Third-party cookies are like Cretaceous dinosaurs. They’re munching away on consumers’ data while asteroids lobbed by Google, Mozilla, Apple, and others are on the brink of obliterating the current marketing ecosystem.
Google is planning to phase out these online tracking tools by 2022. For its part, Apple plans to make its mobile device ID—known as identifier for advertisers, or IDFA—opt-in only: a move that will prevent cross-application tracking of site visitors. Their plans are only two examples of a far broader pivot toward consumer privacy that’s also been manifested in expansive pro-privacy laws such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act.
For better or worse, the internet has evolved to run on consumers’ data: the data that “third parties” such as advertisers and marketers collect so that retailers and other businesses can track website visitors, improve their customers’ experiences, target ads, and figure out what visitors check out on other websites as they move from site to site. Now that the tech giants have either banned these trackers outright or plan to banish them from their web browsers, how many businesses are ready for a “cookieless” future?
Preparing for the cookie-pocalypse
The answer, unfortunately, is not many. A recent Adobe survey found that only 37% of companies are “very prepared” for a world without third-party cookies. Many companies are taking a wait-and-see approach—an attitude that typically results in “last-minute, short-term fixes and workarounds,” according to Amit Ahuja, vice president for Experience Cloud product and strategy at Adobe.
But the impending phase-out of third-party cookies doesn’t have to entail panicked flailing. Rather, a future without the trackers holds opportunity for businesses that learn how to ride the change, keeping experiences at the personalized level customers have come to expect, even without the use of third-party data. The time to strike is now, Ahuja says: “The fact that 63% of organizations are not prepared for a cookieless world points to a tremendous opportunity in moving to first-party data strategies now to create long-term differentiation.”
You snooze, you lose. But before delving into the wake-up strategy, you may well ask, Why should I care?
Consumers are rightfully demanding transparency about how their data is collected and handled. Who can blame them? In recent years, organizations have suffered from massive data leaks that have led to billions of breached emails and passwords. That suffering is not without consequence. Consumers are putting the hurt on companies when they fumble data in this way. According to Gartner’s Brand Survey 2019, 81% of customers refuse to patronize a company that they don’t trust, and 89% expect to disengage from one that breaches their trust. “Consumers must have ultimate control over their data and how it’s being used by brands. This is crucial to earning consumer trust,” says Ahuja.
But consumers still expect a high degree of customization: customization that’s previously been enabled by data from third-party cookies. “As consumers, we all have a high expectation for personalization as we engage with brands,” Ahuja says. “Especially with everybody having moved so much of their interactions to digital over the past year, it’s now higher than it’s ever been.” Without third-party data, customer experience is going to suffer, as will companies.
That’s why they need to care—and to prepare, Ahuja says. The loss of third-party cookies will have an effect on companies’ ability to find new customers for their products or services, as well as retain and maximize the value of their existing customers.
A not-entirely cookieless future
What can you do about it? First, keep in mind that the traditional use cases for third-party cookies—for example, using data to personalize the customer experience—won’t disappear. Rather, they’ll evolve. Companies need to maximize the value of first-party data: the data collected from their own domains about customers. First-party data isn’t going away: it’s only the third-party cookies that are being phased out, as in, ones that don’t belong to the main domain opened on users’ browsers but are instead loaded by third-party servers, such as ad servers, on publishers’ websites. “Brands must now shift the focus to first-party data strategies to effectively personalize experiences across the customer journey,” says Ahuja.
Companies are still going to collect data and share or buy it from trusted partners. They need to ensure that consumer consent is honored, and the data is actionable—that is, that companies can act on the data, in real time, and at scale to deliver personalized experiences. And they need to continue to find new customers and maximize the value of existing ones. To do that, here’s a mantra to keep in mind: real time or bust.
Relevant personalization needs to happen instantly, Ahuja says. There can’t be a day of delay between when customers buy something and when they stop seeing ads. They also need to start receiving emails right away, not days after. “We consider it a requirement for a future-proof data strategy: to have a system that’s able to update customer profiles in real time, as new actions are taken across channels or as they’ve opted out or opted into different engagements, to be able to then activate those profiles with governance applied instantly for end point personalization,” Ahuja says.
Third-party cookie deprecation doesn’t have to be a cookie-pocalypse. It can instead be a catalyst: one that gives businesses an opportunity to take a step back and figure it all out, to ask themselves how they will improve their customer experiences. To make things even more interesting, businesses will have to handle the data while also ensuring that they’re honoring consumer privacy and complying with regional restrictions.
The asteroids are on their way. Now is the time to catalyze.
This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.
Climate tech is back—and this time, it can’t afford to fail
Boston Metal’s strategy is to try to make the transition as digestible as possible for steelmakers. “We won’t own and operate steel plants,” says Adam Rauwerdink, who heads business development at the company. Instead, it plans to license the technology for electrochemical units that are designed to be a simple drop-in replacement for blast furnaces; the liquid iron that flows out of the electrochemical cells can be handled just as if it were coming out of a blast furnace, with the same equipment.
Working with industrial investors including ArcelorMittal, says Rauwerdink, allows the startup to learn “how to integrate our technology into their plants—how to handle the raw materials coming in, the metal products coming out of our systems, and how to integrate downstream into their established processes.”
The startup’s headquarters in a business park about 15 miles outside Boston is far from any steel manufacturing, but these days it’s drawing frequent visitors from the industry. There, the startup’s pilot-scale electrochemical unit, the size of a large furnace, is intentionally designed to be familiar to those potential customers. If you ignore the hordes of electrical cables running in and out of it, and the boxes of electric equipment surrounding it, it’s easy to forget that the unit is not just another part of the standard steelmaking process. And that’s exactly what Boston Metal is hoping for.
The company expects to have an industrial-scale unit ready for use by 2025 or 2026. The deadline is key, because Boston Metal is counting on commitments that many large steelmakers have made to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Given that the life of an average blast furnace is around 20 years, that means having the technology ready to license before 2030, as steelmakers plan their long-term capital expenditures. But even now, says Rauwerdink, demand is growing for green steel, especially in Europe, where it’s selling for a few hundred dollars a metric ton more than the conventional product.
It’s that kind of blossoming market for clean technologies that many of today’s startups are depending on. The recent corporate commitments to decarbonize, and the IRA and other federal spending initiatives, are creating significant demand in markets “that previously didn’t exist,” says Michael Kearney, a partner at Engine Ventures.
One wild card, however, will be just how aggressively and faithfully corporations pursue ways to transform their core businesses and to meet their publicly stated goals. Funding a small pilot-scale project, says Kearney, “looks more like greenwashing if you have no intention of scaling those projects.” Watching which companies move from pilot plants to full-scale commercial facilities will tell you “who’s really serious,” he says. Putting aside the fears of greenwashing, Kearney says it’s essential to engage these large corporations in the transition to cleaner technologies.
Susan Schofer, a partner at the venture firm SOSV, has some advice for those VCs and startups reluctant to work with existing companies in traditionally heavily polluting industries: Get over it. “We need to partner with them. These incumbents have important knowledge that we all need to get in order to effect change. So there needs to be healthy respect on both sides,” she says. Too often, she says, there is “an attitude that we don’t want to do that because it’s helping an incumbent industry.” But the reality, she says, is that finding ways for such industries to save energy or use cleaner technologies “can make the biggest difference in the near term.”
It’s tempting to dismiss the history of cleantech 1.0. It was more than a decade ago, and there’s a new generation of startups and investors. Far more money is around today, along with a broader range of financing options. Surely we’re savvier these days.
Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone
“If you’re doing a specific application, like searching through email … do you really need these big models that are capable of anything? I would say no,” Luccioni says.
The energy consumption associated with using AI tools has been a missing piece in understanding their true carbon footprint, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI, who was not part of the study.
Comparing the carbon emissions from newer, larger generative models and older AI models is also important, Dodge adds. “It highlights this idea that the new wave of AI systems are much more carbon intensive than what we had even two or five years ago,” he says.
Google once estimated that an average online search used 0.3 watt-hours of electricity, equivalent to driving 0.0003 miles in a car. Today, that number is likely much higher, because Google has integrated generative AI models into its search, says Vijay Gadepally, a research scientist at the MIT Lincoln lab, who did not participate in the research.
Not only did the researchers find emissions for each task to be much higher than they expected, but they discovered that the day-to-day emissions associated with using AI far exceeded the emissions from training large models. Luccioni tested different versions of Hugging Face’s multilingual AI model BLOOM to see how many uses would be needed to overtake training costs. It took over 590 million uses to reach the carbon cost of training its biggest model. For very popular models, such as ChatGPT, it could take just a couple of weeks for such a model’s usage emissions to exceed its training emissions, Luccioni says.
This is because large AI models get trained just once, but then they can be used billions of times. According to some estimates, popular models such as ChatGPT have up to 10 million users a day, many of whom prompt the model more than once.
Studies like these make the energy consumption and emissions related to AI more tangible and help raise awareness that there is a carbon footprint associated with using AI, says Gadepally, adding, “I would love it if this became something that consumers started to ask about.”
Dodge says he hopes studies like this will help us to hold companies more accountable about their energy usage and emissions.
“The responsibility here lies with a company that is creating the models and is earning a profit off of them,” he says.
The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle
And really, what’s the point of such a hard-won triumph unless it’s to enforce your rights? “Honestly, this train has been coming down the track since at least 2014, if not earlier. We’re at the collision point. I struggle to imagine there’s going to be a diversion,” says Sherkow. “Brace for impact.”
The Broad Institute didn’t answer any of my questions, and a spokesperson for MIT didn’t even reply to my email. That’s not a surprise. Private universities can be exceedingly obtuse when it comes to acknowledging their commercial activities. They are supposed to be centers of free inquiry and humanitarian intentions, so if employees get rich from biotechnology—and they do—they try to do it discreetly.
There are also strong reasons not to sue. Suing could make a nonprofit like the Broad Institute look bad. Really bad. That’s because it could get in the way of cures.
“It seems unlikely and undesirable, [as] legal challenges at this late date would delay saving patients,” says George Church, a Harvard professor and one of the original scientific founders of Editas, though he’s no longer closely involved with the company.
If a patent infringement lawsuit does get filed, it will happen sometime after Vertex notifies regulators it’s starting to sell the treatment. “That’s the starting gun,” says Sherkow. “There are no hypothetical lawsuits in the patent system, so one must wait until it’s sufficiently clear that an act of infringement is about to occur.”
How much money is at stake? It remains unclear what the demand for the Vertex treatment will be, but it could eventually prove a blockbuster. There are about 20,000 people with severe sickle-cell in the US who might benefit. And assuming a price of $3 million (my educated guess), that’s a total potential market of around $60 billion. A patent holder could potentially demand 10% of the take, or more.
Vertex can certainly defend itself. It’s a big, rich company, and through its partnership with the Swiss firm CRISPR Therapeutics, a biotech co-founded by Charpentier, Vertex has access to the competing set of intellectual-property claims—including those of UC Berkeley, which (though bested by Broad in the US) hold force in Europe and could be used to throw up a thicket of counterarguments.
Vertex could also choose to pay royalties. To do that, it would have to approach Editas, the biotech cofounded by Zhang and Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which previously bought exclusive rights to the Broad patents on CRISPR in the arena of human treatments, including sickle-cell therapies.