Bet money on yourself with Proveit, the 1-vs-1 trivia app

Pick a category, wager a few dollars and double your money in 60 seconds if you’re smarter and faster than your opponent. Proveit offers a fresh take on trivia and game show apps by letting you win or lose cash on quick 10-question, multiple choice quizzes. Sick of waiting to battle a million people on HQ for a chance at a fraction of the jackpot? Play one-on-one anytime you want or enter into scheduled tournaments with $1,000 or more in prize money, while Proveit takes around 10 percent to 15 percent of the stakes.

“I’d play Jeopardy all the time with my family and wondered ‘why can’t I do this for money?’ ” says co-founder Prem Thomas.

Remarkably, it’s all legal. The Proveit team spent two years getting approved as “skill-based gaming” that exempts it from some laws that have hindered fantasy sports betting apps. And for those at risk of addiction, Proveit offers players and their loved ones a way to cut them off.

The scrappy Florida-based startup has raised $2.3 million so far. With fun games and a snackable format, Proveit lets you enjoy the thrill of betting at a moment’s notice. That could make it a favorite amongst players and investors in a world of mobile games without consequences.

“I could spend $50 for a three-hour experience in a movie theater, or I could spend $2 to enter a Proveit Movies tournament that gives me the opportunity to compete for several thousand dollars in prize money,” says co-founder Nathan Lehoux. “That could pay for a lot of movies tickets!”

Proving it as outsiders

St. Petersburg, Fla. isn’t exactly known as an innovation hub. But outside Tampa Bay, far from the distractions, copycatting and astronomical rent of Silicon Valley, the founders of Proveit built something different. “What if people could play trivia for money just like fantasy sports?” Thomas asked his friend Lehoux.

That’s the same pitch that got me interested when Lehoux tracked me down at TechCrunch’s SXSW party earlier this year. Lehoux is a jolly, outgoing fella who became interested in startups while managing some angel investments for a family office. Thomas had worked in banking and health before starting a yoga-inspired sandals brand. Neither had computer science backgrounds, and they’d raised just a $300,000 seed round from childhood friend Hilt Tatum who’d co-founded beleaguered real money gambling site Absolute Poker.

Yet when he Lehoux thrust the Proveit app into my hand, even on a clogged mobile network at SXSW, it ran smoothly and I immediately felt the adrenaline rush of matching wits for money. They’d initially outsourced development to an NYC firm that burned much of their initial $300,000 seed funding without delivering. Luckily, the Ukrainian they’d hired to help review that shop’s code helped them spin up a whole team there that built an impressive v1 of Proveit.

Meanwhile, the founders worked with a gaming lawyer to secure approvals in 33 states including California, New York, and Texas. “This is a highly regulated and highly controversial space due to all the negative press that fantasy sports drummed up,” says Lehoux. “We talked to 100 banks and processors before finding one who’d work with us.”

Proveit founders (from left): Nathan Lehoux, Prem Thomas

Proveit was finally legal for the three-fourths of the U.S. population, and had a regulatory moat to deter competitors. To raise launch capital, the duo tapped their Florida connections to find John Morgan, a high-profile lawyer and medical marijuana advocate, who footed a $2 million angel round. A team of grad students in Tampa Bay was assembled to concoct the trivia questions, while a third-party AI company assists with weeding out fraud.

Proveit launched early this year, but beyond a SXSW promotion, it has stayed under the radar as it tinkers with tournaments and retention tactics. The app has now reached 80,000 registered users, 6,000 multi-deposit hardcore loyalists and has paid out $750,000 total. But watching HQ trivia climb to more than 1 million players per game has proven a bigger market for Proveit.

Quiz for cash

“We’re actually fans of HQ. We play. We think they’ve revolutionized the game show,” Lehoux tells me. “What we want to do is provide something very different. With HQ, you can’t pick your category. You can’t pick the time you want to play. We want to offer a much more customized experience.”

To play Proveit, you download its iOS-only app and fund your account with a buy-in of $20 to $100, earning more bonus cash with bigger packages (no minors allowed). Then you play a practice round to get the hang of it — something HQ sorely lacks. Once you’re ready, you pick from a list of game categories, each with a fixed wager of about $1 to $5 to play (choose your own bet is in the works). You can test your knowledge of superheroes, the ’90s, quotes, current events, rock ‘n roll, Seinfeld, tech and a rotating selection of other topics.

In each Proveit game you get 10 questions, 1 at a time, with up to 15 seconds to answer each. Most games are head-to-head, with options to be matched with a stranger, or a friend via phone contacts. You score more for quick answers, discouraging cheating via Google, and get penalized for errors. At the end, your score is tallied up and compared to your opponent, with the winner keeping both player’s wagers minus Proveit’s cut. In a minute or so, you could lose $3 or win $5.28. Afterwards you can demand a rematch, go double-or-nothing, head back to the category list or cash out if you have more than $20.

The speed element creates intense, white-knuckled urgency. You can get every question right and still lose if your opponent is faster. So instead of second-guessing until locking in your choice just before the buzzer like on HQ, where one error knocks you out, you race to convert your instincts into answers on Proveit. The near instant gratification of a win or humiliation of a defeat nudge you to play again rather than having to wait for tomorrow’s game.

Proveit will have to compete with free apps like Trivia Crack, prize games like student loan repayer Givling and virtual currency-based Fleetwit, and the juggernaut HQ.

“The large tournaments are the big draw,” Lehoux believes. Instead of playing one-on-one, you can register and ante up for a scheduled tournament where you compete in a single round against hundreds of players for a grand prize. Right now, the players with the top 20 percent of scores win at least their entry fee back or more, with a few geniuses collecting the cash of the rest of the losers.

Just like how DraftKings and FanDuel built their user base with big jackpot tournaments, Proveit hopes to do the same… then get people playing little one-on-one games in-between as they wait for their coffee or commute home from work.

Gaming or gambling?

Thankfully, Proveit understands just how addictive it can be. The startup offers a “self-exclusion” option. “If you feel that you need to take greater control of your life as it relates to skill-gaming,” users can email it to say they shouldn’t play any more, and it will freeze or close their account. Family members and others can also request you be frozen if you share a bank account, they’re your dependant, they’re obligated for your debts or you owe unpaid child support.

“We want Proveit to be a fun, intelligent entertainment option for our players. It’s impossible for us to know who might have an issue with real-money gaming,” Lehoux tells me. “Every responsible real-money game provides this type of option for its users.

That isn’t necessarily enough to thwart addiction, because dopamine can turn people into dopes. Just because the outcome is determined by your answers rather than someone else’s touchdown pass doesn’t change that.

Skill-based betting from home could be much more ripe for abuse than having to drag yourself to a casino, while giving people an excuse that they’re not gambling on chance. Zynga’s titles like Farmville have been turning people into micro-transaction zombies for a decade, and you can’t even win money from them. Simultaneously, sharks could study up on a category and let Proveit’s random matching deliver them willing rookies to strip cash from all day. “This is actually one of the few forms of entertainment that rewards players financially for using their brain,” Lehoux defends.

With so much content to consume and consequence-free games to play, there’s an edgy appeal to the danger of Proveit and apps like it. Its moral stance hinges on how much autonomy you think adults should be afforded. From Coca-Cola to Harley-Davidson to Caesar’s Palace, society has allowed businesses to profit off questionably safe products that some enjoy.

For better and worse, Proveit is one of the most exciting mobile games I’ve ever played.

Google rolls out Messages on the web for Android users

Messages, Google’s more recent focus for its scattered messaging efforts following its decision to “pause” work on Allo, is now available for web users. The company announced that it would begin rolling out Messages for web starting today, with the full rollout completing over the next week. The feature, along with others including GIF search, smart replies, and more, is part of an updated messaging experience for Android users that aims to be Google’s response to iMessage.

The company earlier this year moved its Allo team to work on Android Messages, Google’s app that utilizes the RCS messaging standard. The standard, adopted by numerous mobile operators worldwide, offers more feature parity with iMessage, thanks to its support for things like read receipts, typing indicators, high-res photo sharing, better group chat, and other features.

Now, Messages is gaining another feature to better compete with iMessage: web support.

Today, Apple users can access iMessage conversations on their Mac using a dedicated app. Google’s Messages for web is similar in the sense that it also offers cross-platform access to messages – that is, it lets Android users view and respond to chats when they’re not on their phone.

However, the implementation of Messages for web is more like WhatsApp for the desktop, right down to how you scan a code on the Message website to sync things up with your phone.

Google says Messages for web will support sending stickers, emoji and image attachments, as well as text, at launch.

The company also announced a few other features that will come to the Messages app over the next week, including built-in GIF search; Smart Replies, which suggest English language text responses and emoji for now; preview web links in conversations; and the ability to copy one-time passwords with a tap.

This last feature is also similar to a new addition coming to iMessage in iOS 12. When you’re logging into a site or app that requires a one-time password sent over text message, iOS 12 will let you paste that into the necessary field with one tap. Google’s system looks like it requires two taps – both the copy and the paste functions – but it’s still a lot easier than before.

To try out the new features, Android users will need to be on the latest version of the Messages app from Google Play.

Prisma co-founders raise $1M to build a social app called Capture

Two of the co-founders of the art filter app Prisma have left to build a new social app.

Prisma, as you may recall, had a viral moment back in 2016 when selfie takers went crazy for the fine art spin the app’s AI put on photos — in just a few seconds of processing.

Downloads leapt, art selfies flooded Instagram, and similar arty effects soon found their way into all sorts of rival apps and platforms. Then, after dipping a toe into social waters with the launch of a feed of its own, the company shifted focus to b2b developer tools — and we understand it’s since become profitable.

But two of Prisma’s co-founders, Aleksey Moiseyenkov and Aram Hardy, got itchy feet when they had an idea for another app business. And they’ve both now left to set up a new startup, called Capture Technologies.

The plan is to launch the app — which will be called Capture — in Q4, with a beta planned for September or October, according to Hardy (who’s taking the CMO role).

They’ve also raised a $1M seed for Capture, led by US VC firm General Catalyst . Also investing are KPCB, Social Capital, Dream Machine VC (the seed fund of former TechCrunch co-editor, Alexia Bonatsos), Paul Heydon, and Russian Internet giant, Mail.Ru Group.

Josh Elman from Greylock Partners is also involved as an advisor.

Hardy says they had the luxury of being able to choose their seed investors, after getting a warmer reception for Capture than they’d perhaps expected — thinking it might be tough to raise funding for a new social app given how that very crowded space has also been monopolized by a handful of major platforms… (hi Facebook, hey Snap!)

But they also believe they’ve identified overlooked territory — where they can offer something fresh to help people interact with others in real-time.

They’re not disclosing further details about the idea or how the Capture app will work at this stage, as they’re busy building and Hardy says certain elements could change and evolve before launch day.

What they will say is that the app will involve AI, and will put the emphasis for social interactions squarely on the smartphone camera.

Speed will also be a vital ingredient, as it was with Prisma — literally fueling the app’s virality. “We see a huge move to everything which is happening right now, which is really real-time,” Hardy tells TechCrunch. “Even when we started Prisma there were lots of similar products which were just processing one photo for five, ten, 15 minutes, and people were not using it because it takes time.

“People want everything right now. Right here. So this is a trend which is taking place right now. People just want everything right now, right here. So we’re trying to give it to them.”

“Our team’s mission is to bring an absolutely new and unique experience to how people interact with each other. We would like to come up with something unique and really fresh,” adds Moiseyenkov, Capture’s CEO (pictured above left, with Hardy).

“We see a huge potential in new social apps despite the fact that there are too many huge players.”

Having heard the full Capture pitch from Hardy I can say it certainly seems like an intriguing idea. Though how exactly they go about selectively introducing the concept will be key to building the momentum needed to power their big vision for the app. But really that’s true of any social product.

Their idea has also hooked a strong line up of seed investors, doubtless helped by the pair’s prior success with Prisma. (If there’s one thing investors love more than a timely, interesting idea, it’s a team with pedigree — and these two certainly have that.)

“I’m happy to have such an amazing and experienced team,” adds Moiseyenkov, repaying the compliment to Capture’s investors.

“Your first investors are your team. You have to ask lots of questions like you do when you decide whether this or that person is a perfect fit for your team. Because investors and the team are those people with whom you’re going to build a great product. At the same time, investors ask lots of questions to you.”

Capture’s investors were evidently pleased enough with the answers their questions elicited to cut Capture its founding checks. And the startup’s team is already ten-strong — and hard at work to get a beta launched in fall.

The business is based in the US and Europe, with one office in Moscow, where Hardy says they’ve managed to poach some relevant tech talent from Russian social media giant vk.com; and another slated to be opening in a couple of weeks time, on Snap’s home turf of LA. 

“We’ll be their neighbors in Venice beach,” he confirms, though he stresses there will still be clear blue water between the two companies’ respective social apps, adding: “Snapchat is really a different product.”

Google’s Datally app adds more ways to limit mobile data usage

In November, Google introduced Datally, a data-saving app largely aimed at emerging markets where users often rely on prepaid SIM cards, and don’t have access to all-you-can-eat unlimited data plans. The app lets users granularly control which apps can use data, which resulted in a 30% savings on data usage during pilot testing and now saves users 21%, on average. Today, Google is giving Datally an upgrade with several new features that will help users cut data usage even further.

One key feature is the introduction of daily limits, which allow you to control your data usage on a per-day basis. This one is more about creating better habits around data consumption, so you don’t accidentally burn through too much data in a day, then end up without any data left before the month ends.

This also ties into to Google’s larger push to give users more insights into their own behavior when using mobile devices, and more tools to combat the addictive nature of smartphones.

The company in May announced new time management features for Android users, as well as new features to help users silence their phones and wind down at bedtime. It also has software for parents to limit screen time for their children.

While the Datally feature is primarily about conserving data, it acknowledges that it’s often easy to get sucked into your smartphone and lose track of how much time – and then, consequently, how much mobile data – you want to spend.

Another new Datally feature lets you enable a guest mode where you control how much data someone borrowing your phone can use – helpful in those situations where phones are shared among family members.

The “Unused Apps” feature, meanwhile, highlights those apps you’ve stopped using but could still be leaking data. Google notes that, for many people, 20 percent of mobile data is from apps using data in the background that haven’t been opened for over a month. Unused Apps will find those culprits so you can uninstall them, it says.

And finally, a new Wi-Fi Map shows all the nearby Wi-Fi networks so you can find those with a good signal and stop using your mobile data.

Though Datally is aimed at helping the “Next Billion Users” come online, it’s not limited to emerging markets. Anyone concerned with data usage can give it a shot.

The new additions are rolling out to Datally today, says Google.

The Android app, which has been downloaded over 10 million times, is free on Google Play.

FOX Sports: FIFA World Cup™ – FOX Sports Interactive

FOX Sports Interactive - FOX Sports: FIFA World Cup™ artwork FOX Sports: FIFA World Cup™
FOX Sports Interactive
Genre: SportsEntertainment
Release Date: 2008-11-24

First look at Instagram’s self-policing Time Well Spent tool

Are you Overgramming? Instagram is stepping up to help you manage overuse rather than leaving it to iOS and Android’s new screen time dashboards. Last month after TechCrunch first reported Instagram was prototyping a Usage Insights feature, the Facebook sub-company’s CEO Kevin System confirmed its forthcoming launch.

Tweeting our article, Systrom wrote “It’s true . . . We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional . . . Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.”

Now we have our first look at the tool via Jane Manchun Wong, who’s recently become one of TechCrunch’s favorite sources thanks to her skills at digging new features out of apps’ Android APK code. Though Usage Insights might change before an official launch, these screenshots give us an idea of what Instagram will include. Instagram declined to comment, saying it didn’t have any more to share about the feature at this time.

This unlaunched version of Instagram’s Usage Insights tool offers users a daily tally of their minutes spent on the app. They’ll be able to set a time spent daily limit, and get a reminder once they exceed that. There’s also a shortcut to manage Instagram’s notifications so the app is less interruptive. Instagram has been spotted testing a new hamburger button that opens a slide-out navigation menu on the profile. That might be where the link for Usage Insights shows up, judging by this screenshot.

Instagram doesn’t appear to be going so far as to lock you out of the app after your limit, or fading it to grayscale which might annoy advertisers and businesses. But offering a handy way to monitor your usage that isn’t buried in your operating system’s settings could make users more mindful.

Instagram has an opportunity to be a role model here, especially if it gives its Usage Insights feature sharper teeth. For example,  rather than a single notification when you hit your daily limit, it could remind you every 15 minutes after, or create some persistent visual flag so you know you’ve broken your self-imposed rule.

Instagram has already started to push users towards healthier behavior with a “You’re all caught up” notice when you’ve seen everything in your feed and should stop scrolling.

I expect more apps to attempt to self-police with tools like these rather than leaving themselves at the mercy of iOS’s Screen Time and Android’s Digital Wellbeing features that offer more drastic ways to enforce your own good intentions.

Both let you see overall usage of your phone and stats about individual apps. iOS lets you easily dismiss alerts about hitting your daily limit in an app but delivers a weekly usage report (ironically via notification), while Android will gray out an app’s icon and force you to go to your settings to unlock an app once you exceed your limit.

For Android users especially, Instagram wants to avoid looking like such a time sink that you put one of those hard limits on your use. In that sense, self-policing shows both empathy for its users’ mental health, but is also a self-preservation strategy. With Instagram slated to launch a long-form video hub that could drive even longer session times this week, Usage Insights could be seen as either hypocritical or more necessary than ever.

New time management tools coming to iOS (left) and Android (right). Images via The VergeInstagram is one of the world’s most beloved apps, but also one of the most easily abused. From envy spiraling as you watch the highlights of your friends’ lives to body image issues propelled by its endless legions of models, there are plenty of ways to make yourself feel bad scrolling the Insta feed. And since there’s so little text, no links, and few calls for participation, it’s easy to zombie-browse in the passive way research shows is most dangerous.

We’re in a crisis of attention. Mobile app business models often rely on maximizing our time spent to maximize their ad or in-app purchase revenue. But carrying the bottomless temptation of the Internet in our pockets threatens to leave us distracted, less educated, and depressed. We’ve evolved to crave dopamine hits from blinking lights and novel information, but never had such an endless supply.

There’s value to connecting with friends by watching their days unfold through Instagram and other apps. But tech giants are thankfully starting to be held responsible for helping us balance that with living our own lives.

UK report warns DeepMind Health could gain ‘excessive monopoly power’

DeepMind’s foray into digital health services continues to raise concerns. The latest worries are voiced by a panel of external reviewers appointed by the Google-owned AI company to report on its operations after its initial data-sharing arrangements with the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) ran into a major public controversy in 2016.

The DeepMind Health Independent Reviewers’ 2018 report flags a series of risks and concerns, as they see it, including the potential for DeepMind Health to be able to “exert excessive monopoly power” as a result of the data access and streaming infrastructure that’s bundled with provision of the Streams app — and which, contractually, positions DeepMind as the access-controlling intermediary between the structured health data and any other third parties that might, in the future, want to offer their own digital assistance solutions to the Trust.

While the underlying FHIR (aka, fast healthcare interoperability resource) deployed by DeepMind for Streams uses an open API, the contract between the company and the Royal Free Trust funnels connections via DeepMind’s own servers, and prohibits connections to other FHIR servers. A commercial structure that seemingly works against the openness and interoperability DeepMind’s co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has claimed to support.

There are many examples in the IT arena where companies lock their customers into systems that are difficult to change or replace. Such arrangements are not in the interests of the public. And we do not want to see DeepMind Health putting itself in a position where clients, such as hospitals, find themselves forced to stay with DeepMind Health even if it is no longer financially or clinically sensible to do so; we want DeepMind Health to compete on quality and price, not by entrenching legacy position,” the reviewers write.

Though they point to DeepMind’s “stated commitment to interoperability of systems,” and “their adoption of the FHIR open API” as positive indications, writing: “This means that there is potential for many other SMEs to become involved, creating a diverse and innovative marketplace which works to the benefit of consumers, innovation and the economy.”

“We also note DeepMind Health’s intention to implement many of the features of Streams as modules which could be easily swapped, meaning that they will have to rely on being the best to stay in business,” they add. 

However, stated intentions and future potentials are clearly not the same as on-the-ground reality. And, as it stands, a technically interoperable app-delivery infrastructure is being encumbered by prohibitive clauses in a commercial contract — and by a lack of regulatory pushback against such behavior.

The reviewers also raise concerns about an ongoing lack of clarity around DeepMind Health’s business model — writing: “Given the current environment, and with no clarity about DeepMind Health’s business model, people are likely to suspect that there must be an undisclosed profit motive or a hidden agenda. We do not believe this to be the case, but would urge DeepMind Health to be transparent about their business model, and their ability to stick to that without being overridden by Alphabet. For once an idea of hidden agendas is fixed in people’s mind, it is hard to shift, no matter how much a company is motivated by the public good.”

We have had detailed conversations about DeepMind Health’s evolving thoughts in this area, and are aware that some of these questions have not yet been finalised. However, we would urge DeepMind Health to set out publicly what they are proposing,” they add. 

DeepMind has suggested it wants to build healthcare AIs that are capable of charging by results. But Streams does not involve any AI. The service is also being provided to NHS Trusts for free, at least for the first five years — raising the question of how exactly the Google-owned company intends to recoup its investment.

Google of course monetizes a large suite of free-at-the-point-of-use consumer products — such as the Android mobile operating system; its cloud email service Gmail; and the YouTube video sharing platform, to name three — by harvesting people’s personal data and using that information to inform its ad targeting platforms.

Hence the reviewers’ recommendation for DeepMind to set out its thinking on its business model to avoid its intentions vis-a-vis people’s medical data being viewed with suspicion.

The company’s historical modus operandi also underlines the potential monopoly risks if DeepMind is allowed to carve out a dominant platform position in digital healthcare provision — given how effectively its parent has been able to turn a free-for-OEMs mobile OS (Android) into global smartphone market OS dominance, for example.

So, while DeepMind only has a handful of contracts with NHS Trusts for the Streams app and delivery infrastructure at this stage, the reviewers’ concerns over the risk of the company gaining “excessive monopoly power” do not seem overblown.

They are also worried about DeepMind’s ongoing vagueness about how exactly it works with its parent Alphabet, and what data could ever be transferred to the ad giant — an inevitably queasy combination when stacked against DeepMind’s handling of people’s medical records.

“To what extent can DeepMind Health insulate itself against Alphabet instructing them in the future to do something which it has promised not to do today? Or, if DeepMind Health’s current management were to leave DeepMind Health, how much could a new CEO alter what has been agreed today?” they write.

“We appreciate that DeepMind Health would continue to be bound by the legal and regulatory framework, but much of our attention is on the steps that DeepMind Health have taken to take a more ethical stance than the law requires; could this all be ended? We encourage DeepMind Health to look at ways of entrenching its separation from Alphabet and DeepMind more robustly, so that it can have enduring force to the commitments it makes.”

Responding to the report’s publication on its website, DeepMind writes that it’s “developing our longer-term business model and roadmap.”

“Rather than charging for the early stages of our work, our first priority has been to prove that our technologies can help improve patient care and reduce costs. We believe that our business model should flow from the positive impact we create, and will continue to explore outcomes-based elements so that costs are at least in part related to the benefits we deliver,” it continues.

So it has nothing to say to defuse the reviewers’ concerns about making its intentions for monetizing health data plain — beyond deploying a few choice PR soundbites.

On its links with Alphabet, DeepMind also has little to say, writing only that: “We will explore further ways to ensure there is clarity about the binding legal frameworks that govern all our NHS partnerships.”

“Trusts remain in full control of the data at all times,” it adds. “We are legally and contractually bound to only using patient data under the instructions of our partners. We will continue to make our legal agreements with Trusts publicly available to allow scrutiny of this important point.”

“There is nothing in our legal agreements with our partners that prevents them from working with any other data processor, should they wish to seek the services of another provider,” it also claims in response to additional questions we put to it.

We hope that Streams can help unlock the next wave of innovation in the NHS. The infrastructure that powers Streams is built on state-of-the-art open and interoperable standards, known as FHIR. The FHIR standard is supported in the UK by NHS Digital, NHS England and the INTEROPen group. This should allow our partner trusts to work more easily with other developers, helping them bring many more new innovations to the clinical frontlines,” it adds in additional comments to us.

“Under our contractual agreements with relevant partner trusts, we have committed to building FHIR API infrastructure within the five year terms of the agreements.”

Asked about the progress it’s made on a technical audit infrastructure for verifying access to health data, which it announced last year, it reiterated the wording on its blog, saying: “We will remain vigilant about setting the highest possible standards of information governance. At the beginning of this year, we appointed a full time Information Governance Manager to oversee our use of data in all areas of our work. We are also continuing to build our Verifiable Data Audit and other tools to clearly show how we’re using data.”

So developments on that front look as slow as we expected.

The Google-owned U.K. AI company began its push into digital healthcare services in 2015, quietly signing an information-sharing arrangement with a London-based NHS Trust that gave it access to around 1.6 million people’s medical records for developing an alerts app for a condition called Acute Kidney Injury.

It also inked an MoU with the Trust where the pair set out their ambition to apply AI to NHS data sets. (They even went so far as to get ethical signs-off for an AI project — but have consistently claimed the Royal Free data was not fed to any AIs.)

However, the data-sharing collaboration ran into trouble in May 2016 when the scope of patient data being shared by the Royal Free with DeepMind was revealed (via investigative journalism, rather than by disclosures from the Trust or DeepMind).

None of the ~1.6 million people whose non-anonymized medical records had been passed to the Google-owned company had been informed or asked for their consent. And questions were raised about the legal basis for the data-sharing arrangement.

Last summer the U.K.’s privacy regulator concluded an investigation of the project — finding that the Royal Free NHS Trust had broken data protection rules during the app’s development.

Yet despite ethical questions and regulatory disquiet about the legality of the data sharing, the Streams project steamrollered on. And the Royal Free Trust went on to implement the app for use by clinicians in its hospitals, while DeepMind has also signed several additional contracts to deploy Streams to other NHS Trusts.

More recently, the law firm Linklaters completed an audit of the Royal Free Streams project, after being commissioned by the Trust as part of its settlement with the ICO. Though this audit only examined the current functioning of Streams. (There has been no historical audit of the lawfulness of people’s medical records being shared during the build and test phase of the project.)

Linklaters did recommend the Royal Free terminates its wider MoU with DeepMind — and the Trust has confirmed to us that it will be following the firm’s advice.

“The audit recommends we terminate the historic memorandum of understanding with DeepMind which was signed in January 2016. The MOU is no longer relevant to the partnership and we are in the process of terminating it,” a Royal Free spokesperson told us.

So DeepMind, probably the world’s most famous AI company, is in the curious position of being involved in providing digital healthcare services to U.K. hospitals that don’t actually involve any AI at all. (Though it does have some ongoing AI research projects with NHS Trusts too.)

In mid 2016, at the height of the Royal Free DeepMind data scandal — and in a bid to foster greater public trust — the company appointed the panel of external reviewers who have now produced their second report looking at how the division is operating.

And it’s fair to say that much has happened in the tech industry since the panel was appointed to further undermine public trust in tech platforms and algorithmic promises — including the ICO’s finding that the initial data-sharing arrangement between the Royal Free and DeepMind broke U.K. privacy laws.

The eight members of the panel for the 2018 report are: Martin Bromiley OBE; Elisabeth Buggins CBE; Eileen Burbidge MBE; Richard Horton; Dr. Julian Huppert; Professor Donal O’Donoghue; Matthew Taylor; and Professor Sir John Tooke.

In their latest report the external reviewers warn that the public’s view of tech giants has “shifted substantially” versus where it was even a year ago — asserting that “issues of privacy in a digital age are if anything, of greater concern.”

At the same time politicians are also gazing rather more critically on the works and social impacts of tech giants.

Although the U.K. government has also been keen to position itself as a supporter of AI, providing public funds for the sector and, in its Industrial Strategy white paper, identifying AI and data as one of four so-called “Grand Challenges” where it believes the U.K. can “lead the world for years to come” — including specifically name-checking DeepMind as one of a handful of leading-edge homegrown AI businesses for the country to be proud of.

Still, questions over how to manage and regulate public sector data and AI deployments — especially in highly sensitive areas such as healthcare — remain to be clearly addressed by the government.

Meanwhile, the encroaching ingress of digital technologies into the healthcare space — even when the techs don’t even involve any AI — are already presenting major challenges by putting pressure on existing information governance rules and structures, and raising the specter of monopolistic risk.

Asked whether it offers any guidance to NHS Trusts around digital assistance for clinicians, including specifically whether it requires multiple options be offered by different providers, the NHS’ digital services provider, NHS Digital, referred our question on to the Department of Health (DoH), saying it’s a matter of health policy.

The DoH in turn referred the question to NHS England, the executive non-departmental body which commissions contracts and sets priorities and directions for the health service in England.

And at the time of writing, we’re still waiting for a response from the steering body.

Ultimately it looks like it will be up to the health service to put in place a clear and robust structure for AI and digital decision services that fosters competition by design by baking in a requirement for Trusts to support multiple independent options when procuring apps and services.

Without that important check and balance, the risk is that platform dynamics will quickly dominate and control the emergent digital health assistance space — just as big tech has dominated consumer tech.

But publicly funded healthcare decisions and data sets should not simply be handed to the single market-dominating entity that’s willing and able to burn the most resource to own the space.

Nor should government stand by and do nothing when there’s a clear risk that a vital area of digital innovation is at risk of being closed down by a tech giant muscling in and positioning itself as a gatekeeper before others have had a chance to show what their ideas are made of, and before even a market has had the chance to form. 

Voodoo - The Fish Master! artwork The Fish Master!
Voodoo
Genre: Games
Release Date: 2018-06-16