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Building great digital customer experiences with agile infrastructure

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Building great digital customer experiences with agile infrastructure


So then if I extend that. Two years ago, we launched DevCloud, UBS DevCloud, which is effectively an open ecosystem built on public cloud, where all our software engineers can have a seamless experience going from dev, to test, to deploy solutions while they’re running. That accelerates time to market, it decreased cost as well, which obviously impacts clients. With DevCloud, we can also constantly improve our apps, so they will never be 10 years old, but instead they will continue to be relevant.

Now, the biggest benefit as well of moving to the cloud is that things that used to take, say, five days, now only take one, which helps boost our engineers’ productivity and makes it a great place to work. We have an expression here we use quite a lot, which is, “All engineers, all developers wait at the same speed.” So, anything we can do to reduce their waiting time is value added. If we have the best engineering talent, if we have the best platforms, we can create the best experience for our clients, in terms of how they engage and interact with us.

Laurel: You mentioned cloud computing, and to create a more definitive timeline here, in late 2018 UBS announced a plan to make the firm more effective and efficient through cloud computing. Then as of February 2021, it was well ahead of that schedule, with 50% of computing happening on private and public cloud. So obviously, a huge transition, if you’re talking, just in 2016, about mainframes, but what has that shift to the cloud allowed the company to do?

Mike: The strategy we set at the end of 2018 was to move, within four-ish years, towards a cloud setup that was a third, a third, a third. So, a third hosted on private cloud, a third public cloud, and a third on mainframe. And we wanted super clear objectives, to try and transition and transform the organization, and how we then progress and what that means. We are ahead of schedule of what we want to do. I also would say our progress in cloud prepared us for the unpredictable, and we’ve seen that through COVID, we’ve seen it through surge volumes, which happened in high vol, due to some of the situations in the world. We need greater capacity in dealing with high trading volumes, and with cloud, you have burst elasticity, because you can burst out for extra capacity. At the same time, we were always able to ensure that business-critical applications are stable, and actually, our availability is above 99.999%. So, the five nines of availability, and that really places us among the leaders in the financial industry.

Also, because we had our cloud-based employees set up, which we call A3, anytime, anywhere, from any device, which is now workspace, we enabled 95% of our employees to work from home. So, we saw more than 60,000 users logged in simultaneously, a huge increase in use of comms tools, so 3 million Skype calls a week. Cloud ultimately makes us more flexible, more stable, more transparent, I think our facilitation with other ecosystems is much easier. All this is great for our clients. It is something I keep repeating, even the piece that seems not client-related means that we can respond faster to their needs and actually maintain security.

Laurel: Part of this initiative across the company to think more strategically about those tech investments, UBS recently joined the Green Software Foundation as a steering member, in part to support the company’s push also for net zero greenhouse gas emissions across all of its operations by 2050. So how does joining the Green Software Foundation affect the choices you make when building and deploying software?

Mike: Yeah, I mean, at a strategic level, UBS is absolutely committed to sustainability, and I think as an individual, but also as a GEB member, it’s a priority overall. We have thousands of applications running across our global business, and I think one of our big steps in our evolution is not just accelerating our digital transformation, but how do we do it in the right way? So how do we use those greener development principles as a huge part, an integral part, of our approach going forward?

We’ve made advances in reducing our carbon emission, and that can be moving from on-prem data centers to the cloud, or reducing, or actually removing idle, power-hungry resources. Now, we’re also looking more and more at whether we can use carbon aware applications and then users can take options with the lowest emission. The Green Software Foundation is a really cool group, partnering with them to share the best practice and knowledge with other members is part of that journey to continue cutting carbon emissions. I think we, with others, can really lead the way here.

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The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China

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The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China


Fashion creator Jenni Svoboda is designing a beanie with a melted cupcake top, sprinkles, and doughnuts for ears. But this outlandish accessory isn’t destined for the physical world—Svoboda is designing for the metaverse. She’s working in a burgeoning, if bizarre, new niche: fashion stylists who create or curate outfits for people in virtual spaces.

Metaverse stylists are increasingly sought-after as frequent users seek help dressing their avatars—often in experimental, wildly creative looks that defy personal expectations, societal standards, and sometimes even physics. 

Stylists like Svoboda are among those shaping the metaverse fashion industry, which is already generating hundreds of millions of dollars. But while, to the casual observer, it can seem outlandish and even obscene to spend so much money on virtual clothes, there are deeper, more personal, reasons why people are hiring professionals to curate their virtual outfits. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Making sense of the changes to China’s zero-covid policy

On December 1, 2019, the first known covid-19 patient started showing symptoms in Wuhan. Three years later, China is the last country in the world holding on to strict pandemic control restrictions. However, after days of intense protests that shocked the world, it looks as if things could finally change.

Beijing has just announced wide-ranging relaxations of its zero covid policy, including allowing people to quarantine at home instead of in special facilities for the first time.

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Uber’s facial recognition is locking Indian drivers out of their accounts 

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Uber checks that a driver’s face matches what the company has on file through a program called “Real-Time ID Check.” It was rolled out in the US in 2016, in India in 2017, and then in other markets. “This prevents fraud and protects drivers’ accounts from being compromised. It also protects riders by building another layer of accountability into the app to ensure the right person is behind the wheel,” Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, said in a statement in 2017.

But the company’s driver verification procedures are far from seamless. Adnan Taqi, an Uber driver in Mumbai, ran into trouble with it when the app prompted him to take a selfie around dusk. He was locked out for 48 hours, a big dent in his work schedule—he says he drives 18 hours straight, sometimes as much as 24 hours, to be able to make a living. Days later, he took a selfie that locked him out of his account again, this time for a whole week. That time, Taqi suspects, it came down to hair: “I hadn’t shaved for a few days and my hair had also grown out a bit,” he says. 

More than a dozen drivers interviewed for this story detailed instances of having to find better lighting to avoid being locked out of their Uber accounts. “Whenever Uber asks for a selfie in the evenings or at night, I’ve had to pull over and go under a streetlight to click a clear picture—otherwise there are chances of getting rejected,” said Santosh Kumar, an Uber driver from Hyderabad. 

Others have struggled with scratches on their cameras and low-budget smartphones. The problem isn’t unique to Uber. Drivers with Ola, which is backed by SoftBank, face similar issues. 

Some of these struggles can be explained by natural limitations in face recognition technology. The software starts by converting your face into a set of points, explains Jernej Kavka, an independent technology consultant with access to Microsoft’s Face API, which is what Uber uses to power Real-Time ID Check. 

Adnan Taqi holds up his phone in the driver’s seat of his car. Variations in lighting and facial hair have likely caused him to lose access to the app.

SELVAPRAKASH LAKSHMANAN

“With excessive facial hair, the points change and it may not recognize where the chin is,” Kavka says. The same thing happens when there is low lighting or the phone’s camera doesn’t have a good contrast. “This makes it difficult for the computer to detect edges,” he explains.

But the software may be especially brittle in India. In December 2021, tech policy researchers Smriti Parsheera (a fellow with the CyberBRICS project) and Gaurav Jain (an economist with the International Finance Corporation) posted a preprint paper that audited four commercial facial processing tools—Amazon’s Rekognition, Microsoft Azure’s Face, Face++, and FaceX—for their performance on Indian faces. When the software was applied to a database of 32,184 election candidates, Microsoft’s Face failed to even detect the presence of a face in more than 1,000 images, throwing an error rate of more than 3%—the worst among the four. 

It could be that the Uber app is failing drivers because its software was not trained on a diverse range of Indian faces, Parsheera says. But she says there may be other issues at play as well. “There could be a number of other contributing factors like lighting, angle, effects of aging, etc.,” she explained in writing. “But the lack of transparency surrounding the use of such systems makes it hard to provide a more concrete explanation.” 

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones


One evening in February last year, a 23-year-old Uber driver named Niradi Srikanth was getting ready to start another shift, ferrying passengers around the south Indian city of Hyderabad. He pointed the phone at his face to take a selfie to verify his identity. The process usually worked seamlessly. But this time he was unable to log in.

Srikanth suspected it was because he had recently shaved his head. After further attempts to log in were rejected, Uber informed him that his account had been blocked. He is not alone. In a survey conducted by MIT Technology Review of 150 Uber drivers in the country, almost half had been either temporarily or permanently locked out of their accounts because of problems with their selfie.

Hundreds of thousands of India’s gig economy workers are at the mercy of facial recognition technology, with few legal, policy or regulatory protections. For workers like Srikanth, getting blocked from or kicked off a platform can have devastating consequences. Read the full story.

—Varsha Bansal

I met a police drone in VR—and hated it

Police departments across the world are embracing drones, deploying them for everything from surveillance and intelligence gathering to even chasing criminals. Yet none of them seem to be trying to find out how encounters with drones leave people feeling—or whether the technology will help or hinder policing work.

A team from University College London and the London School of Economics is filling in the gaps, studying how people react when meeting police drones in virtual reality, and whether they come away feeling more or less trusting of the police. 

MIT Technology Review’s Melissa Heikkilä came away from her encounter with a VR police drone feeling unnerved. If others feel the same way, the big question is whether these drones are effective tools for policing in the first place. Read the full story.

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter covering AI and its effects on society. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

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