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Government Establishes Task Force to Promote AI Innovation

The Biden administration has formed the National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource Task Force with plans to “develop a roadmap to democratize access to research tools that will promote AI innovation and fuel economic prosperity.” The task force, composed of 12 academic, government and industrial members led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), will establish the National AI Research Resource (NAIRR). The task force is charged with drafting a strategy to create an AI research system about Americans and finding enough computing power to analyze the data. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that the data will include a range of information, “from demographics to health and driving habits.” Congress “mandated [the task force] in the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Act of 2020.”

“This is a moment that is calling us to be strengthening our speed and scale” regarding advances in AI technology, said NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “It is also calling us to make sure that innovation is everywhere.”

WSJ notes that, “there is a growing consensus in Washington and business that China, Russia, and other countries threaten to surpass the U.S. in the field of artificial intelligence in part because of their efforts to tap data.”

According to OSTP assistant director of AI Lynne Parker, who co-chairs the task force, it “would aim to give Congress a road map for creating a common research infrastructure the government could offer to outsiders.” She noted that, “to investigate a lot of their really great ideas in AI, they need access to powerful computing infrastructure and they need access to data.”

Access to data has been hobbled by its sensitive nature, such as the Transportation Department’s trove of data gathered from vehicle sensors. Officials pointed out, however, that “anonymous census, medical and other data could also potentially be made available for research by both private companies and academic institutions.”

ZDNet reports that, “the new task force is comprised of AI experts from the public sector, private sector and academia, including DefinedCrowd chief executive Daniela Braga, Google Cloud AI chief Andrew Moore and Stanford’s Fei-Fei Li.” Co-chairs are Parker and NSF senior advisor Erwin Gianchandani.

The task force will “provide guidance for technical capabilities, governance, administration and assessment, as well as requirements for security, privacy, civil rights and civil liberties … [and] present two reports to Congress in 2022.”

“In addition, in the coming weeks, an AI advisory committee — the National AI Advisory Committee — will be established,” notes the White House press release. “It will provide recommendations and advice on a wide array of AI topics, including on the implications of AI on the future of learning and workers; research and development; economic competitiveness; societal, ethical, legal, safety, and security matters; commercial application; and opportunities for international engagement.”

“A Federal Register notice will call for nominations of experts who will bring a broad range of perspectives in developing recommendations on these issues, including perspectives from labor, education, research, startup businesses and more.”

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Bridging the Digital Gap Through Technology Innovation (Campus Technology)

"Investors poured a record-breaking $2.2 billion in U.S. ed tech in 2020, appropriately coined the most disruptive year for the education industry. While there has been an uptick in investments, as well as the number of education technology tools available to serve learners and instructors, we're witnessing unsettling declines in college enrollment and persistence for underserved populations. "—Source: Campus Technology
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Netflix to Launch Online Shop for Show-Branded Merchandise

Streaming giant Netflix has plans to open an e-commerce shop to sell branded goods tied to its many popular shows. The effort is led by Netflix vice president of consumer products Josh Simon, who held a similar position at Nike. Thus far, Simon has grown his team to 60 people (from 20) and inked deals with Amazon, Sephora, Target and Walmart to sell beauty kits, clothes, toys and other products related to its series and films. The online store — which Simon dubs a “boutique” — was created with e-commerce tech company Shopify.

The New York Times reports that, initially, products will only be tied to a few shows, including “Lupin” (whose merchandise was designed and produced in collaboration with the Louvre museum), and two anime series, “Eden” and “Yasuke.” In the next few months, however, products tied to “Stranger Things,” and “Money Heist” will also appear in the store. Netflix has also leveraged the popularity of period romance “Bridgerton,” by working with clothing company Phenomenal to sell $59 sweatshirts.

Other tie-ins include Netflix rom-com film franchise “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which spun off an H&M clothing and accessories line and Sephora beauty kit, and animated hit “Over the Moon,” with its Mattel dolls and Walmart plush toy.

According to Simon, “ will allow the company to move faster to meet demand for items related to Netflix shows that trend on social media.” Referring to the “Bridgerton” sweatshirts, Simon noted that, “we did that pretty quickly … but I think we’re talking about a matter of days when we have our next unexpected hit.”

NYT notes that, “a desire for quick turnaround times played into the company’s decision to run its store through Shopify, whose technology supports an array of vendors including Allbirds, Kith, The New York Times and Kim Kardashian’s Skims.”

Shopify president Harley Finkelstein said his company is “battle-hardened around some of the largest flash sales on the planet.” Branded products are nothing new, but “tech companies are now getting into the act as they look for fresh revenue streams.” Google, for example, “recently announced plans to open a New York store.”

Licensing International reported that, “sales of licensed products tied to shows, films and characters were about $49 billion in the United States in 2019, and $128 billion globally.” Netflix, however, has no plans for a brick-and-mortar store.

Variety reports that, although Netflix has licensing deals “for hundreds of products based on its original programming,” Netflix Shop is its “first owned-and-operated retail outlet to sell products directly.” The online shop’s goal, it says, is “to try to create cachet for the company’s originals among superfans, with a secondary benefit of producing incremental revenue for the company.”

At launch, in addition to merchandise based on “Yasuke,” “Eden” and “Lupin,” Netflix will introduce “a collection of anime-inspired collectibles from three up-and-coming designers: Nathalie Nguyen, Kristopher Kites and Jordan Bentley.” The site will first be available in the U.S., said Simon, and then will expand to other countries.

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Amazon Advertising Rates, Revenues Jump Due to COVID-19

The surge in online shopping due to COVID-19 allowed e-commerce giant Amazon to raise its advertising rates in May 50+ percent from a year earlier. The leap, as reported by Marketplace Pulse, is more grist for lawmakers trying to require Amazon to pay higher taxes. Amazon is expected to reap about $578 billion this year, according to eMarketer. The increased competition is leading even big brands like Procter & Gamble and Clorox to spend “billion-dollar advertising budgets” on Amazon to fend off smaller rivals.

Bloomberg reports that, “the cost per click for Amazon search advertising was $1.16 in May, up from 75 cents a year earlier, according to Marketplace Pulse.” As a result, “the average advertising cost of each Amazon sale [has risen] to more than 30 percent of a product’s price, up from about 20 percent a year ago,” and, notes eMarketer, “Amazon’s advertising revenue in the U.S. alone will surpass $20 billion this year.”

“Prices will continue to rise over time,” said Marketplace Pulse founder and chief executive Juozas Kaziukenas. “Smaller brands trying to enter the market, it will be increasingly expensive to do it when they are up against established brands who are willing to pay to protect market share.”

Companies aggregating popular Amazon brands are also struggling, with “Thrasio, Perch and Branded hav[ing] announced debt and investor funding exceeding $2 billion to buy and expand Amazon brands, with advertising a key tool for growth.”

Elevate Brands founder and chief executive Ryan Gnesin said that, “by far, we’ve found that Amazon is the most effective and profitable way to drive traffic to our products.” However, Amazon’s higher rates have made Elevate a bit more selective.

With rising advertising rates, some Amazon merchants feel forced to raise prices. “We’re just more picky with our key words and we can’t be as aggressive,” said one such seller, Chuck Gregorich, who plans to raise his prices as much as 10 percent this year “to cover higher shipping and advertising costs.” But former Amazon merchant Jason Boyce noted that, “it’s becoming very expensive to sell products on Amazon.”

“The long-term risk is merchants bring their inventory to Walmart and Target where they can sell for lower prices,” he said.

CNBC reports that, “the major growth in Amazon’s advertising unit means its revenue contribution is now 2.4 times as large as Snap, Twitter, Roku and Pinterest combined, and it’s growing 1.7 times as quickly, according to Loop Capital.” Its “Other” unit, primarily advertising, “grew revenue a massive 77 percent year-over-year to more than $6.9 billion in the first quarter.”

Loop analysts wrote that, “performance ads on the e-commerce sites fueled by Amazon’s high-intent traffic and unparalleled user insights are providing significant value for sellers and brands.” Amazon also revealed that, “its ad-supported streaming video content now reaches more than 120 million users every month, driven by platforms such as Twitch.”

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