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Zoom fatigue is real and it’s costly

A viral pandemic swept the globe. More people started working from home. Everybody started using Zoom.

Wait, what? Why?

It turns out that using Zoom for all large meetings — or even medium-size meetings — is a terrible, horrible, counterproductive idea.

In theory, it’s great. Everybody can see and hear colleagues at once and you can have “face to face” meetings while everyone is working from their homes.

[ Related: Videoconferencing vendors meet demands with free versions ]

In practice, Zoom fatigue, combined with the amount of time all these Zoom meetings takes, is doing more harm than good.

Zoom fatigue — the feeling of being drained after Zoom meetings — is caused by a wide range of technological and psychological factors:

  • During video calls, latency varies, so conversations can be halting and awkward, causing crosstalk. Studies show that a delay makes others seems less friendly.
  • It may be stressful to see video of yourself while in a meeting.
  • The brain works overtime to make sense of video and audio that’s out of sync
  • Subconsciously, the brain perceives that everyone is looking at you. It’s like a meeting where everyone looks at you, even when other people are talking.
  • Video creates close to eye contact, but not actual eye contact, which can be anxiety-provoking.
  • Seeing many faces at once causes mental overload, because the brain devotes a huge amount of “processing power” to quickly recognize, read and watch a human face, and switching between dozens of faces for several hours a day is massively taxing on the brain.
  • Studies reveal that people focus less on content and more on whether they like a person, when they interact over video.
  • People tend to be less trusting and less understanding over video.
  • People feel pressure to keep eyes glued to the screen, instead of checking or writing notes and doing other natural things for processing information.

Zoom fatigue is real.

[ Related: 5 lessons companies should learn about working at home ]

Why are we doing this, anyway?

The number of daily Zoom users jumped from 10 million in December to over 300 million in April.

When most of this growth happened, Zoom was a slightly more specialized, slightly easier-to-use and significantly less secure platform for videoconferencing than alternatives, yet the herd mentality drove everyone to mindlessly use it.

I’ve been working “remotely” for 16 years, as have millions of people. Professionals who work in offices often meet every day with people who are not physically present. Large companies have multiple locations, and meetings between people in different locations is common. People meet with clients, partners, customers and service providors remotely all the time. This is nothing new. We have remote meetings for years without Zoom overuse and Zoom fatigue.

My working theory as to why we’re all using Zoom so much is this: People who don’t like remote work have been forced to do it, and they’re the ones driving Zoom usage.

Over time, the choice for who works in offices and who works remotely — who works at headquarters and who works in remote branch offices; who is accustomed to meeting with people in real life and who got used to meeting people remotely — is biased in favor of personality types.

In other words, in general and on average, the self-driven introspective introverts have pushed for remote or work-from-home status for themselves and largely got it. Many of us have sacrificed higher pay and status for the privilege to work from home or, as in my case, abroad and traveling.

The extroverts, the gut-feel leaders, the people who need to “read the room” in meetings and feel propelled by having co-workers around them have resisted remote work, and fought for the priveledge of working in the office and, if possible, at headquarters.

An equilibrium existed, where in general both office and remote workers were happy with their workplace status.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted this equilibrium, forcing the office work fans — including the bosses, managers, executives and leaders — to work remotely. They lunged at the thing that seemed like it could come closest to reproducing the benefits of working in an office — the face-to-face meetings, the non-verbal communication, the checking in on subordinates and all the rest.

Great in theory; counterproductive in practice.

OK, so what’s the alternative?

You can listen to podcasts for hours without fatigue or other problems, yet one hour on Zoom leaves you exhausted. Instead of Zoom, just do low-latency audio phone calls instead by default.

I think a good rule of thumb is to keep Zoom calls restricted to four people or fewer and 30 minutes or shorter. And even with four people, do email if you can, phone calls if you must and Zoom only if there’s some really good reason for it.

One problem with phone calls is that if you’re meeting with more than four people, it’s often not clear who’s talking. That’s why we need a way to have what are primarily voice calls where the speaker is identified.

One solution — which I think is a major part of the future of internet communication — is to embrace the avatar. An avatar is a fake version of you, which mimics your facial expressions and body language in real time, but is not a video of you. Avatars reduce latency, identify the speaker, simplify the visual information to process and remove the pressure of being on camera.

Another way to look at avatar-based “videoconferencing” is that it’s basically a conference call where the speaker is identified and the most basic non-verbal communication is conveyed. Also: You get to make eye contact with the avatar, which is less stressful.

A company called Loom.ai recently launched LoomieLive, which lets you create an avatar of yourself, which represents you in video conferences. It conveys your facial expressions in real time, but keeps looking at the “camera” while you get coffee and read your notes. LoomieLive works on Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Webex, and Microsoft Teams.

There’s also evidence that Apple may embrace avatars for video conferencing. Apple’s WWDC announcement advertises their June 22 virtual conference by showing three Memoji characters sitting in front of MacBook laptops. Memoji’s are the branded avatars that Apple users currently enjoy via Apple Messages.

Normally this would mean nothing. But Apple has a reputation for advertising conferences with cryptic but meaningful symbolism. It would be uncharacteristic of Apple to show Memoji in front of laptops unless they were set to announce support for some version of that scenario.

It seems reasonable to predict that Apple will announce the following:

  1. Face ID for laptops (which could control avatars)
  2. Memoji support on laptops; and — given the Zoom craze
  3. Multi-user meetings that support Memoji

Apple, which is known to be working on augmented reality glasses, has patents that enable 3D avatars to sit around a virtual conference table. People can meet and speak to each other’s avatars, all while making “eye contact.” They call it a bionic virtual meeting room.”

Even Facebook is getting into the act. Facebook is rolling out cartoonish avatars for US users to use in Messenger and in Stories. (They were previously available in the other English speaking countries and Europe.) I think it’s only a matter of time before they add these to group messaging video conferencing.

The big picture is that Zoom overuse isn’t working. Zoom fatigue is killing productivity. It’s a good idea to recognize this at your organization and lead the charge against Zoom overuse. While people are working remotely, favor email, phone calls or avatar-based video calls. Keep all meetings to a minimum.

Let’s all stop feeding the Zoom beast and get back to work.



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Patch Tuesday aftermath: The NSA Crypt32 threat is real, but not yet imminent

Get ready for your local news station’s weather reporter to start lecturing on the importance of installing Windows patches.

Yesterday we were treated to a remarkable Patch Tuesday. “Remarkable” specifically in the sense that the U.S. National Security Agency was moved to put out a press release (PDF):

NSA recommends installing all January 2020 Patch Tuesday patches as soon as possible to effectively mitigate the vulnerability on all Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016/2019 systems.

That’s a first. Until now, the NSA has never publicly acknowledged its contributions to Microsoft’s patching efforts — nor has it picked up the flogging whip in Microsoft’s patching drive. Security guru Brian Krebs attributes it to a change of heart at the NSA:

Sources say this disclosure from NSA is planned to be the first of many as part of a new initiative at NSA dubbed “Turn a New Leaf,” aimed at making more of the agency’s vulnerability research available to major software vendors and ultimately to the public.

Krebs has an excellent overview of the security hole, loaded with several mind-bending analogies. Get the tech details of the vulnerability in Kenneth White’s Microsoft’s Chain of Fools exposé. If you haven’t yet been inundated with half-fast explanations, rest assured that every news outlet in the world is in the process of trying to digest and regurgitate the complexities of CryptoAPI and Elliptic Curve Cryptography certs.

What does it all mean? If someone can crack the CVE-2020-0601 conundrum, they’ll be able to create programs that appear to come from a trusted source. That’s a scary possibility, but it’s a long way from a third-degree polynomial to working ransomware.

And, no, CVE-2020-0601 can’t be used to break into the Windows Update chain.

As of early Wednesday morning, at least one A-list hacker has put together a working “Proof of Concept” exploit. Casey Smith (@subTee) has a PoC, but it isn’t yet ready for widespread release. As Kevin Beaumont says, “It’s not practical at scale for a variety of reasons.”

So with everybody — the NSA, the ‘Softies, your weather forecaster, your hairdresser’s boyfriend’s precocious but smelly nine-year-old — recommending that you patch NOW, why wait?

Because there are problems with this month’s Win10 patches.

It always takes time for bugs to surface. This month’s no different. As of very early Wednesday morning, I’m seeing plenty of problem reports when installing the patches — the same problems we’ve had for many years. Whether any darker problems lie in lurk is anybody’s guess, and it’s still too early to tell.

For now, I’m recommending that you keep all of the Patch Tuesday patches at bay, until we’ve had a chance to see what other surprises await. That assessment may change quickly, so stay alert.

If you’re in charge of Server 2012, 2012 R2, 2016 and/or 2019 systems, there’s a much larger problem you should confront right now. Two of this month’s patched security holes, CVE-2020-0609 and CVE-2020-0610, reveal a security hole in the Windows Remote Desktop Gateway, RDgateway, that will let anybody into your system if they crawl in through port 443. As Patch Lady Susan Bradley puts it:

If you are a IT consultant or admin with an Essentials 2012 (or later) server, or use the RDgateway role and expose it over port 443 to allow users to gain access to RDweb or their desktops, forget that crypt32.dll bug. This one is one to worry about.

The January patches should be a top priority for this, active security hole. And of course, if you’re using Pulse Connect Secure VPN, or a Citrix Gateway/ADC/NetScaler box you have it locked down (or unplugged) by now, right?

This month we had almost no non-security “quality updates” — which is to say, bug fixes. With a few niggling exceptions (one in Win10 version 1809), none of the Windows patches this month include documented non-security bug fixes. In fact, we’ve seen very few non-security patches since October. 

All of which underlines an ongoing problem with the “as a Service” method of bundling all the month’s patches into one big gob. If we had separate Crypt32 and RDgateway patches, people could choose to fix the big holes while waiting for problem reports on the little ones. 

If wishes were horses then hackers would ride.

Stay up-to-the-minute on Crypt32 cracking with AskWoody.com.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.





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The race to integrate crypto into global banking is real

Central banks in Asia and Europe are in the final stages of launching digital currencies for future payment systems and cross-border transactions, according to a new report from accounting firm KPMG.

And governments around the world see the launch of these blockchain-based central bank digital currencies (CBDC) as something that could one day give them a competitive advantage in global trade.

“In 2020, we at KPMG expect to assist regional and central banks in the development of well-defined technology frameworks that can anchor private-sector initiatives,” Arun Ghosh, U.S. Blockchain Leader at KPMG, said in a blog post.

Among other banking entitires, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has shown support for fiat-backed cryptocurrencies, saying they can reduce the reliance on government-issued money, “and unlike bank transfers, crypto asset transactions can be cleared and settled quickly without an intermediary,” Dong He, deputy director of the IMF’s Monetary and Capital Markets Department, wrote in a post for the IMF.

“The advantages are especially apparent in cross-border payments, which are costly, cumbersome, and opaque,” He said. “New services using distributed ledger technology and crypto assets have slashed the time it takes for cross-border payments to reach their destination from days to seconds by bypassing correspondent banking networks.”

In a blog post, the IMF said today’s fiat currencies are in flux “and innovation will transform the landscape of banking and money.”

Other countries are already looking to innovate in ways that given them an advantage.

China is reportedly close to releasing a national cryptocurrency that, because of greater efficiencies, could challenge the U.S. dollar as the de facto currency for international trade. Other smaller countries such as Sweden are planning their own state-sponsored cryptocurrency. (Sweden’s would be called the e-Krona.)

And the Bank of England has been researching cryptocurrency since 2015. Even though theit does not currently plan to issue a cryptocurrency linked to Pound sterling, it has published extensive research on the monetary policy and financial system implications of issuing CDBCs.

“If a central bank issued a digital currency, then everyone (including businesses, households and financial institutions other than banks) could store value and make payments in electronic central bank money,” the Bank of England said in a research paper. “While this may seem like a small change, it could have wide-ranging implications for monetary policy and financial stability.”

Regardless of any movement by central banks, Ghosh said, fiat-based ‘stablecoins’ are already being issued by the private sector to support enhanced value exchange and settlement within organizations and across banking networks.

For example, JP Morgan Chase announced last year it had developed what was seen at the time as the first cryptocurrency backed by a major bank – a move that could legitimize blockchain as a vehicle for fiat cryptocurrencies. JPM Coin, as the bank calls its new digital money, is considered fiat currency because it’s backed by U.S. dollars in accounts designated at JPMorgan Chase N.A.

Each JPM Coin is equal in value to one U.S. dollar.

Wells Fargo has also announced it will pilot its own cryptocurrency to enable near real-time money movement and cut out settlement middlemen, thus reducing fees.

And the Reserve Bank of Australia has conducted pilots with Ethereum-based cryptocurrency in the hope it could be used by third parties for cross-border payments. So far, the bank has not found a significant case for its use in light of Australia’s relatively stable banking system, according to a Senate inquiry into the matter last month.

“The upside for businesses and consumers will trickle down through adoption…, Ghosh said, nothing that the new systems could result in “near instantaneous value settlement” with “enhanced cash flow realization and/or liquidity of certain positions.” 

Blockchain is being piloted by financial services institutions in five primary areas: for clearance and settlement, trade finance, cross-border payments, insurance claims processing and anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC) efforts.

For cross-border transactions, stablecoin could cut settlement times from days to minutes by eliminating the need for private organizations such as Depository Trust and Clearance Corp. (DTCC) in the U.S. and Euroclear in the European Union. The DTCC and Euroclear now handle securities settlements.

Blockchain-based systems could also streamline the process of buying and selling  stocks and bonds. Those transactions can take up to three days, with longer delays  of up to 10 days not uncommon, according to Bruce Fenton, founder and managing director of Atlantic Financial and a board member of the Bitcoin Foundation.

“The challenge with securities now is you need a trusted third party to say what’s true,” Fenton said. “It’s not your broker. It’s not Merrill Lynch or Fidelity and it’s not the issuer either; Apple has no clue who their shareholders are, either. The function is performed by these large centralized groups because the brokers don’t necessarily trust each other; they’re dealing with their competitors.”

The problem with relying on central settlement organizations is that transactions can get bottlenecked through the use of a single ledger, such as VisaNet or SWIFT, he said. With blockchain, trust becomes moot since digital tokens representing securities or money are inextricably linked to the funds or securities – and transfers can be done  in hours, Fenton said.

Given those efficiencies, more than a half dozen universities are already working on developing a payment system to rival today’s conventional clearance and settlement networks.

In addition to the scaled adoption of cryptoassets now being driven by the public sector, Ghosh sees four other crypto trends likely to emerge over the next year or so as business executives apply “an unprecedented level of innovation … driving new revenue models by leveraging blockchain and tokenized assets.”

Those trends include:

  • Advances in cryptoasset custody technology, or how digital assets are owned, stored, secured, transferred and accessed in a decentralized environment.
  • A shift from private-permissioned to interoperable blockchain implementations. With many private blockchain implementations coming to fruition, the next step is interoperability.
  • More success when scaling the technology with a converged artificial intelligence (AI) framework – and better results when initializing their AI investments.
  • The convergence of AI, blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help manage climate change.

About that last prediction, Ghosh said: “Decentralized, transparent data models enabled by blockchain, which houses data transferred via IoT that is measurable using advanced analytic techniques, can be visible to a vast number of countries and regulators that are jointly monitoring and reporting on carbon emissions, rising sea levels and the remediation of toxic waste, among other applications.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Is that you or a virtual you? Are chatbots too real?

In a recent episode of HBO’s TV show, Silicon Valley, Pied Piper network engineer Bertram Gilfoyle (played by actor Martin Starr), creates a chatbot he calls “Son of Anton,” which interacts on the company network with other employees automatically, posing as Gilfoyle.

For a while, Pied Piper developer Dinesh Chugtai (played by Kumail Nanjiani) chats with the bot until during one interaction he sees Gilfoyle standing nearby, away from his computer. Upon discovering he’s been chatting with AI, Dinesh is angry. But then he asks to use “Son of Anton” to automate his interactions with an annoying employee.

Like Dinesh, we hate the idea of being fooled into interacting with software impersonating a person. But also like Dinesh, we may fall in love with the idea of having software that interacts as us so we don’t have to do it ourselves.

[ Related: Will Google’s AI make you artificially stupid? ]

We’re on the brink of confronting AI that impersonates a person. Right now, AI that talks or chats can be categorized in the following way:

  1. interacts like a human, but identifies itself as AI
  2. poses as human, but not a specific person
  3. impersonates a specific person

What all three of these have in common is — regardless of their pretenses to humanity — they all try to behave like humans. Even chatbots that identify themselves as software are increasingly designed to interact with the pace, tone and even flaws of human interaction.

[ Don’t miss: Mike Elgan every week on Insider Pro ]

I detailed in this space recently the subtle difference between Google’s two public implementations of its Duplex technology. It’s use to answer calls when someone calls a Google Pixel phone is the first kind of AI — it identifies itself to the caller as AI.

The other use of Duplex, which was the first Google demonstrated in public, started out as the second kind. After

 

In a recent episode of HBO’s TV show, Silicon Valley, Pied Piper network engineer Bertram Gilfoyle (played by actor Martin Starr), creates a chatbot he calls “Son of Anton,” which interacts on the company network with other employees automatically, posing as Gilfoyle.

For a while, Pied Piper developer Dinesh Chugtai (played by Kumail Nanjiani) chats with the bot until during one interaction he sees Gilfoyle standing nearby, away from his computer. Upon discovering he’s been chatting with AI, Dinesh is angry. But then he asks to use “Son of Anton” to automate his interactions with an annoying employee.

Like Dinesh, we hate the idea of being fooled into interacting with software impersonating a person. But also like Dinesh, we may fall in love with the idea of having software that interacts as us so we don’t have to do it ourselves.

[ Related: Will Google’s AI make you artificially stupid? ]

We’re on the brink of confronting AI that impersonates a person. Right now, AI that talks or chats can be categorized in the following way:

  1. interacts like a human, but identifies itself as AI
  2. poses as human, but not a specific person
  3. impersonates a specific person

What all three of these have in common is — regardless of their pretenses to humanity — they all try to behave like humans. Even chatbots that identify themselves as software are increasingly designed to interact with the pace, tone and even flaws of human interaction.

[ Don’t miss: Mike Elgan every week on Insider Pro ]

I detailed in this space recently the subtle difference between Google’s two public implementations of its Duplex technology. It’s use to answer calls when someone calls a Google Pixel phone is the first kind of AI — it identifies itself to the caller as AI.

The other use of Duplex, which was the first Google demonstrated in public, started out as the second kind. After initiating a restaurant reservation using the Google Assistant, Duplex would call a restaurant, interact as a person — but not a specific, living person — and not identify itself as AI. Now Google has added a vague disclosure to the beginning of the call.

And, in fact, this is the main type used by the proliferating customer service chatbots from companies like Instabot, LivePerson, Imperson, Ada, LiveChat, HubSpot and Chatfuel. Chatbots have proved to be a boon for customer service and sales. And they all identify themselves as bots.

Gartner estimated last year that one-quarter of all customer service and support operations will integrate AI chatbots by next year, up from less than two percent in 2017.

AI chatbots are everywhere (and anyone)

When we think of “customer service,” we think of calling on the phone specifically for help of some kind. But, increasingly, this interaction is happening through websites and apps as reminders or notifications. The Uber app notifies you than your car is arriving. Airline apps let you know about changes to your flight. It’s generally left up to the customer to assume that the interaction is coming from a human or a machine.

Does anybody care if they’re talking or chatting with a human or machine? And if they do, will they care in a few years after everyone is more accustomed to AI-based interaction?

In surveys, people will say that they’d rather speak to a human than a bot. But researchers at the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that interactions with chatbots are most successful if the chatbot impersonates a human. In the research, published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence, the goal was for chatbots to earn cooperation from humans. When the people thought the bots were human, they were more likely to cooperate.

The researchers’ conclusion: “Help desks run by bots, for example, may be able to provide assistance more rapidly and efficiently if they are allowed to masquerade as humans.”

In other words, because people are less likely to cooperate with chatbots, the best way forward is for chatbots to impersonate humans and not identify themselves as AI.

Android founder Andy Rubin agrees. As the now-CEO of phone maker Essential Products, he’s been working on a tall, skinny smartphone code-named Gem. Critics blasted the phone’s design, suggesting that the screen is too skinny. But according to reports, the whole purpose of the phone is to use AI so the phone does things on behalf of the user — including communication. The user would interact with the phone mainly through voice commands, according to comments Rubin made to the press last year. And an AI chatbot would automatically reply to emails and text messages on behalf of the user. He told Bloomberg that the agent would be a “virtual version of you.”

It’s the stuff of Philip K Dick or William Gibson novels — “virtual agent” posting as a “virtual you” in “cyberspace.”

The lawmakers will have something to say about it. A California law went into effect on July 1 that requires AI to identify itself as non-human in any interaction. But it’s likely this law applies only to companies with a “public-facing” chatbot, and not to individual users of technologies like Rubin’s “virtual version of you.”

The problem with the moral panic around AI disclosure

When asked if they want AI to identify itself as non-human during interactions, most people will say yes — they want that. People don’t like the idea of being “fooled” into interacting with a machine.

The problem is that machine-based communication isn’t binary. Machines help us communicate in all kinds of ways, from grammar checkers to out-of-office auto-replies, to AutoCorrect, to Google’s Smart Compose.

People already get messages from chatbots that don’t disclose their non-humanity for simple things like the status of their delivery pizza. We interact every day with increasingly sophisticated interactive voice response (IVR) systems whenever we call the bank or airline for customer service. And when we do reach a human, they’re often reading from an AI-generated script.

I believe that the moral panic — or, more accurately, the vague displeasure — around AI that impersonates humans is temporary.

A few years from now, it will be like cookie disclosures on websites. Europe, California and a few other political entities will mandate AI disclosures. But most users will find those disclosures an annoying waste of time.

The technology is here and will soon grow ubiquitous. We might be annoyed to learn that person we’ve been yammering away with isn’t human. But we also might be thrilled to let chatbots interact on our behalf.

Either way, “Son of Anton” is coming.



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A real light bulb moment

It’s the mid ’70s this pilot fish is operating on IBM 370s for a financial clearinghouse in London, where Good Friday and Easter Monday are bank holidays. The systems use a CICS system logging to 3420 tape drives, the ones with the twin vacuum chambers, and when one drive on the backup system refuses to load tapes, Fish volunteers to come in with the engineers on Good Friday to work on it.

Fish has it all figured out: He’ll get some good overtime working on an easy fix, and he’ll still get a three-day weekend.

But comes the Monday holiday, and fish and colleagues are still working on that easy fix. They’ve replaced just about every part, some of which had to be flown in especially. Finally, one of the engineers has a bright idea. He replaces the light bulb that powers the fiber-optic sensor to pick up the metallic BoT (beginning of tape) marker. Problem solved.

Seems the bulb was putting out light, but not enough for the sensor to pick up the reflection and load the tape.

Sharky’s seen the light, but I’m still waiting for your true tales of IT life. Send them to me at [email protected]. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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