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Inside Cornell Tech: NYC’s Tech Hub of the Future

CThe crown jewel of New York City's tech push is open for business. More than half a dozen years in the making, the new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island is the glimmering face of the city's educational and economic ambitions to build itself into a self-styled "Silicon Alley," the tech- and startup-driven economic hub of the East Coast.

Wednesday morning's official dedication ceremony brought together the business, educational, government, and tech leaders who made Cornell Tech a reality. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and former mayor Michael Bloomberg—the architect behind the project—each gave speeches on their vision for tech, education, and economic growth in New York. They joined the heads of Cornell Tech and its academic partner, the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, to cut the ribbon on the high-tech, eco-friendly campus representing the pipeline of engineers, entrepreneurs, and technologists that will power New York's tech-driven economy of the future.

"Cornell Tech is the result of collaboration between the public and private sectors, between universities and businesses, between artists and architects, and so many others," said Bloomberg. "The school is an investment in the future of this city, and that investment belongs to generations to come. It will help generate jobs across the economic spectrum, generate revenue to help the city fund important services, and help our city compete with tech centers around the world, from Silicon Valley to Seoul."

Situated on a narrow sliver of land wedged in the East River between the east side of Manhattan and Queens, the 12-acre Cornell Tech campus occupies essentially the entire southern half of Roosevelt Island. The first phase of the campus includes three buildings nestled under the Queensboro Bridge, each adorned with solar panels, open workspaces, and high-tech amenities with public spaces in between.

The Bloomberg Center is the academic center of the campus, and features a public cafe, glass meeting rooms, and open offices spindled around a central staircase and an intricate mural of tech diagrams and abstract art. The Bridge is a co-working building where startups and businesses rent space to work alongside students and faculty, and the House is a 26-story residential building and the first high-rise built to passive house energy standards.

There are two more buildings under construction and set to open in 2019: the Graduate Roosevelt Island Hotel and the Verizon Executive Education Center for conferences and meetups. PCMag got a tour of the new Cornell Tech campus from the architects and designers who built it, and heard from the faculty, students, and startups who are already innovating and building products on the island.

(Top Art Photo Credit: Iwan Baan)

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  • 1

    Ribbon Cutting

    Mayor De Blasio, former Mayor Bloomberg, Goveror Cuomo, Cornell University President Martha Pollack, Cornell Tech Dean Daniel Huttenlocher, and Technion President Peretz Lavie cut the ribbon at Cornell Tech’s official dedication.

  • 2

    Welcome to Cornell Tech

    Housed since 2012 at Google's offices in Chelsea, Cornell Tech now moves to its permanent Roosevelt Island home. The school currently has 300 students, and over the next few years will scale toward 2,000.

  • 3

    The Bloomberg Center

    The 160,000-square-foot academic building is the center of campus life, with four floors of classrooms, glass meeting spaces, open offices, and some private rooms and faculty offices. The outer facade features a unique design meant to look from afar almost like constantly changing code.

  • 4

    Open Offices

    Cornell Tech students working in the Bloomberg Center with a view of the Queensboro Bridge and the Manhattan skyline.

  • 5

    Lecture Hall

    A lecture hall in the Bloomberg Center with a teacher giving a lecture on blockchain and smart contracts.

  • 6

    Mural

    Some of the 173 tech diagrams and equations drawn into the main mural of the Bloomberg Center, which is intended to promote a new way of thinking. Look for everything from the printing press to Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, as well as unsolved mathematical equations offered by Cornell Tech professors.

  • 7

    Solar Panels

    Cornell Tech is touted as a "net zero" campus built with environmental sustainability in mind. There are solar panels atop each building, as well as advanced bio-filtration systems and a geothermal well field underground. The campus is also elevated, built well above the flood line in case of future natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.

  • 8

    The Bridge

    The Bridge is a 235,000-square-foot building housing 30 percent Cornell Tech students and faculty, and 70 percent startups and co-working spaces for businesses.

  • 9

    View from The Bridge

    The building has river-to-river views of Queens on one side and the Manhattan skyline, pictured here, on the other. It's also built with sustainability in mind, built with a glass exterior that's 40 percent transparent and 60 percent opaque to maximize natural light and minimize artificial lighting consumption.

  • 10

    Multi-Level Workspaces

    There aren't many walls in The Bridge. Lounges and work spaces encourage startups and entrepreneurs to collaborate with students and faculty on ideas and projects.

  • 11

    Businesses Moving In

    Three companies have already signed on for office space in The Bridge. Tech and finance firm Two Sigma is moving data-driven artificial intelligence research to Cornell Tech as part of a "Collision Lab" to incubate new products with students and startups. Chocolate maker Ferrero Rocher is opening an office to innovate delivery and food systems, and Citi is opening an "Innovation Zone" at Cornell Tech for cybersecurity and Big Data research.

  • 12

    Cornell Studio

    The Cornell Studio program encourages students to form diverse teams, come up with ideas, and build viable products. Since 2012, the program has spun out 38 startups from 81 founders, who employed 173 people and raised $31 million in funding. Students iterate on products and ideas, and get feedback on their products and business plans from real world tech advisers and venture capital investors. One of the successful startups from Cornell's most recent awards is Speech Up, a gamified mobile speech therapy platform for kids.

  • 13

    The House

    The final completed building is The House, a 26-story high-rise for students and faculty residences. The 270 foot-tall building is the largest passive house structure in the world with 352 apartment units and 550 beds. The building is projected to save 882 tons of CO2 per year.

  • 14

    Passive House Design

    The House is built with a state-of-the-art "thermal wrap" of 8-11 inches of metal panel around the entire building to provide continuous insulation, which reduces utility bills by keeping cold air contained in the summer and heat insulated in the winter. The "gills" on the outside let the mechanical systems breathe, constantly cycling fresh air into the building and maintaining constant temperature in all habitable spaces.

  • 15

    Verizon Center and Hotel

    The next phase of construction, set to be completed in 2019, is the Graduate Roosevelt Island Hotel and the Verizon Executive Education Center next to The House.

  • 16

    The Next Phases

    This view from the Bloomberg Center shows the open public spaces of the campus and the rolling hills beyond, on which development will begin in the coming years for new buildings in phases two and three of Cornell Tech construction, set to be fully completed by 2043.

  • 17

    New York's Next Tech Hub?

    Mayor De Blasio said during the ribbon cutting that he sees Cornell Tech as "not a distant beacon, but a harbinger of change" in the lives of New York City's residents, and that the city's tech ecosystem is already generating 350,000 jobs and growing rapidly. The city is investing heavily in software development and STEM education at every level of its public school system.

    Cornell Tech represents the key piece of the city's talent pipeline in getting those highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers into New York-based technical colleges, interning and being recruited by local tech companies and businesses, and founding their own startups to feed back into the economic growth of Silicon Alley. For all the tech, business, and government leaders who cut the ribbon on Roosevelt Island, that vision is beginning to become a reality.

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Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a data center for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping. Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.) Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation. To begin with I’m going to consider all phone calls as “confidential” for the purposes of the law. What constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is far from settled, and some will have it that you there isn’t such an expectation when making an appointment with a salon. But what about a doctor’s office, or if you need to give personal details over the phone? Though some edge cases may qualify as public, it’s simpler and safer (for us and for Google) to treat all phone conversations as confidential. What we know about Google’s Duplex demo so far As a second assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a data center somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be recorded and sent in some form to that data center for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken. On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whomever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google data centers. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work. But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law. This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important. “There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the data center and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.” For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines. But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the onstage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind. What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission. A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and, therefore, no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive. “It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said. If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law. That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why. We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

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