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Nokia and NewCore Wireless bring 5G broadband to tribal nations in U.S.

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Nokia and NewCore Wireless bring 5G broadband to tribal nations in U.S.

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Tribal nations haven’t had the best access to the internet. But Nokia and NewCore Wireless have partnered to bring 5G wireless networking and 4.9G/LTE service to underserved communities in the U.S.

The network uses the 117MHz part of the Tribal Educational Broadband Service (EBS) radio band, made available last year by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to serve tribal lands with a license for broadband and wireless networking buildouts. More than 400 Native American tribes will have access to this spectrum across tens of thousands of square miles, often in remote rural areas, putting broadband within reach of millions more people.

The initial buildouts by Nokia and NewCore Wireless will reach 15,000 tribal members, many living in high-poverty areas. The companies will focus first on North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, and California. The Native American communities involved include the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne Tribe, and the Arapaho Tribe. The initiatives will support e-learning, telehealth, and remote work during the pandemic.

This band of spectrum is very valuable and can be used to deploy carrier-grade voice or broadband connectivity. The 400 included tribes received this spectrum, and Nokia is using its wireless technologies for rural broadband connectivity, such as 4.9G/LTE and 5G. The company aims to provide rapid and cost-effective wireless connectivity across large areas and the scope for multiple home and business connections from a single base station.

The private wireless network, which is based on 4.9G/LTE technology, opens the door to services such as high-speed internet for the home or business (up to 1Gbps); mobile phone options where cellular coverage is not available; and educational enhancements, such as distance learning.

John Pretty Bear, councilperson for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Cannonball District, said in a statement that this will level the technology playing field for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He noted that high-speed internet is coming at a time when such networks are the driving force behind health care, education, and commerce.

The 2.5Ghz band of spectrum offered by the Tribal EBS program is mature and can be found in the majority of mobile phones, telephone switching equipment, and add-on devices in the market today. Because current networks are already designed for this spectrum, it allows new carriers to deploy services immediately — using already available hardware. Access to more than 100MHz of that spectrum is good for 4G and offers a viable transition into 5G when communities are ready.

How it came together

“In 2019, the FCC announced a new spectrum opportunity to pull back spectrum that wasn’t being used in the educational band,” NewCore Wireless GM Albert Kangas said in an interview with VentureBeat. “A large part of the country was what we call ‘white space,’ where it was not being leased to either a school or an institution.”

The Native American groups applied to take over that EBS band, which the FCC approved. As the spectrum was capable of supporting both 4G and 5G wireless service, this was like giving 400 small companies the chance to become wireless operators.

The groups began looking at ways to implement the service and found Nokia. The Nokia Digital Automation Cloud platform offers high-bandwidth, low-latency wireless connectivity, local edge computing capabilities, and applications such as voice and video services.

Nokia senior VP Ed Cholerton said the tech was really created to serve enterprise markets such as industrial automation. It turns out it was useful in this particular consumer market, where it could provide a combination of fixed wireless and mobile phone service.

It is a compact, easy-to-deploy platform, comprising private cellular network equipment and a cloud-based operation monitoring system.

“We felt this was the best way to move forward,” Kangas said. “We proposed this to a few of our tribal partners. And we’ve built three different networks so far. We feel that this would be a great opportunity for other tribal nations across this country to use this solution to build out their wireless network.”

Building out Standing Rock

Above: Nokia’s equipment in the Standing Rock tribal reservation.

Image Credit: Nokia

One of the first networks approved was Standing Rock Telecommunications, which covers parts of North Dakota and South Dakota, Standing Rock Telecommunications general manager Fred McLaughlin said in an interview with VentureBeat. While other tribal nations are underdeveloped, Standing Rock already had a lot of infrastructure.

Many of the areas have standard telecommunications and networks with towers. These were built by the tribes because most commercial companies chose not to develop networks in the sparsely populated areas.

“We were in a fortunate situation, where we could utilize what we’ve already invested into ourselves,” McLaughlin said. “For us, it was plug and play. We just had to purchase equipment [like base stations and antennae], put it up on the existing tower, and then use the frequency.”

McLaughlin said not many tribes have been aggressively setting up such networks but that the project turned out to be very cost-effective. There are towns with around 200 to 800 people spread across a region the size of the state of Connecticut.

A vast improvement

Previously, the tribes were using 3G networks for cellphones, getting 5 megabits or 10 megabits a second. Now it’s more like 60 megabits a second, capable of 100 megabits a second, Kangas said.

“For tribal people in general, you’re starting to see a lot of people kind of come back home,” McLaughlin said. “For at-home education, it gives them an alternative. The schools are using our equipment. There is a fiber alternative, but some people can’t afford it. Some of these people are living — not paycheck to paycheck, but under the poverty level. They are finally getting connected to the internet. That’s who we are providing this service for.”

Institutions such as schools and police departments can set up a private network and not have their traffic go out on the internet, which would slow down the network.

“Thanks to the CARES Act, there is money available to build out the networks and there is a lot of greenfield opportunity to provide coverage out there, where none existed before,” Cholerton said. “It serves a good social need as well. Tribal members do not have to rely on moving away from their community to have a good-paying job.”

He added, “We started off with this solution for enterprise customers, but it turns out to be really great. And it serves a good social need as well, in this case. Tribal nations are underserved.”

“This is another way to achieve coverage in an underserved community,” Kangas said. “We hope to be doing a lot more of this.”

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The four most common fallacies about AI

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The four most common fallacies about AI

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The history of artificial intelligence has been marked by repeated cycles of extreme optimism and promise followed by disillusionment and disappointment. Today’s AI systems can perform complicated tasks in a wide range of areas, such as mathematics, games, and photorealistic image generation. But some of the early goals of AI like housekeeper robots and self-driving cars continue to recede as we approach them.

Part of the continued cycle of missing these goals is due to incorrect assumptions about AI and natural intelligence, according to Melanie Mitchell, Davis Professor of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute and author of Artificial Intelligence: A Guide For Thinking Humans.

In a new paper titled “Why AI is Harder Than We Think,” Mitchell lays out four common fallacies about AI that cause misunderstandings not only among the public and the media, but also among experts. These fallacies give a false sense of confidence about how close we are to achieving artificial general intelligence, AI systems that can match the cognitive and general problem-solving skills of humans.

Narrow AI and general AI are not on the same scale

The kind of AI that we have today can be very good at solving narrowly defined problems. They can outmatch humans at Go and chess, find cancerous patterns in x-ray images with remarkable accuracy, and convert audio data to text. But designing systems that can solve single problems does not necessarily get us closer to solving more complicated problems. Mitchell describes the first fallacy as “Narrow intelligence is on a continuum with general intelligence.”

“If people see a machine do something amazing, albeit in a narrow area, they often assume the field is that much further along toward general AI,” Mitchell writes in her paper.

For instance, today’s natural language processing systems have come a long way toward solving many different problems, such as translation, text generation, and question-answering on specific problems. At the same time, we have deep learning systems that can convert voice data to text in real-time. Behind each of these achievements are thousands of hours of research and development (and millions of dollars spent on computing and data). But the AI community still hasn’t solved the problem of creating agents that can engage in open-ended conversations without losing coherence over long stretches. Such a system requires more than just solving smaller problems; it requires common sense, one of the key unsolved challenges of AI.

The easy things are hard to automate

Above: Vision, one of the problems every living being solves without effort, remains a challenge for computers.

When it comes to humans, we would expect an intelligent person to do hard things that take years of study and practice. Examples might include tasks such as solving calculus and physics problems, playing chess at grandmaster level, or memorizing a lot of poems.

But decades of AI research have proven that the hard tasks, those that require conscious attention, are easier to automate. It is the easy tasks, the things that we take for granted, that are hard to automate. Mitchell describes the second fallacy as “Easy things are easy and hard things are hard.”

“The things that we humans do without much thought—looking out in the world and making sense of what we see, carrying on a conversation, walking down a crowded sidewalk without bumping into anyone—turn out to be the hardest challenges for machines,” Mitchell writes. “Conversely, it’s often easier to get machines to do things that are very hard for humans; for example, solving complex mathematical problems, mastering games like chess and Go, and translating sentences between hundreds of languages have all turned out to be relatively easier for machines.”

Consider vision, for example. Over billions of years, organisms have developed complex apparatuses for processing light signals. Animals use their eyes to take stock of the objects surrounding them, navigate their surroundings, find food, detect threats, and accomplish many other tasks that are vital to their survival. We humans have inherited all those capabilities from our ancestors and use them without conscious thought. But the underlying mechanism is indeed more complicated than large mathematical formulas that frustrate us through high school and college.

Case in point: We still don’t have computer vision systems that are nearly as versatile as human vision. We have managed to create artificial neural networks that roughly mimic parts of the animal and human vision system, such as detecting objects and segmenting images. But they are brittle, sensitive to many different kinds of perturbations, and they can’t mimic the full scope of tasks that biological vision can accomplish. That’s why, for instance, the computer vision systems used in self-driving cars need to be complemented with advanced technology such as lidars and mapping data.

Another area that has proven to be very difficult is sensorimotor skills that humans master without explicit training. Think of the how you handle objects, walk, run, and jump. These are tasks that you can do without conscious thought. In fact, while walking, you can do other things, such as listen to a podcast or talk on the phone. But these kinds of skills remain a large and expensive challenge for current AI systems.

“AI is harder than we think, because we are largely unconscious of the complexity of our own thought processes,” Mitchell writes.

Anthropomorphizing AI doesn’t help

The field of AI is replete with vocabulary that puts software on the same level as human intelligence. We use terms such as “learn,” “understand,” “read,” and “think” to describe how AI algorithms work. While such anthropomorphic terms often serve as shorthand to help convey complex software mechanisms, they can mislead us to think that current AI systems work like the human mind.

Mitchell calls this fallacy “the lure of wishful mnemonics” and writes, “Such shorthand can be misleading to the public trying to understand these results (and to the media reporting on them), and can also unconsciously shape the way even AI experts think about their systems and how closely these systems resemble human intelligence.”

The wishful mnemonics fallacy has also led the AI community to name algorithm-evaluation benchmarks in ways that are misleading. Consider, for example, the General Language Understanding Evaluation (GLUE) benchmark, developed by some of the most esteemed organizations and academic institutions in AI. GLUE provides a set of tasks that help evaluate how a language model can generalize its capabilities beyond the task it has been trained for. But contrary to what the media portray, if an AI agent gets a higher GLUE score than a human, it doesn’t mean that it is better at language understanding than humans.

“While machines can outperform humans on these particular benchmarks, AI systems are still far from matching the more general human abilities we associate with the benchmarks’ names,” Mitchell writes.

A stark example of wishful mnemonics is a 2017 project at Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research, in which scientists trained two AI agents to negotiate on tasks based on human conversations. In their blog post, the researchers noted that “updating the parameters of both agents led to divergence from human language as the agents developed their own language for negotiating [emphasis mine].”

This led to a stream of clickbait articles that warned about AI systems that were becoming smarter than humans and were communicating in secret dialects. Four years later, the most advanced language models still struggle with understanding basic concepts that most humans learn at a very young age without being instructed.

AI without a body

Can intelligence exist in isolation from a rich physical experience of the world? This is a question that scientists and philosophers have puzzled over for centuries.

One school of thought believes that intelligence is all in the brain and can be separated from the body, also known as the “brain in a vat” theory. Mitchell calls it the “Intelligence is all in the brain” fallacy. With the right algorithms and data, the thinking goes, we can create AI that lives in servers and matches human intelligence. For the proponents of this way of thinking, especially those who support pure deep learning–based approaches, reaching general AI hinges on gathering the right amount of data and creating larger and larger neural networks.

Meanwhile, there’s growing evidence that this approach is doomed to fail. “A growing cadre of researchers is questioning the basis of the ‘all in the brain’ information processing model for understanding intelligence and for creating AI,” she writes.

Human and animal brains have evolved along with all other body organs with the ultimate goal of improving chances of survival. Our intelligence is tightly linked to the limits and capabilities of our bodies. And there is an expanding field of embodied AI that aims to create agents that develop intelligent skills by interacting with their environment through different sensory stimuli.

Mitchell notes that neuroscience research suggests that “neural structures controlling cognition are richly linked to those controlling sensory and motor systems, and that abstract thinking exploits body-based neural ‘maps.’” And in fact, there’s growing evidence and research that proves feedback from different sensory areas of the brain affects both our conscious and unconscious thoughts.

Mitchell supports the idea that emotions, feelings, subconscious biases, and physical experience are inseparable from intelligence. “Nothing in our knowledge of psychology or neuroscience supports the possibility that ‘pure rationality’ is separable from the emotions and cultural biases that shape our cognition and our objectives,” she writes. “Instead, what we’ve learned from research in embodied cognition is that human intelligence seems to be a strongly integrated system with closely interconnected attributes, including emotions, desires, a strong sense of selfhood and autonomy, and a commonsense understanding of the world. It’s not at all clear that these attributes can be separated.”

Common sense in AI

Developing general AI needs an adjustment to our understanding of intelligence itself. We are still struggling to define what intelligence is and how to measure it in artificial and natural beings.

“It’s clear that to make and assess progress in AI more effectively, we will need to develop a better vocabulary for talking about what machines can do,” Mitchell writes. “And more generally, we will need a better scientific understanding of intelligence as it manifests in different systems in nature.”

Another challenge that Mitchell discusses in her paper is that of common sense, which she describes as “a kind of umbrella for what’s missing from today’s state-of-the-art AI systems.”

Common sense includes the knowledge that we acquire about the world and apply it every day without much effort. We learn a lot without being explicitly instructed, by exploring the world when we are children. These include concepts such as space, time, gravity, and the physical properties of objects. For example, a child learns at a very young age that when an object becomes occluded behind another, it has not disappeared and continues to exist, or when a ball rolls across a table and reaches the ledge, it should fall off. We use this knowledge to build mental models of the world, make causal inferences, and predict future states with decent accuracy.

This kind of knowledge is missing in today’s AI systems, which makes them unpredictable and data-hungry. In fact, housekeeping and driving, the two AI applications mentioned at the beginning of this article, are things that most humans learn through common sense and a little bit of practice.

Common sense also includes basic facts about human nature and life, things that we omit in our conversations and writing because we know our readers and listeners know them. For example, we know that if two people are “talking on the phone,” it means that they aren’t in the same room. We also know that if “John reached for the sugar,” it means that there was a container with sugar inside it somewhere near John. This kind of knowledge is crucial to areas such as natural language processing.

“No one yet knows how to capture such knowledge or abilities in machines. This is the current frontier of AI research, and one encouraging way forward is to tap into what’s known about the development of these abilities in young children,” Mitchell writes.

While we still don’t know the answers to many of these questions, a first step toward finding solutions is being aware of our own erroneous thoughts. “Understanding these fallacies and their subtle influences can point to directions for creating more robust, trustworthy, and perhaps actually intelligent AI systems,” Mitchell writes.

Ben Dickson is a software engineer and the founder of TechTalks, a blog that explores the ways technology is solving and creating problems.

This story originally appeared on Bdtechtalks.com. Copyright 2021

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Apple brass discussed disclosing 128-million iPhone hack, then decided not to

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Apple brass discussed disclosing 128-million iPhone hack, then decided not to

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In September 2015, Apple managers had a dilemma on their hands: should, or should they not, notify 128 million iPhone users of what remains the worst mass iOS compromise on record? Ultimately, all evidence shows, they chose to keep quiet.

The mass hack first came to light when researchers uncovered 40 malicious App Store apps, a number that mushroomed to 4,000 as more researchers poked around. The apps contained code that made iPhones and iPads part of a botnet that stole potentially sensitive user information.

xcodeghost

128 million infected.

An email entered into court this week in Epic Games’ lawsuit against Apple shows that, on the afternoon of September 21, 2015, Apple managers had uncovered 2,500 malicious apps that had been downloaded a total of 203 million times by 128 million users, 18 million of whom were in the US.

“Joz, Tom and Christine—due to the large number of customers potentially affected, do we want to send an email to all of them?” App Store VP Matthew Fischer wrote, referring to Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Greg Joswiak and Apple PR people Tom Neumayr and Christine Monaghan. The email continued:

If yes, Dale Bagwell from our Customer Experience team will be on point to manage this on our side. Note that this will pose some challenges in terms of language localizations of the email, since the downloads of these apps took place in a wide variety of App Store storefronts around the world (e.g. we wouldn’t want to send an English-language email to a customer who downloaded one or more of these apps from the Brazil App Store, where Brazilian Portuguese would be the more appropriate language).

The dog ate our disclosure

About 10 hours later, Bagwell discusses the logistics of notifying all 128 million affected users, localizing notifications to each users’ language, and “accurately includ[ing] the names of the apps for each customer.”

Alas, all appearances are that Apple never followed through on its plans. An Apple representative could point to no evidence that such an email was ever sent. Statements the representative sent on background—meaning I’m not permitted to quote them—noted that Apple instead published only this now-deleted post.

The post provides very general information about the malicious app campaign and eventually lists only the top 25 most downloaded apps. “If users have one of these apps, they should update the affected app which will fix the issue on the user’s device,” the post stated. “If the app is available on [the] App Store, it has been updated, if it isn’t available it should be updated very soon.”

Ghost of Xcode

The infections were the result of legitimate developers writing apps using a counterfeit copy of Xcode, Apple’s iOS and OS X app development tool. The repackaged tool dubbed XcodeGhost surreptitiously inserted malicious code alongside normal app functions.

From there, apps caused iPhones to report to a command and control server and provide a variety of device information, including the name of the infected app, the app-bundle identifier, network information, the device’s “identifierForVendor” details, and the device name, type, and unique identifier.

XcodeGhost billed itself as faster to download in China, compared with Xcode available from Apple. For developers to have run the counterfeit version, they would have had to click through a warning delivered by Gatekeeper, the macOS security feature that requires apps to be digitally signed by a known developer.

The lack of follow-through is disappointing. Apple has long prioritized the security of the devices it sells. It has also made privacy a centerpiece of its products. Directly notifying those affected by this lapse would have been the right thing to do. We already knew that Google routinely doesn’t notify users when they download malicious Android apps or Chrome extensions. Now we know that Apple has done the same thing.

Stopping Dr. Jekyll

The email wasn’t the only one that showed Apple brass hashing out security problems. A separate one sent to Apple Fellow Phil Schiller and others in 2013 forwarded a copy of the Ars article headlined “Seemingly benign ‘Jekyll’ app passes Apple review, then becomes ‘evil’.”

The article discussed research from computer scientists who found a way to sneak malicious programs into the App Store without being detected by the mandatory review process that’s supposed to automatically flag such apps. Schiller and the other people receiving the email wanted to figure out how to shore up its protections in light of their discovery that the static analyzer Apple used wasn’t effective against the newly discovered method.

jekyll

“This static analyzer looks at API names rather than true APIs being called, so there’s often the issue of false positives,” Apple senior VP of Internet software and services Eddy Cue wrote. “The Static Analyzer enables us to catch direct accessing of Private APIs, but it completely misses apps using indirect methods of accessing these Private APIs. This is what the authors used in their Jekyll apps.”

The email went on to discuss limitations of two other Apple defenses, one known as Privacy Proxy and the other Backdoor Switch.

“We need some help in convincing other teams to implement this functionality for us,” Cue wrote. “Until then, it is more brute force, and somewhat ineffective.”

Lawsuits involving large companies often provide never-before-seen portals into the inner-workings of the way they and their executives work. Often, as the case is here, those views are at odds with the companies’ talking points. The trial resumes next week.

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How Corey Rosemond aims to grow digital tabletop gaming firm Roll20

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How Corey Rosemond aims to grow digital tabletop gaming firm Roll20

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Tabletop games are going through a renaissance now, and many of them are going digital. That’s why veteran gaming executive Corey Rosemond has joined Roll20 as its chief operating officer.

Las Vegas-based Roll20 was started in 2012 to take tabletop games digital. But it doesn’t turn them into video games. Rather, it gives game masters the tools to help immerse players in the world of the games. Rosemond has more than 20 years of experience in interactive entertainment

Roll20 specializes in role-playing games and it has added 25 employees in just the past couple of years. During the pandemic, the opportunity has grown dramatically as friends could no longer play tabletop games in person and had to move to online play.

Corey Rosemond brings a wealth of experience in gaming hardware and software to the tabletop industry. As the company continues to expand, Rosemond will help Roll20 improve its offerings and increase user acquisition. CEO Nolan Jones and his college roommates created the company to let people play their tabletop campaigns while away at school, and now there are more than eight million users. Rosemond will help the team figure out better ways to serve that audience with innovation.

His priorities include the development of a mobile app, continuing to expand and enhance Roll20’s marketplace, and investment in quality-of-life improvements — all projects that will continue to Roll20’s growth. I spoke with Rosemond about his new role.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Corey Rosemond is COO of Roll20.

Image Credit: Roll20

GamesBeat: What was appealing about the job? Could you talk more about what you’ll do for Roll20?

Corey Rosemond: Roll20 is a leading virtual tabletop company that’s enabling and looking at taking especially tabletop role-playing games online. It’s a platform that adds in features and capabilities for people to be able to enjoy their tabletop role-playing game experience, both online but also, very important to note, to be able to have companion applications that allow people to bring an enhanced tabletop experience to physical, in-person games as well.

As you know, tabletop gaming is something that–I want to say it’s the less flashy aspect of interactive entertainment. One of the things that makes tabletop gaming special and unique is the requirement of human interaction. The game master, if you will. That human interaction, that human dynamic creativity, is something that has allowed and enabled tabletop games to continue to evolve and show an appeal even as video games have completely advanced and increased over the last 20 to 30 years. There’s still this appeal for tabletop role-playing and tabletop gaming in general.

Roll20 started in 2012 as a way for three University of Kansas students to continue their tabletop gameplay even as they moved off in different directions. They did it for themselves. People said, “Wait, that’s pretty cool! I’d like to be able to do that too.” There was this new crowdfunding platform called Kickstarter, and they decided to do a campaign for about $5,000. They raised approximately $40,000 and said, “Okay, I guess we’ll do this.”

The rest has been history. It’s a bootstrapped, profitable company over the last nine years. Roll20 has built that audience, built the community, provided a platform for various creators in the role-playing game space to have that virtual platform that allows people to play their games through an online, browser-based forum.

GamesBeat: How does it compare to other digital tabletop companies like what Asmodee is doing, or some newer ones like Gameboard? You have the augmented reality folks, a variety of productions out there.

Rosemond: What makes Roll20 different is we put a priority on where we feel like the creators meet the players. I think about it in our marketplace, the conversion in the support services we provide to more game creators, to actually create this dynamic experience on the Roll20 platform. That experience is unique compared to a lot of our competitors. We always strive to go above and beyond just taking PDFs and putting them online. We want to create differentiated and unique experiences representing the game online.

When you think about it, we were one of the first platforms to target the fact that the GM/DM is the source of the overall player experience. In many respects what Roll20 has been focused on is building out various tools and various features that enable the GM to enhance their experience, if you will, in terms of setting up the game adventure, having that continuity of interest going on for weeks and months, and in some instances years. We have some games that have gone on non-stop for several years. Knowing that it all starts with those game masters. That attention to prioritizing them, and in conjunction prioritizing creators. They’re creating these experiences and these expansions to the game systems that go on and allow those audiences to have this continuity that you don’t find in any other format of interactive entertainment.

roll20 desktop 2

Above: Roll20’s interface

Image Credit: Roll20

GamesBeat: Is this the first time you’ve had a COO role?

Rosemond: This is my first time in a COO role, yes. Previous to this I was VP of operations for the American subsidiary of Nacon. Nacon is a French hardware and software company, primarily in console and PC gaming.

GamesBeat: What felt like you were ready to take on this kind of role?

Rosemond: A couple of things. One, I felt as if taking on a global role at the COO level was something that presented a lot of exciting opportunities for me to apply the learnings from my 25 years in the interactive entertainment industry. Primarily on the video game side, but also both software and hardware. Two, what lay ahead in terms of disrupting and growing the tabletop side of the business.

When I look at the future, when I do my own analysis of what the next generation, call it Gen Z or digital natives–I almost feel like they’ve come full circle, where they want personalized, human touch experiences. Maybe as almost a passive rebellion against the AI everything. They want to go beyond the bots, if you will. They want interactions with other people, by other people. When I think about the entire tabletop space in the tradition of GMs, in the tradition of having that dynamic engagement with someone that will adjust and balance out the gameplay from a human perspective–I believe there’s so much growth to take place there going forward. That’s what led me to look at the tabletop space, the virtual tabletop space specifically, and that’s what led me to role-playing.

GamesBeat: Are there some skills that you think you need particularly in this kind of role?

Rosemond: For the role of chief operating officer, I bring a couple of things in particular. I’m just completing my first 90 days, so I think I can speak to this now with solid first impressions. I feel as if, first and foremost, I go back to my core function, which is product management. I look at how owning the product and looking at defining the product going forward and working from that context, based on my history. Being able to work across the people and the technologies, looking at where we want to take the industry, the segment, via the company and our strategy. Bringing all of that together, supporting the CEO, and also working hand in hand with the leadership team to get the best out of us as a functional unit is the core to the job.

That’s my own personal definition. No two COO roles are ever exactly the same. That’s the one piece of feedback from a number of COOs I talked to across industries, but more than a few video game companies. Almost to a person, they said that it’s a job that wears many hats, so be prepared to wear as many hats as required. For me, like I said, I look at my strategy, biz dev, and product backgrounds, combining those along with the rest of the leadership team. We have an amazing team here, with people from the video game space, the tabletop space, and a number of other industries. But primarily board games, tabletop. Intuitively, they’ve been working at Roll20 so long that they’re truly virtual tabletop veterans. Plus myself and at least one other leader from the video game space.

Roll20 Mobile Desktop

Above: Roll20 has both mobile and desktop interfaces.

Image Credit: Roll20

GamesBeat: How many people work at Roll20?

Rosemond: Right now we’re right at 60. We’ve been growing significantly. We’ll grow as appropriate in terms of bringing on additional people. We’ve grown quite a bit in the last year, year and a half.

GamesBeat: Has the company raised money multiple times beyond the Kickstarter, or was that the only instance?

Rosemond: The company is proud to say that beyond the initial Kickstarter campaign in 2012, it’s been completely self-funded, bootstrapped.

GamesBeat: Do you talk about revenues or any other indicators of size?

Rosemond: We’ve not talked about revenue, being privately held. We’ve shared that we have a membership north of 8 million. We’re looking forward to being able to announce, at least on our Roll20 blog, when we hit the 10 million mark. We’re approaching that milestone. But I can publicly state 8 million as of today.

GamesBeat: As far as guidance for people in a similar career track, what sort of advice would you have?

Rosemond: My advice would be–as we look here in 2021, there’s a lot in terms of social consciousness and justice. There was a lot of attention that I, at least, heard about in the Kotaku article where Phil Spencer talked about the dearth of black leadership within Xbox historically. That one hit home, frankly, because I used to work at Xbox. I had to think about that.

What I can say is, acknowledgement that there have been people from a variety of underrepresented minority groups–not just black, African-American, but Hispanic, Native American, others–there have been challenges for women and for the LGBTQ community within the interactive entertainment space. I can tell you, from my 25 years, it hasn’t always been the straightest path. There have been a lot of challenges, some overt and some covert.

The good news is that for me, I remained committed to this industry, because I love it. I absolutely believe that the interactive entertainment industry is one of the best in terms of what we provide end users, which is true entertainment, on their terms, in an interactive capacity that’s not just passive, like watching TV or going to the movies. You get to engage yourself. That’s what’s kept me in the industry despite great opportunities to go elsewhere. Given that experience, given a collective of experiences, that’s why I’ve stayed in it.

But at the same time it’s why, for me, at this point, coming into a virtual tabletop company was a great evolution for me. I have a lot of video game experience, having worked at Microsoft and Xbox, having worked at Plantronics in creating the Rig brand, having worked at Dell with the XPS gaming platform, and HP with gaming there. I’m able to see what I feel to be another hyper-growth segment of interactive entertainment. Right now that’s tabletop. I look at where mobile was 10 or 15 years ago, where PC gaming or casual gaming was 20 years ago. I’ve been part of all of those hyper-growth situations.

I’ll face up to it. The pandemic got a lot of people to re-evaluate how they engage with gaming overall. That combined with Gen Z and digital natives wanting more personalization. It’s quite significant. We’ve all talked about this. I’ve attended the last couple of GamesBeats. As we think about the metaverse, I think about it as lending itself to where we’re at with GMs and human-led adventures, human-led interactions within interactive entertainment. What I mean by that is, as we look out now at role-playing games, that’s going to lend itself quite well to the metaverse in my opinion.

It’ll be one thing to have players versus the environment, versus the environment’s AI, which is traditional in most video games. But to actually have that GM-led experience, that episodic content, something more like taking a true adventure with someone, following someone’s adventure, being part of that with the human on-the-fly dynamic. That’s the exciting part to me.

When I think about where we’re headed next, right now we’re starting with virtual tabletop. We’re looking at companions with the physical space, because we still do believe–there are people who just want to go have that physical gameplay interaction. We want to be able to support that as well. But looking to the future, and by that I mean five years and more, I see a place where this genre of gaming is going to lend itself to what today is being described as the metaverse. We’ll see if that name sticks in five years.

The prerequisite, always, when I look at the space Roll20 is in, is the human interaction. It’s all about how we provide the best possible platform for those creators and GMs that want to establish these adventures, establish these experience, for those one to five or however many players are going to participate within that adventure.

GamesBeat: When it comes to diversity, what is your hope for the industry? How can it get better?

Rosemond: I’ll be frank with you. My hope with the industry is that a lot more interactive entertainment companies can look and act like Roll20. When I look at it from an underrepresented minority perspective, we’re approximately 25 percent diverse in the organization. It’s very high. It’s diverse both from underrepresented minority perspectives, from a woman’s perspective, much more than I’ve seen in the game industry.

Most important, it’s across disciplines. As I look across the organization, we have truly diverse representation across the board. Dev, finance, operations, customer experience, HR, program management, QA. We have a truly inclusive and diverse organization across functions. Not just in one or two traditional functions where there’s been more diversity than in other parts of organizations.

That’s something that attracted me as I went through the interview process. This is a company that gets it. This is a company where, frankly, people are self-aware. They’re constantly, continually working on how we can be both more inclusive, but also successful and productive and competitive as a company. It’s not something here that’s just being done to hit a metric, to be able to raise a flag and say how woke we are as a company. It’s something that’s truly working, something the company believes in. It gives us a competitive advantage.

roll20 desktop

Above: Roll20’s desktop interface.

Image Credit: Roll20

GamesBeat: Where would you like to go with Roll20? Where do you think there’s room to grow or room for improvement?

Rosemond: In terms of room to grow, I want to enable and unlock the potential for us to delight and to train the imaginations of all the untapped people, in my opinion, that haven’t understood the full experiential value of what tabletop and role-playing games represent. A lot of people only think about role-playing games through the lens of Dungeons and Dragons, to use one example. It’s the leader, so I use it. That’s so far removed from what is offered and what’s available within tabletop role-playing games.

I’ll give you an analogy. That’s like saying the entire video game world is based on World of Warcraft. For a time it was revolutionary, and it was predominant in many respects, but–I use that because when I think about the mainstream, given the South Park episode, or a couple of other sitcoms that brought up video games–in that time, in the 2000s, they only talked about World of Warcraft. That’s what video games are about, that one game? There are literally millions of games out there, but everyone thought, that represents a video game. Or Halo. Or Madden. Or Grand Theft Auto. GTA is probably an even better example. People thought, “That’s video games.” When politicians talked about video games they’d bring up five examples, max.

Now mainstream people have figured out, primarily due to mobile games, but also due to casual PC games, that gaming is much more diverse than that. I’ll never forget people telling me that they’re not gamers, while they’re literally on their phone playing Candy Crush. That’s a game. You’re a game. “Yeah, I guess so?” In much the same regard, you have role-playing games and tabletop games, and people don’t even realize that many of them have nothing to do with a fantasy world that resembles Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

Mind you, those are very popular. But I just played a game called Alice is Missing on our platform. The best way for me to describe that game is almost like Riverdale meets 90210. Or Dawson’s Creek. Playing this game, it’s meant to be a four-hour game, and at the start I’m thinking, “What are we going to do for four hours?” Next thing I know three hours and 30 minutes have passed, and we’re in the middle of this. We’re caught up in the adventure. You find yourself having a great time. I just flies by. I had a lot of fun with this game, and there are no weapons, nothing like that going on. But it’s a truly engaging adventure. It reminded me of watching an extended version of something like Dawson’s Creek or Riverdale. I found myself having an experience I’d never had before through other types of interactive entertainment. I’d venture to say that with more than 900 gaming systems on Roll20 today, right now, that there’s a tabletop game for everyone.

Going forward I see us expanding that. We’ve been working with a lot of role-playing game creators to enable them to get their games and their creative endeavors out to a broader set of people than ever before. If you think about it traditionally, to make a board game you need a lot of up-front cash. You need a publisher to get that game printed and positioned in a Target or a Wal-Mart. Then, fingers crossed, your marketing is spot-on and you find an audience and you’re able to grow from there.

What Roll20 represents is the best possible way for those developers and content creators and designers to get their games out to the audience online, right now, without depending on the physical side of the business. We will keep growing the better we can connect the untapped millions of tabletop gamers out there — or unknowing soon-to-be tabletop games out there — with these great creative endeavors that designers and creators are coming up with on an almost daily basis.

One more figure I can give you. More than $230 million of Kickstarter money that’s funded projects has been for tabletop games. There’s a lot of creativity out there, a lot of games being created, that are traditionally more tabletop games. We enable those games to be played online. If you look at some of the leading Kickstarter campaigns out there, we participate. If a game is funded, you may be able to play that game sooner than the physical version arrives on Roll20. That’s something we’ve done with a number of publishers and developers of tabletop games.

GamesBeat: Sounds like fun.

Rosemond: It’s been good trouble in terms of the work and getting myself onboarded. I’m looking forward to the future.

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