidestep expensive international SMS fees. It also supports voice and video calls, so you can cut out Skype and FaceTime. Sure, you don’t get fancy stickers or games like some of the competition, but you can still send pictures, videos, and documents. It’s available on iOS, Android, and desktop.

But plenty of apps have all that stuff. The thing that actually makes Signal superior is that it’s easy to ensure that the contents of every chat remain private and unable to be read by anyone else. As long as both parties are using the app to message each other, every single message sent with Signal is encrypted. Also, the encryption Signal uses is available under an open-source license, so experts have had the chance to test and poke the app to make sure it stays as secure as what’s intended.

If you’re super concerned about messages being read by the wrong eyes, Signal lets you force individual conversations to delete themselves after a designated amount of time. Signal’s security doesn’t stop at texts. All of your calls are encrypted, so nobody can listen in. Even if you have nothing to hide, it’s nice to know that your private life is kept, you know, private.

WhatAbout WhatsApp

Yes, this list of features sounds a lot like WhatsApp. It’s true, the Facebook-owned messaging app has over a billion users, offers most of the same features, and even employs Signal’s encryption to keep chats private. But WhatsApp raises a few concerns that Signal doesn’t. First, it’s owned by Facebook, a company whose primary interest is in collecting information about you to sell you ads. That alone may steer away those who feel Facebook already knows too much about us. Even though the content of your WhatsApp messages are encrypted, Facebook can still extract metadata from your habits, like who you’re talking to and how frequently.

Still, if you use WhatsApp, chances are you already know a lot of other people who are using it. Getting all of them to switch to Signal is highly unlikely. And you know, that’s OK—WhatsApp really is the next-best option to Signal. The encryption is just as strong, and while it isn’t as cleanly stripped of extraneous features as Signal, that massive user base makes it easy to reach almost anyone in your contact list.

Chat Heads

While we’re talking about Facebook, it’s worth noting that the company’s Messenger app isn’t the safest place to keep your conversations. Aside from all the clutter inside the app, the two biggest issues with Facebook Messenger are that you have to encrypt conversations individually by flipping on the „Secret Conversations“ option (good luck remembering to do that), and that anyone with a Facebook profile can just search for your name and send you a message. (Yikes!) There are too many variables in the app, and a lot the security is out of your hands. iMessage may seem like a solid remedy to all of these woes, but it’s tucked behind Apple’s walled iOS garden, so you’re bound to leave out your closest friends who use Android devices. And if you ever switch platforms, say bye-bye to your chat history.

Signal isn’t going to win a lot of fans among those who’ve grown used to the more novel features inside their chat apps. There are no stickers, and no animoji. Still, as privacy issues come to the fore in the minds of users, and as mobile messaging options proliferate, and as notifications pile up, everyone will be searching for a path to sanity. It’s easy to invite people to Signal. Once you’re using it, just tap the „invite“ button inside the chat window, and your friend will be sent a link to download the app. Even stubborn people who only send texts can get into it—Signal can be set as your phone’s default SMS client, so the pain involved in the switch is minimal.

So let’s make a pact right now. Let’s all switch to Signal, keep our messages private, and finally put an end to the untenable multi-app shuffle that’s gone on far too long.

Alibaba and Amazon hit India

Source: https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21730539-e-commerce-giants-are-trying-export-their-success-alibaba-and-amazon-look-go-global

IN SEPTEMBER 2014 Jeff Bezos announced his first big investment in India, hopping aboard a colourful bus in Bangalore. It was the start of a rapid $5bn investment in India, part of Mr Bezos’s plans to take Amazon global. Two months later Alibaba’s Jack Ma appeared in Delhi. “We will invest more in India,” he declared. The following year Alibaba put $500m into Paytm, an Indian digital-payments company. This year it led a fundraising round for Paytm’s e-commerce arm. The two giants seem set for an epic clash in India.

But in their home markets they have so far stayed out of each other’s way. Amazon has only a tiny business in China. Alibaba’s strategy in the United States has been to help American businesses sell in China and vice versa. “People always ask me, when will you go to the US?” says Alibaba’s CEO, Mr Zhang. “And I say, why the US? Amazon did a fantastic job.” The two firms have mostly invested in different foreign markets: Alibaba across South-East Asia and Amazon across Europe. But much of the rest of the world is still up for grabs.

The biggest tussles will probably be over growing economies and cross-border commerce. Alibaba aspires to serve 2bn customers around the world within 20 years—a benevolent empire that supports businesses. In some cases it has begun with digital payments, as in India with Paytm. In others it has invested in e-commerce sites, as with Lazada, in South-East Asia. But it intends to build a broad range of services within each market, including payments, e-commerce and travel services, and then link local platforms with Alibaba’s in China.

Mr Ma wants to enable small firms to operate just as nimbly as big ones on the global stage. Alibaba helps Chinese companies sell in places such as Brazil and Russia, and assists foreign firms with marketing, logistics and customs in China. Eventually it hopes to use its technology to link logistics networks around the world so that any product can reach any buyer anywhere within 72 hours. That is still a long way off, but it gives a glimpse of the company’s staggering ambition.

Amazon already earns more than one-third of its revenue from e-commerce outside North America. Germany is its second-biggest market, followed by Japan and Britain. This year it bought Souq, an e-commerce firm in the Middle East. Its criteria for expansion elsewhere include the size of the population and the economy and the density of internet use, says Russ Grandinetti, head of Amazon’s international business. India has been one of its main testing grounds.

Amazon, like Alibaba, also wants to help suppliers in any country to sell their products abroad. An Amazon shopper in Mexico, for instance, can buy goods from America. Mr Grandinetti sees such cross-border sales as an increasingly important component of Amazon’s value to consumers and sellers alike.

Yet both companies run the risk that strategies which did well in their home countries may not succeed elsewhere. In China, for instance, the popularity of e-commerce relied on a number of special factors. China’s manufacturers often found themselves with excess supplies of clothes and shoes; Alibaba provided a place to sell them. Alipay thrived because few consumers had credit cards. China has also benefited from having cheap labour and lots of big cities—more than 100 of them with over 1m people—creating a density of demand that made it worthwhile for logistics firms to build distribution networks.

As they expand, however, Amazon’s and Alibaba’s business models may shift and, in some markets, start to converge. So far the companies have differed in important ways. Amazon owns inventory and warehouses; Alibaba does not. But Alibaba has a broader reach than Amazon, particularly with Ant Financial’s giant payments business. As Amazon grows, it may become more like Alibaba. In India, for instance, regulations prevent it from owning inventory directly. And Amazon recently won a licence from the Reserve Bank of India for a digital wallet. Alibaba, for its part, may become more like Amazon. As the Chinese firm set its sights on South-East Asia, it invested in SingPost, Singapore’s state postal system. In September it became the majority owner in Cainiao, a Chinese logistics network, and said it plans to spend $15bn on logistics in the next five years.

Their advances may be slowed by other rivals. Smaller firms can flourish in niches. Flipkart, whose backers include Naspers and SoftBank, is competing fiercely with Amazon in India; the two companies routinely bicker over which has the bigger market share. Yoox Net-a-Porter, an online luxury-goods seller, is also expanding around the world.

Among the questions facing the two giants are whether other technology firms will pour more money into e-commerce, and what partnerships might emerge. Tencent’s WeChat Pay is already challenging Alipay in China. About one-third of WeChat’s users in China shop on that platform. Tencent is trying to recruit shops to accept its payment app in other countries, too, and recently took a stake in Flipkart. In deploying its services abroad, Tencent might get a helping hand from Naspers. The South African company owns about one-third of Tencent and has backed e-commerce firms around the world. Facebook is now muscling in on this business by making it easier for its users to buy goods through its messaging service as well as its other platforms, WhatsApp and Instagram.

The A-list still stands

For now, however, Amazon and Alibaba remain each other’s most formidable international rivals. Success in e-commerce requires scale, which needs lots of capital. Local e-commerce firms in India have come under pressure from investors to boost profitability. Amazon has no problems on that score. As Amit Agarwal, head of Amazon India, puts it: “We will invest whatever it takes to make sure we provide a great customer experience.”

Big firms also have a natural advantage as they expand, because technologies developed for one market can be introduced across many. “It’s like a Lego set,” says Lazada’s chief executive, Maximilian Bittner. He can use pieces of Alibaba’s model, such as algorithms for product recommendations, to improve Lazada’s operations. Amazon’s investments in machine learning have myriad applications anywhere in the world.

That does not mean that Amazon and Alibaba will dominate every country around the world, nor that they will crush every competitor. Bob Van Dijk, chief executive of Naspers, maintains there is room for many operators: “I don’t believe in absolute hegemony.” But given the two giants’ ambitions and the benefits of scale, they are bound to become more powerful and compete directly in more places. That has implications for all sorts of industries, but particularly the retail sector.

Harvards View on Types of Project Managers

Read harvard business review here: https://hbr.org/2017/07/the-4-types-of-project-manager

Few issues garner more attention among top executives than how best to grow their organizations. However, few executives work systematically with the types of employees they need to realize various growth opportunities. Your organization’s growth opportunities fall into four different categories, and in order to develop your business in a commercially sustainable manner, you need four specific types of project manager to pursue them. These types emerged from our ongoing work of understanding how different business development projects can drive strategic renewal in organizations, and the matrix below has helped in capturing potential misalignments between employees and projects.

The employee types and the growth opportunities that they are best at pursuing can be positioned along two dimensions: (1) Is the growth opportunity in line with our existing strategy? (2) Can a reliable business case be made? These two questions create a matrix that distinguishes the four different kinds of project leaders, each of which is optimally suited for a different type of project.

Will every organization need all four types of employees to sustainably develop and grow their organizations? We argue that even the most stable and conservative industries may be threatened by disruption — and the most dynamic and hypercompetitive industries also entail incremental growth opportunities that can be quantified and realistically assessed. Consequently, there is often a job for all four types of employees in most organizations, although the optimal dose of each can differ. At the very least, executives need to be aware of the variety of growth opportunities that they may be losing out on by leaning heavily on a single type of project manager.

The Four Types

The four types pursue different growth opportunities and follow different communicative logics to gain support within the organization (see the table below). In other words, you need them all because they see and support different types of growth opportunities. In that respect, they complement each other. This does not necessarily mean that you need an equal number of each, as most organizations must predominantly rely on executors to ensure the alignment and feasibility needed to maintain profits in the short term. However, you will need a few prophetsgamblers, and experts to be able to identify and pursue growth opportunities at the periphery that can help you renew your organization beyond the chosen path. In the following, we further explain the characteristics of each of the different types.

Prophet. This type of project manager actively pursues business opportunities that lie outside the existing strategic boundaries in an area where it is extremely difficult to obtain trustworthy data concerning the likelihood of success. Hence, the prophet seeks to gain organizational followers for a grand vision of a growth opportunity that is strategically different from the status quo — and without trustworthy quantitative evidence, consequently relying on organizational members making a leap of faith in support of the vision. Obviously, running such projects is risky, as it is likely that the growth opportunities will not materialize, and therefore that the employee may be a “false prophet.” Be that as it may, a prophet is needed to challenge the existing strategy and to pursue overlooked growth opportunities.

A constructive use of this employee type is found at Google, which has a unit called X (formerly Google X), which is a self-proclaimed moonshot factory. Employees in this unit seek to solve big problems using breakthrough technologies and radical solutions. Hence, the projects in X tend to be outside Google’s current domain and strategic focus. In such projects, it is typically impossible to realistically assess the likelihood of success before they are tried out.

Gambler. This type of project manager actively pursues business opportunities that lie within the existing strategic boundaries but have no good business case attached, as trustworthy data concerning the likelihood of success is lacking. Hence, the gambler seeks to gain organizational followers for a big bet on a growth opportunity that is consistent with the current strategy but without trustworthy quantitative evidence. In other words, gamblers play by the rules of the game as they pursue growth opportunities within the existing strategy, but they cannot predict the likelihood of success. Consequently, the gambler seeks to engage other organizational members who also like bets. This can obviously be viewed as an uncertain path, as there is some likelihood that the growth opportunities are not feasible and that they may therefore result in significant losses. However, gamblers are necessary, as they can update the existing strategy by pursuing analytically overlooked growth opportunities.

This type of project champion is documented in a study by Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, which shows that MTV’s first digitally integrated and interactive program, Top Selection, was initially tried under the radar before the project’s backers had sufficient proof of concept to get managerial approval to continue. This project was driven by gamblers, as they stayed inside the existing strategic boundaries but were unable to document the likelihood of success before the idea had been tested.

Expert. This type of project manager actively pursues business opportunities that lie outside the existing strategic boundaries but for which trustworthy data builds a solid business case. Hence, experts wish to gain organizational followers for a change in action in favor of a growth opportunity that is inconsistent with the current strategy but is supported by solid, trustworthy quantitative evidence. Consequently, experts rely on organizational members actually listening to their advice. Although the growth opportunities are well supported and should therefore be feasible, the main challenge is to make organizational members aware of the need for strategic change and of the urgent need to act in this regard. The expert is needed to challenge the existing strategy by pursuing well-supported growth opportunities that lie outside the organization’s current strategy.

Experts in action are seen in the well-known story of Intel’s transition from memory chips to microprocessors, where key employees within the organization tried to persuade Intel’s management of the value of the opportunity for some time. It took the executive team several years of internal soul-searching before they were ready to make the organizational transition. In this case, the growth opportunity was outside the existing strategy, but it was possible to document the commercial potential and the likelihood of success with some certainty.

Executor. This project manager actively pursues business opportunities that lie within the existing strategic boundaries and have great cases. The executor gains organizational followers for a sure-thing growth opportunity that is consistent with the current strategy and is backed by trustworthy quantitative evidence. In other words, there is no risk, no uncertainty, and no challenge — just a need for execution. Consequently, executors rely on organizational members to follow their rigorous analyses of a strategically embraced project. This can be viewed as the most certain path to success, as the growth opportunity is well documented and aligned with the existing strategy. However, the executor can only point to a limited number of growth opportunities that are low-hanging fruit — the executor cannot provide insights into the more radical and unknown business opportunities. Many who bear the formal title of business developer systematically analyze, prepare, and support growth opportunities that lie within the strategic boundaries and for which it is possible to realistically assess the likelihood of success.

For instance, DuPont has a systematic approach for assessing and implementing growth opportunities. It entails a phased and systematic handling of new opportunities within a disciplined framework built on best practices, providing standardized guidance throughout the process from initial concept to subsequent commercialization. A comprehensive business case is essential to initiate the process — and as the approach involves key work streams and “blocks of work” that the core team must plan and execute in an effective manner, it is particularly suitable for executors.

How Do They Interact?

The various types of project managers may struggle in their interactions with each other. For instance, a prophet may see an executor as overly bureaucratic and rigid, while an executor may view a prophet as unrealistic and disorganized. Consequently, conflict tends to loom among the different types.

What typically happens is that the logic of one of the types becomes dominant throughout the organization. The fact that a single logic pervades the organization at the expense of the others may mean that key employees of a different type leave the organization and take their ideas with them. Moreover, relying on a single type of logic may lead to organizational inertia, which is dangerous in dynamic and evolving markets. You need to ensure enough room for all of the logics within the organization, ideally by introducing boundary-spanning individuals who can navigate among these logics. In this regard, it is beneficial if top management adopts a “bridging” role to allow for coexistence and diversity.

As an executive, you can similarly seek to stimulate a fruitful understanding and interaction among the different types of employees. For instance, having identified the different types within your organization, you can set up a workshop where one type meets and discusses with their alter ego (that is, executors talk to prophets, and gamblers talk to experts). This interaction can help clarify differences in opinions, routines and values — which may help create a greater mutual understanding and respect among the different employee types.

Do Executives Contribute to the Problem?

Executives partly contribute to unsuccessful projects and unrealized growth opportunities when they don’t think through who should be assigned to which projects. Prophets, gamblers, experts, and executors each have their own strengths and weaknesses that are optimally suited to fit certain project types. Therefore, no type is inherently better or rarer than the others.

Executives contribute to organizational failure when they misalign projects and project managers, but this fact is often hidden in the ruins of a failed project. There may be a tendency to see prophets and gamblers featuring on prominent magazine covers or taking newspaper headlines if they succeed with their high-profile projects. For this reason, executives tend to assume that prophets and gamblers are the best. In such cases, executives may be likely to promote good executors to run a prophet-type project, as senior management may think that the executor is finally ready for this big opportunity (with potentially disastrous results). Or executives may assume that they should tap prophets to run a project that really needs a great executor — which may lead to managerial befuddlement when the prophet doesn’t succeed. Instead of assuming that certain types are better than others, executives need to be aware of, value, and give appropriate room to all four types — and match them with the right projects.

The bottom line is that the diversity of styles offers a competitive advantage in terms of business development, and all four types are necessary pieces of your organizational constellation, even though the optimal dose of each may differ. As an executive, it is crucial that you:

  • Make sure you have each type within your organization
  • Make room for each type to work in their own manner
  • Make sense of their respective ideas, by following their respective logics
  • Make time for matching projects and project managers correctly

Meeting the various types where they are, and paying attention to their diverse ways of thinking, will help you obtain the needed diversity among your employees to develop your business. Moreover, this resonates with comprehensive findings that emphasize that the hallmark of great managers is that they discover and capitalize on the unique strengths of individual employees.

Growth and business development are top priorities in most C-suites across the globe, but too few executives focus on maintaining a wide range of people to ensure the identification of novel opportunities. Therefore, executives who want to develop their businesses need to first develop the right amount of staff diversity to drive a diverse portfolio of growth opportunities. Only when diverse people are on board can an organization drive commercially sustainable growth.


Carsten Lund Pedersen is Postdoc at the Department of Strategic Management and Globalization at Copenhagen Business School, where he researches in project-based strategy, employee autonomy and matching employee types with business development projects.


Thomas Ritter is a Professor of Market Strategy and Business Development at the Department of Strategic Management and Globalization at Copenhagen Business School, where he researches business model innovation, market strategies, and market management.

 

 

 

 

 

two giants of AI team up to prevent the robot apocalypse

THERE’S NOTHING NEW about worrying that superintelligent machines may endanger humanity, but the idea has lately become hard to avoid.

A spurt of progress in artificial intelligence as well as comments by figures such as Bill Gates—who declared himself “in the camp that is concerned about superintelligence”—have given new traction to nightmare scenarios featuring supersmart software. Now two leading centers in the current AI boom are trying to bring discussion about the dangers of smart machines down to Earth. Google’s DeepMind, the unit behind the company’s artificial Go champion, and OpenAI, the nonprofit lab funded in part by Tesla’s Elon Musk, have teamed up to make practical progress on a problem they argue has attracted too many headlines and too few practical ideas: How do you make smart software that doesn’t go rogue?

“If you’re worried about bad things happening, the best thing we can do is study the relatively mundane things that go wrong in AI systems today,” says Dario Amodei, a curly-haired researcher on OpenAI’s small team working on AI safety. „That seems less scary and a lot saner than kind of saying, ‘You know, there’s this problem that we might have in 50 years.’” OpenAI and DeepMind contributed to a position paper last summer calling for more concrete workon near-term safety challenges in AI.

A new paper from the two organizations on a machine learning system that uses pointers from humans to learn a new task, rather than figuring out its own—potentially unpredictable—approach, follows through on that. Amodei says the project shows it’s possible to do practical work right now on making machine learning systems less able to produce nasty surprises. (The project could be seen as Musk’s money going roughly where his mouth has already been; in a 2014 appearance at MIT, he described work on AI as “summoning the demon.”)

None of DeepMind’s researchers were available to comment, but spokesperson Jonathan Fildes wrote in an email that the company hopes the continuing collaboration will inspire others to work on making machine learning less likely to misbehave. “In the area of AI safety, we need to establish best practices that are adopted across as many organizations as possible,” he wrote.

The first problem OpenAI and DeepMind took on is that software powered by so-called reinforcement learning doesn’t always do what its masters want it to do—and sometimes kind of cheats. The technique, which is hot in AI right now, has software figure out a task by experimenting with different actions and sticking with those that maximize a virtual reward or score, meted out by a piece of code that works like a mathematical motivator. It was instrumental to the victory of DeepMind’s AlphaGo over human champions at the board game Go, and is showing promise in making robots better at manipulating objects.

But crafting the mathematical motivator, or reward function, such that the system will do the right thing is not easy. For complex tasks with many steps, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult—imagine trying to mathematically define a scoring system for tidying up your bedroom—and even for seemingly simple ones results can be surprising. When OpenAI set a reinforcement learning agent to play boat racing game CoastRunners, for example, it surprised its creators by figuring out a way to score points by driving in circles rather than completing the course.

DeepMind and OpenAI’s solution is to have reinforcement learning software take feedback from human trainers instead, and use their input to define its virtual reward system. They hired contractors to give feedback to AI agents via an interface that repeatedly asks which of two short video clips of the AI agent at work is closest to the desired behavior.

This simple simulated robot, called a Hopper, learned to do a backflip after receiving 900 of those virtual thumbs-up verdicts from the AI trainers while it tried different movements. With thousands of bits of feedback, a version of the system learned to play Atari games such as Pong and got to be better than a human player at the driving game Enduro. Right now this approach requires too much human supervision to be very practical at eliciting complex tasks, but Amodei says results already hint at how this could be a powerful way to make AI systems more aligned with what humans want of them.

It took less than an hour of humans giving feedback to get Hopper to land that backflip, compared to the two hours it took an OpenAI researcher to craft a reward function that ultimately produced a much less elegant flip. “It looks super awkward and kind of twitchy,” says Amodei. “The backflip we trained from human feedback is better because what’s a good backflip is kind of an aesthetic human judgment.” You can see how complex tasks such as cleaning your home might also be easier to specify correctly with a dash of human feedback than with code alone.

 

Making AI systems that can soak up goals and motivations from humans has emerged as a major theme in the expanding project of making machines that are both safe and smart. For example, researchers affiliated with UC Berkeley’s Center for Human-Compatible AI are experimenting with getting robots such as autonomous cars or home assistants to take advice or physical guidance from people. “Objectives shouldn’t be a thing you just write down for a robot; they should actually come from people in a collaborative process,” says Anca Dragan, coleader of the center.

She hopes the idea can catch on in the industry beyond DeepMind and OpenAI’s explorations, and says companies already run into problems that might be prevented by infusing some human judgement into AI systems. In 2015, Google hurriedly tweaked its photo recognition service after it tagged photos of black people as gorillas.

Longer term, Amodei says, spending the next few years working on making existing, modestly smart machine learning systems more aligned with human goals could also lay the groundwork for our potential future face-off with superintelligence. “When, someday, we do face very powerful AI systems, we can really be experts in how to make them interact with humans,” he says. If it happens, perhaps the first superintelligent machine to open its electronic eyes will gaze at us with empathy.

Original Source from: https://www.wired.com/story/two-giants-of-ai-team-up-to-head-off-the-robot-apocalypse/

Take Down Request by the Spiegel Germany Online

Dear Spiegel Online (www.spiegel.de)

Never before in the existence of this personal blog (since 2011 – the day Steve Jobs died) have we received an article take down request where a correctly quoted article that we posted was requested to be taken down AND a website wanted money for the max. 1-2 hours that we had the article online.

Our vision: We create Innovation, enable exchange and try to give the best ideas to the world by always correctly quoting them.

By following take down requests immediately (yesterday it took us 10 minutes between their email at 14.47 and us having it taken down fully at 14.57) we comply with the internet rule-set of respecting other wishes fully. As a consequence we have never encountered any troubles with anyone and we would like to keep that this way.

Since June 19th 2017. Then it happenend: German Online Newspaper The Spiegel, head of law department Jan Siegel, requested the take down of the cooperational column written by internet activist Sascha Lobo that we thought would fit perfectly to the innovational approach on our website. We are not sure if we can post the link to the article but as a reference here it goes:

http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/netzpolitik/homepod-alexa-und-co-bevormundung-durch-kuenstliche-intelligenz-kolumne-a-1151017.html

We are deeply sorry that we cannot feature Sascha Lobo anymore, although he states on his website that his texts can be used under the Creative Commons Licence when correctly quoted by naming him as author and with the URL provided and most importantly unchanged. That’s what we did and now “The Spiegel” tries to money punish us with this?

So the authors rights are diminished by the newspapers rights?
Does anybody understand German author rights?
The author explicitly states on his website  http://saschalobo.com/impressum/ „Die Texte (mit Ausnahme der Kommentare durch Dritte) stehen sämtlich unter der Creative Commons-Lizenz (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 DE).“
In our understanding this means that you can use the text under the Creative Commons Licence for free when being private like here at dieidee.eu. So that the newspaper later cannot deny this and cannot punish you with money requests for literally a handful article impressions?

We hope to be able to resolve this matter in a friendly and respectful way with the Spiegel as we state here clearly no harm done, no harm will be done in the future, and please state clearly on your website which author (or internet activist as with Sascha Lobo) allows the usage of his texts on any internet website.

Your thankfully
dieidee.eu

Macron, May, Merkel – weakening encryption and making messengers (whatsapp) vulnerable leads to data security catastrophes

In weakening strong encryption by weakening software like Android or IOS operating System (subroutines, inlays, essentials) in order to enable mass surveillance you the leaders of Europe risk the data security of thousands of Europe companies. Is it worth it?

Even Microsoft is now warning that the government practice of “stockpiling” software vulnerabilities so that they can be used as weapons is a misguided tactic that weakens security for everybody.

“An equivalent scenario with conventional weapons would be the U.S. military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen,” the company said Sunday.

Why are you doing this? Hopefully not for the need to give information in order to receive from the USA?

epa05989737 French President Emmanuel Macron (L) talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) as US President Donald J. Trump (C) walks by, during a line up for the group photo at the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, 25 May 2017. NATO countries‘ heads of states and governments gather in Brussels for a one-day meeting. EPA/ARMANDO BABANI

You saw and recognised and understood WannaCry that affected thousands of companies throuout Europe?

The vulnerability in Windows that WannaCry takes advantage of was discovered by the NSA for its surveillance toolkit. But word got out when a hacker group known as the Shadow Brokers dumped a bunch of leaked NSA information onto the Internet in April. Microsoft, however, had already issued a software update the month before; those that downloaded and installed the patch were protected from WannaCry, but many others lagged behind and became victims.