The delivery apps reshaping life in India’s megacities
It’s also not clear what problem they are solving, says Singhal, as most kiranas already take orders via WhatsApp and deliver to customers’ doorstep. The only explanation, he says, is a global glut of capital groping around for investment opportunities in an era of low interest rates. “To me, this excitement is on account of this unshackled pressure of money, which is forcing these entrepreneurs to defy economic sense,” he says.
There are few signs the money taps will shut off soon, says Anand Ramanathan, a partner at Deloitte India. Investors have been throwing money at Indian startups for at least a decade, scrambling to get a foothold in a nation whose overall consumer markets could be worth $6 trillion by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum. “Do any of these models make money? Is it sustainable? They’re not even close,” he says. “It’s all just a customer acquisition game.”
India does have features that may make it a better fit for quick commerce than Western countries. Indians buy groceries more frequently than shoppers in the developed world, says Zepto’s Palicha, and its crowded cities make it possible to reach a large number of customers from a single dark store. “This model thrives on density,” he says.
There is evidence that in parts of India’s biggest cities, kiranas are starting to feel the pinch. In a residential neighborhood on the border of HSR Layout—an up-and-coming suburb in the south of Bangalore that has emerged as a major startup hub—shopkeepers were unanimous that online shopping was cutting into their profits. Ashraf Puncheehar says business at his shop has dropped by 20% in the last six months. “Day by day, new companies are coming online,” he says. “You can’t compete with them.”
Even if it’s unlikely that kiranas suffer a widespread die-off anytime soon, localized retrenchments are a possibility. That could lead to a process of what is known as “infrastructural exclusion,” says Aaron Shapiro, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the West, the shift from neighborhood stores to larger supermarkets saw companies abandon what they deemed “unviable markets” in poor areas, leading to “food deserts” where residents have limited access to healthy, affordable groceries. In India, the phenomenon could take on a unique flavor. Mohammed Ryaz, a regular customer at a kirana in Chamrajpet, says the shop was a lifeline to less tech-savvy customers during lockdowns. “These are not educated people—they don’t know how to place an order [online],” he says.
Another concern is the impact on delivery drivers. More than 80% of India’s economy is informal, meaning workers have no official employment contract and aren’t protected by employment laws. So for many Indians, gig work isn’t markedly different from their alternatives. But the unpredictability of wages due to sporadic work and incentive-based earnings still bothers many gig workers, says Aditi Surie, a sociologist at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS). “It actually leaves people feeling this inner sense of precarity,” she says. “You have no way of really calculating what is going to happen with your wages next month.”
A Dunzo delivery driver, who didn’t want to be named, said he doesn’t mind the work and regularly pulls 12-hour shifts. But it’s only really worth his time if he hits an incentive target of 21 orders a day, which boosts his wages by nearly 50%. “It is a waste if I don’t get any incentives,” he says. “All my efforts are gone in vain.” He typically hits the target eight to 10 days per month.
A helping hand
Why, if India already has a hyperlocal retail network perfectly tuned to the needs of every community, should anyone spend money building a new one? A host of “kirana tech” startups have decided there’s no need. Instead, they’re building tools to help the shops compete with the behemoths of modern retail. “We see the network of kirana stores in this country as a national infrastructure comparable to probably the power grids or the railroads,” says Prem Kumar, CEO of the digital technology company Snapbizz.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”