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Aviation Blog

The secret way airlines could immediately reduce their climate impact – Protocol

Contrails could be responsible for more than half of aviation’s climate impact. Mitigating them could be a simple fix.
Let’s talk about contrails.
Among the biggest climate challenges for the aviation industry are the wispy contrails that follow airplanes across the sky.
Those innocuous-seeming puffs are responsible for more than 50% of flights’ climate impact and up to 2% of total global warming, and yet very little is known about them beyond academic circles. While airlines have largely focused their climate plans around reducing carbon dioxide emissions associated with air travel, some very simple tricks to reroute flights could cut down on contrails and have huge — and immediate — climate benefits.
Contrails are essentially clouds of ice crystals. They can form when hot water vapor from jet engines mixes with cold air or when soot from engine exhaust provides nuclei for crystals to form in humid air. Unlike other airplane emissions like carbon dioxide, which generally have a warming effect on the atmosphere, contrails can sometimes have a cooling effect. Their impact on the climate depends on a number of factors, including the time of day, the plane’s height, temperature and other factors.

“One of the major uncertainties in climate change is the role of clouds and water vapor in the atmosphere,” said Michel Gelobter, managing director of climate nonprofit Reflective Earth.
Contrails that are present during the day generally reflect more solar radiation, essentially acting as a shield for the planet. That has a net cooling effect. Those same contrails, however, could lead to warming a few hours later at night, when that solar radiation is absent. When contrails spread out, they create a hazy layer that traps outgoing heat; Ken Caldeira, senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, likens it to throwing a blanket over the planet.
Being able to accurately and consistently measure how contrails affect the climate would be huge simply because their climate impact is significant. Doing so could also open the door to simple steps that would reduce that impact and buy us a little climate breathing room while the world works to cut carbon emissions. Contrails can dissipate within a few hours, whereas carbon dioxide emitted by planes will remain in the atmosphere for centuries.
There’s also an economic incentive for airlines that want to get serious about protecting the climate. Flying higher or lower to avoid areas that encourage contrail formation is cheaper and easier than developing sustainable jet fuel.
“We could solve the contrail problem within a few years, whereas getting carbon emissions-free aviation fuel is a long way off,” Caldeira said.
Preliminary research supports this thinking. A study from a team of scientists at Imperial College London found that changing flight altitude by only a few thousand feet on fewer than 2% of all scheduled flights could reduce the climate damage of the entire aviation industry by as much as 59%.
Though the fix is simple, there’s a catch: Neither scientists nor the aviation industry know enough about how and when contrails form.
Better prediction requires better observation, which is currently lacking. “There’s no good way to account for them yet, but it is progressing,” said Sola Zheng, an aviation researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

To be able to better forecast contrails would require more sensors on airplanes. But unlike nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, contrails aren’t regulated by international aviation regulatory bodies, and understanding the humidity and other conditions that influence contrail formation at 30,000 feet hasn’t been a priority for weather forecasting systems, according to Zheng.
Still, some attempts are starting to pop up. Efforts are underway at Google to account for the climate impact of contrails in the flight emissions estimates it provides to users, according to people familiar with the research. A Google spokesperson wrote in an email to Protocol that though the company doesn’t have anything to share on its contrails research at the moment, “it’s definitely a topic of interest.”
Another project, a public contrail map developed by Orca Sciences in collaboration with Imperial College’s Transport & Environment Laboratory, shows roughly 30% of all global air traffic is responsible for creating contrails that have the largest impact on the climate in terms of both heating and cooling high-impact contrails. Caldeira, who wasn’t involved in the research, said the goal is to eventually create a system that would be integrated with the same system that routes planes around turbulence.
The aviation industry is also starting to do some self-examining. Airbus subsidiary Airbus UpNext recently announced a flight test program to study contrails produced by hydrogen combustion engines as part of the company’s zero emissions road map. Airbus UpNext CEO Sandra Bour Schaeffer said in a statement that “contrail characterization is of significant interest to Airbus” and that “understanding their composition will be key to support our decarbonization journey.” Etihad Airways and Boeing have also made commitments to combat contrails.
Still, contrails remain a secondary concern of the airline industry when it comes to reducing damage to the climate. That may in part be because, unlike carbon dioxide emissions, contrails have flown under the public’s radar. Even many of those employed in the aviation industry aren’t fully aware of the scope of their climate impact.

But the tide is starting to turn. In July, the British Airline Pilots’ Association issued a “red warning” for the U.K. government’s decarbonization strategy, arguing that it’s overly focused on carbon dioxide emissions. The union called on the government to “look more into the reduction of contrails and other non-CO2 effects of aviation.”
Ian Poll, a past president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, said in the BALPA statement, “Contrails can be avoided immediately by changing operating procedures and, unusually, the climate benefit is immediate. The gains are large and immediate, the costs are marginal, no new technology is needed and the action is ethical, what more do we need to know and what are we waiting for?”
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol covering climate. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Ikea-funded design agency Space10 has been collaborating with artists and designers from around the world on speculative technology to envision the future of the home.
Space10 is looking to lay out an alternative to the dystopian tone of “Black Mirror” and other near-future sci-fi films and shows.
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety’s first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.
Imagine your living room coming alive with lush green grass and colorful flowers, allowing you to take a quick nature walk whenever you need a break. Or a speaker that visualizes sound, with colorful waves of virtual particles appearing on your living room floor. What if your shelves, chairs and plants all triggered sounds, allowing you to play your home like an instrument?
Those are just some of the examples of Everyday Experiments, a series of futurist concepts developed by artists and designers around the world for Ikea — only, you won’t find them at the chain’s furniture stores anytime soon. Everyday Experiments have been curated by Space10, an outside research and design lab funded by the Swedish furniture giant, with the explicit mandate to work “not for the Ikea we know today, but for the Ikea we envision tomorrow.”
“We’re not selling anything we’re making,” said Space10 lead design producer Georgina McDonald. Instead of prototyping products, Everyday Experiments is about figuring out how the world will look like in five to 10 years, and how Ikea will fit into that picture. “A big focus is to help close the imagination gap,” said Space10 head of concept Ryan Sherman. “Put a more positive and hopeful outlook on technology into the world.”
With 30 projects published to date, Everyday Experiments have formed a fascinating catalog of speculative futures. At the same time, the series has also become a case study for companies looking to push the boundaries in R&D, and an illustration of the limits of trying to look years ahead for a company whose business is squarely centered in the here and now.
Space10 has been trying to invent the future on behalf of Ikea since 2015. The agency’s work has included a project that allows everyone to design and manufacture homes for bees, exhibits on the future of urban life and reports on subjects like shared living and the future of youth culture.
With Everyday Experiments, Space10 wanted to work with a wide variety of artists and designers from around the world on fast-track experimentation. The goal: quickly build a digital prototype, publish it and learn from the public’s response. “The benefit for Ikea is essentially to see what type of reaction we get from different concepts that we put out there,” said McDonald.
Image: Space10

To kick off Everyday Experiments, Space10 approached a number of artists and designers in early 2020, asking them to envision the future of the home using advanced technologies. “We started doing partnerships in April 2020, right when lockdowns had happened,” McDonald said. This led to many designers envisioning ideas to make the home more playful and educational.
Amsterdam design studio Random built a prototype for an AR experience called Hidden Characters that lets furniture come alive, complete with googly eyes and moppy hair. London- and Berlin-based Field.Systems imagined people using AR to build imaginary forts in their living rooms, all without having to move a single piece of furniture. And Danish design studio Set Snail reimagined Ikea wardrobes as portals into virtual worlds.
Many Everyday Experiments make use of AR, in part because it helps to paint the picture for technologies that don’t quite exist yet. “It is a great vehicle for visualizing technology,” Sherman said. At the same time, AR is also a technology that will likely be part of that future itself, be it via AR glasses, or perhaps one day even high-tech contact lenses. “We do see augmented reality being a very plausible future,” he said. “AR has been able to bridge [the] physical and digital in a unique way. It’s just like the home in itself becomes an interface.”
Other technologies Everyday Experiments have been exploring include IoT devices, screenless interfaces, spatial audio and blockchain applications. While Space10 initially gave its collaborators a fairly open brief, it has more recently taken a more targeted approach in its explorations, encouraging designers and artists to explore themes like privacy and trust, as well as sustainability and circularity.
On the privacy front, artists Nicole He and Eran Hilleli developed Invisible Roommates, a hypothetical AR app that visualizes the flow of data between devices in your home. Work on sustainability included Chain of Traceability, an experiment that uses blockchain technologies to help consumers identify their household objects and learn about their materials, manufacturing process and even the prior ownership of secondhand furniture. “Blockchain does offer a really interesting new interaction model with physical possessions in the home,” Sherman said.
Nicole He and Eran Hilleli's Invisible Roommates project for Everyday Experiments. Nicole He and Eran Hilleli’s Invisible Roommates project for Everyday Experiments.Image: Space10
Sustainability was also at the core of another experiment: Updateables from London-based design studio Oio reenvisions Ikea furniture as always evolving, with people turning chairs into shelves and shelves into tables over the course of years. “It is about updating itself and becoming relevant in new stages of your life,” McDonald said.
Combined with sensors and smarts, this could even point to a future in which our furniture anticipates our needs and reacts to them in various ways. “Your couch could actually send you a text message and say, ‘What happened to us? We had such a good relationship in 2015, and you haven’t really used me for the past two years,’” she said. “‘I feel like we’re drifting apart. How can I become relevant to you? If you’re not interested, I’ll put myself up [for sale].’”
Any move towards a circular economy would require significant changes from Ikea, which has perfected its way of manufacturing over the decades. “It would flip the entire business model of Ikea on its head,” said McDonald, who admitted that the company almost pulled the plug on the Updateables experiment. “We nearly got blocked, because it was too close to their business model.”
It’s not the first time this has happened. “Mostly because of patents,” explained McDonald. “Other tech companies might think, ‘Oh, is Ikea pouring money into this? Are they investigating this?’ The concern is that someone else will go out and patent every single thing associated with that potential concept and then create a kind of monopoly.”
The flip side of this is also true: If Ikea doesn’t want other companies to patent something, it may in fact be looking to use the technology itself. “When they shut down a project, we might be hitting a nerve, getting closer to what they’re interested in,” McDonald said.
Even with the occasional veto, Space10 has worked to rapidly grow the number of Everyday Experiments, with another 10 or so waiting in the pipeline to get published soon. The studio is also getting ready to release a short film about Everyday Experiments in September, and it has plans to explore other ways to exhibit the experiments in the near future.
Through this work, McDonald and Sherman are looking to lay out an alternative to the dystopian tone of “Black Mirror” and other near-future sci-fi films and shows. “‘Black Mirror’ is a future that is plausible,” said Sherman. “It does feel very close to home. But it’s a future where technology doesn’t work for us. What we’re trying to do is create an alternate narrative to that where it can possibly work for us.”
A future, one might add, in which Ikea can play many different roles, with Everyday Experiments simply providing cues from the outside and leaving it up to the company to chart its own path. “If they like something, it’s essentially theirs,” McDonald said. “And if we screw up, they don’t have to take ownership.”
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety’s first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.
If you thought the rise of remote work, independent contractors and contingent workers rose sharply during the pandemic, just wait until the next few months when you see a higher uptick in the on-demand talent economy.
Rising workload and pace, the stress of commuting and a taste of the flexible work-from-anywhere lifestyle have all contributed to what many are calling the Great Resignation, which is only just the beginning of the headwinds organizations are facing, says Tim Sanders, vice president of client strategy at Upwork, a marketplace that connects businesses with independent professionals and agencies around the globe.
“It began with front-line workers, but it’s not going to end there,” Sanders notes, “Recent data suggests that the biggest industries for quits are now software and professional services and on top of that, I predict that we’ll see more leaders and managers continuing to quit their jobs.”
As the economy leans toward a recession, and layoffs across dozens of tech firms make headlines, Sanders predicts companies will increasingly turn to on-demand talent. “These highly skilled independent contractors and professionals offer the speed, flexibility and agility companies are seeking right now. Leaders are becoming more empowered to fully embrace a hybrid workforce and shift away from rigid models.”

Leaning into headwinds: Driving growth amid uncertainty
A recent report from Upwork, The Adaptive Enterprise, underscores the importance of flexible on-demand talent during uncertain times. Sanders notes: “A growing number of organizations, including Upwork and customers like Microsoft, Airbnb and Nasdaq understand that on-demand talent enables companies to reduce risk, drive cost savings, and at the same time, protect their people from burnout. Flexible workforce models also allow businesses to respond to and recover faster from crises than more traditional models.”
Some crises come in the form of economic slowdowns, while others can take the shape of geopolitical conflicts that disrupt life and work as we know it. Mitigating risk — such as a pandemic wave striking a certain region housing the majority of a company’s staff — is one reason businesses turn to on-demand talent, but it’s certainly not the only one.
CEOs surveyed by Deloitte in 2022 see talent shortages as the biggest threat to their growth plans. The survey goes on to report that CEOs believe that talent is the top disruptor to their supply chain and there is more to be gained within their workforce by providing greater flexibility (83% in agreement) as opposed to merely offering more financial-related incentives. What is top of mind for many business leaders is needing to fill talent and skills gaps, so they can deliver new products and enhanced services. In other words, companies are struggling to find the specific skill sets needed to advance their business objectives and innovation agendas.
The biggest benefit of leveraging on-demand talent is often tapping into the talent and skills that businesses can’t find elsewhere. Upwork’s recent report highlights that 53% of on-demand talent provide skills that are in short supply for many companies, including IT, marketing, computer programming and business consulting.

By harnessing a global talent pool from digital marketplaces like Upwork, businesses have wider access to skilled talent who can accelerate what those companies offer to customers at a fraction of the cost. “Skillsourcing” on-demand talent helps companies maintain a more compact population of full-time employees to concentrate on work that only they can do as well as maximize their strengths while bringing in independent professionals to handle the rest.
Behind the growth: Speed, flexibility and agility
Speed, flexibility and agility are three critical benefits offered by on-demand talent to businesses seeking competitive advantages in their sector. While on-demand talent solutions give companies speed-to-market advantages, Sanders sees that they also give organizations a strategic form of flexibility.
“An agile organization is able to make bold and quick moves without breaking everything,” Sanders says, “and look at a number of our Fortune 100 customers that have a workforce made up of almost half on-demand talent, and how they can pivot on a dime. It’s a case of structure enabling strategy.”
As for speed and efficiency doing the actual work, Sanders says clients report that when hiring managers have been given access to on-demand talent, they engage the needed talent within days instead of months, and when they bring them onto projects, the work is completed up to 50% faster than through traditional avenues.
Sanders says, “Businesses have realized that remote work experiences are best led and judged by outcomes, not just time in the office, and more leaders are comfortable and confident opting for a hybrid workforce that can deliver based on those outcomes.”
Upwork’s Labor Market Trends and Insights page shows that organizations are indeed ramping up their hybrid workforces: 60% of businesses surveyed said they plan to use more on-demand talent in the next two years.
“The old way of acquiring talent isn’t efficient,” Sanders says. “Staffing firms aren’t the silver-bullet solution they once were, and more businesses need to rethink and redesign their workforce with on-demand talent as the economy and work rapidly evolve. The conversation is no longer about the future of work, but the future of winning.”

YouTube plans to launch two new versions of the custom video transcoding chip it designed called Argos. The first edition made its data centers far more efficient.
Partha Ranganathan was at the heart of the effort to design and deploy Google’s Argos chip.
Max A. Cherney is a senior reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron’s magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.
YouTube’s first-generation Argos video chip made its data centers way more efficient, freeing up expensive processors for demanding tasks. If one is good, two is better.
YouTube has at least two new versions of the custom video transcoding chip in the works, suggesting the company is committed to producing the piece of silicon for the foreseeable future. The video coding unit, or VCU, came into being after Google figured out that Moore’s law — the predictable doubling of chip performance at a lower cost — had become an unreliable way to plan its data center construction.
A tech lead for infrastructure and Google fellow, Partha Ranganathan was at the heart of the effort to design and deploy the Argos chip. Ranganathan co-founded the project and was the chief architect of the chip. He serves on the board of the Open Compute Project Foundation, and prior to his time at Google, Ranganathan worked for HP Labs for more than a decade.

Ranganathan recently discussed with Protocol why Google decided to make custom chips, how it elected to pursue one focused on the compute-intensive workload of video transcoding and the future of hardware-accelerated video.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Maybe a good place to start is at the beginning. Can you tell us in as much visceral detail as possible how this idea of a chip for video — for YouTube — came into being?
So in the role that I am in, I constantly look at how our infrastructure is evolving, and, about six or seven years back, we realized that Moore’s law was dead, and this notion that performance doubles for the same cost every 18 months. So every two years, we used to get double the performance for the same cost. Now it’s showing up every four years, and it looks like it’s going to get slower. And we said, “Well, I think we need to do something different.” We decided to embrace custom silicon hardware accelerators.
We built this accelerator for machine learning called the [tensor processing unit, or TPU], which was our very first stuff, and I was privileged to help out a little bit with that as well. And so we were doing that, and that project was really doing very well. And we were realizing that things that were not possible earlier were magically happening. We could go on Google Photos, [and] some amazing things that used to take months to train were [now] taking minutes to train, and we were creating new product categories.
So I have an equivalent to that, which is, if an accelerator lands in the fleet, and nobody uses [it], it didn’t really land.
So I was coming at it from the point of view of: What is the next big killer application we want to look at? And then we looked at the fleet, and we saw that transcoding was consuming a large fraction of our compute cycle. So we started off saying, “Hey, look, is there something here? This looks like an incredibly compute-intensive workload and it’s fairly well defined.”

Building an accelerator is not an easy undertaking; you need a strong stomach for it. One of the big things you saw in the 13-page paper is this: It’s all about co-design. So the hardware is really kind of the tip of the iceberg. It’s the entire surrounding ecosystem.
I have this quote that my colleagues find very humorous. You know the philosophy quote: If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody heard it fall, did it fall? So I have an equivalent to that, which is, if an accelerator lands in the fleet, and nobody uses [it], it didn’t really land. And the point really is you can build hardware: It’s not that complicated. You can build amazing hardware. But if you don’t build it in a way that our software colleagues can use it, and it can actually work and there is compilation and tools and debugging and deployment and so on — it’s a pretty big undertaking, right?
Were there any important “eureka” moments along the way to designing the Argos chip?
The first aha moment was that we needed another accelerator, and video seems to be growing. But one of the big epiphanies we had was that accelerators are not about efficiency. I think it’s kind of very contradictory, or counterintuitive. Because most people draw a pie chart of where the cycles go and say, “Hey, here’s 30% of my cycles, I’m going to accelerate it with hardware.”
What we realized was that accelerators are all about capabilities. Not only are we going to make all these [tasks] faster, much like machine learning, we’re going to create magical experiences that otherwise didn’t exist.
I’m thankful we used Google video conference [for this interview], because it’s running on the hardware we developed, it’s running on a VCU. And so this blurring of my image behind me is running on a VCU. And so you can do some really nice stuff with image processing. You could do 8K video, you could do immersive video, you could 360 degrees, you could compress video. So the bandwidth became faster, and you could get quality of service. You could do YouTube TV, you could do cloud gaming, right? So the capabilities, not the efficiencies — the new things that you could do — that’s when we realized we were sitting on something really interesting.

One of the unique things about the Argos chip is that it had, at least compared with a chip company, an unusual amount of collaboration between the hardware designers and software engineers. Can you talk a bit about how that worked?
I still remember the really exhilarating — but sometimes it was a very challenging — conversation about, “Where do we draw the line between hardware and software?” I know the paper was very dry and technical. But to me, it’s super exciting because some of the trade-offs we made were the first time in the history we’ve done these kinds of things. This is the first time on the planet we have warehouse-scale transcoding. And we’ve never done large-scale distributed transcoding. So what do we put in hardware? What do we put in software? How do we do schedulers? How do we do testing? How do we do high-level synthesis?
High-level synthesis is kind of an emerging technique. But this notion of using a software-centric approach to designing hardware was something that we really pushed on very hard in Argos. There’s a whole bunch of software things that are associated with it. So hardware is pretty hard. It’s complicated. And it takes a long time. So I work at Google, which is a software company, and we do some of the world’s largest software platforms, and something like web search or Android are huge, complex software, code bases, but we still kind of make updates to them fairly frequently.
When I go to my software colleagues and I tell them, “Hey, look, I have a hardware idea — I’m going to change your business model. I’ll come back in two years and I will get you something at that time.” They look at me and say, “Two years? That’s a long lead time for me to get something all right.” And they’ve often asked me, “Why don’t we do it the same way software people do? Why don’t you kind of do incremental things? Why don’t you do agile development?” And I always tell them, “Hey, look, hardware is hard. It’s different.”

And so one of the approaches, I think, in the post-Moore’s law world, is this notion of: How can you have software-defined hardware? The idea really is, can you use high-level synthesis techniques [or HLS]? And what was very notable was we actually did some nice innovations in that space as well, which we didn’t talk about too much.
What did using high-level synthesis for your designs achieve?
So what it does is we got hardware — there’s a term called PPA, P for power, P for performance and P for area, so that’s how you look at hardware. So we got similar power, similar performance, similar area, with maybe a little bit of trade-offs here and there. But what it allowed us to do was iterate much faster, and so the paper actually talked about [an] example of how you could look at a much broader design space. Because we could quickly learn it and simulate it, and see what happens. So you could do a much more systematic design-space exploration.
We use a lot of Intel, AMD, and Arm in our fleet, and if somebody delivers something magical, I will use it.
But you could also start to be very nimble about late additions, and we actually had an example in the paper of a last minute additional — we decided we need to add a little bit, the algorithm changed. And so we said, no worries, we can go ahead and compile the hardware. That’s what the whole HLS is about.
Were there any stand-out moments once the chip launched? For example, what happened during the early days of the pandemic when many people spent time at home? Did it push the Argos chip to the limit?

When the pandemic hit, usage just went up — like a 25% increase in watch time across the world in a 30-day period. The fact that we had an accelerator lying around that could really stand up to all the demand was pretty useful as well. So that was a very memorable moment for us.
The final step in the chip design process is called a tape out, dating back from the last century when designers literally taped a design together before it went off to the fab. It’s an important moment, even today. How did your team celebrate?
If you’ve designed hardware — so maybe the right analogy is to think about the most exhausting project that you have done. And it was an adrenaline roller coaster, and so on. And then you finished it, what happened? My suspicion is you’re going to sleep right after that. I was so exhausted. But at Google, we have the tradition that we always celebrate with ice cream and kind of have a party, so we did have all of that. But it wasn’t like that one moment where we pressed, the magic button popped up and confetti rained all over like a NASA launch. We hugged each other and did all of that stuff. I wish I could say there was that nice movie-worthy moment.
And so the person who did the tape out sent an email saying, “Hey, look, this is done,” and we have a flurry of congratulatory emails and then everybody’s exhausted. Nowadays it’s just a bunch of FTP files getting uploaded, and there is not that nice epochal moment where there is literally a transition of physical hardware. So you have to make do with emails being sent out and ice creams being consumed.
What does the future for accelerator chips look like? Does Google want the likes of Intel, AMD or Nvidia to start making custom video accelerator chips?
I’ve been working in this area for multiple decades, and this is by far the most exciting time that I’ve had — the number of opportunities that we’ve had: video, ML, network acceleration and security, data processing, there’s so many things to be done. And so when the dust settles there are going to be a bunch of big accelerators. Now, to me, video is easily going to be one of those category accelerators, and we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg. So video transcoding is this one small block, and things which we know for sure are very important, and we want to do this.

But if you start looking at how much video is central to our lives — and I think, for good or bad, the pandemic has made video even more central — and you saw that how many kids used YouTube and cloud gaming during the first few months of the pandemic, how videoconferencing is [the] default. I was at a conference last week. And it’s now the default to have a hybrid, right? And then I look at the number of IoT devices like cameras that are capturing the images, cameras and manufacturing that are looking for quality checking. Video is going to be teaching computers to see, and the computers are going to be everywhere. That’s why I think video will be an integral part of our lives.
So all of this is a long-winded way of saying there’s plenty of opportunities. And I really see a very, very vibrant cottage industry of us all figuring out how to use and accelerate video in the future. Is it OK, if Intel or AMD does that — I think part of the reason why we publish the paper is we would love for the entire industry to understand the importance of this problem and kind of build on top of that, because that is how the search works. That’s how innovation works, people built on top of each other, and again, at the end of the day, I’m looking for us to deliver magical experiences. And if somebody else delivers hardware — we use a lot of Intel, AMD, and Arm in our fleet, and if somebody delivers something magical, I will use it.
Because we are in the business of using hardware to build even bigger, magical experiences. On top of that, if it turns out we have awareness of a problem that needs hardware, and we think we can do it well, like we did with Argos, we will continue to do that. And I think I see a very, very rich road map, and have ideas in the future, that we can continue to accelerate.

Max A. Cherney is a senior reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron’s magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.
A group of founders and funders who worked at the secretive data-analysis startup share a playbook: Hire the best engineers, go after audacious ideas and do the unscalable things needed.
Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.
When Luba Lesiva created the Palantir Alumni syndicate on AngelList, she thought it would be a small project to help a handful of LPs invest in companies started by her former co-workers. By her mental count, the former head of Palantir’s investor relations could name at most a dozen, maybe two dozen alumni-led companies. Her thesis was the group would do a deal or two a year.
“I was massively, massively, massively wrong,” said Lesiva, the founder of what’s now called Palumni VC. “We’re at over 700 LPs in the syndicate right now. It’s not a small side gig anymore.”
The investor interest is proportional to the number of startups spinning off of Palantir, which is in the range of 100 or more. Lesiva tracks 170 that are either founded or led by ex-Palantir executives. The irony is that Palantir’s own software, which helps companies and the government find patterns within data, could probably better identify the links.

The Palantir group hasn’t reached the fame of the PayPal Mafia, whose infamous Fortune photo shoot and rapidly successful next acts made it legendary. Instead, much like the company itself, the group that I’m calling the Palantir Pack has emerged more quietly, taking years to focus on building their companies and firms.
The Palantir Pack includes early team members like co-founder Joe Lonsdale, first employee Alex Moore and 10th hire Garry Tan. All three have been founders and are now funders to a network of alumni. Other cohorts of founders, like much of the leadership team who started defense startup Anduril, bonded in their Palantir days. But unlike PayPal, which saw its early employees leave after eBay bought the company and immediately start new ventures, Palantir is still spinning out new founders and arguably hasn’t reached its full potential. There are new waves of up-and-coming endeavors that could add to the Pack’s unicorn ranks, like AI startup Arena, Web3 developer tool Kurtosis and data science company Hex — all of which have announced funding this year.
“The Pack has gradients of maturity, and there’s going to be a lot more,” predicts Trae’ Stephens, an early employee at Palantir who would go on to become a partner at Founders Fund and co-founder and executive chairman at Anduril.
The Palantir playbook started by going after big, ambitious, mission-driven problems and hiring the best talent out of universities to do it, the founders, early employees and VCs interviewed for this story said. At Palantir, they built an engineering-first culture that wasn’t afraid to work hard and do unscalable things like deploying engineers out to customers to make it a success. Now the Palantir Pack is deploying the same playbook as it builds the next generation of startups.
“Those folks tend to be very entrepreneurial, they’re comfortable operating on their own,” Lesiva said. “So there’s an outsized amount of Palantirians that end up wanting to build a startup, and that’s how you end up with over 170 startups in the ecosystem.”
If there’s one thing that PayPal and Palantir share, beyond co-founder Peter Thiel, it’s that they are both startups that faced an enormous amount of challenges in their early days.

PayPal packed a lot of drama into its early years, from the merger between Elon Musk’s and Thiel’s competing startups to executive churn including Musk’s ouster to a difficult IPO and the eventual buyout by eBay. Palantir, founded in 2003, saw a slower burn: hard technical challenges and the difficulty of selling into the government right at the beginning of the Iraq War.
“There was a lot of pressure on margins, there was a lot of pressure on how to structure things so that we could actually have a scalable business with positive unit economics. It was not easy,” Anduril’s Stephens said. “I think everyone has that memory of fighting through it not being easy for a long time.”
It took 17 years for the company to go public, and it faced a lot of criticism, even internally, in that time for its helping companies and government agencies process and analyze data, like its controversial contract with ICE. There are still lingering questions over whether Palantir sees too much.

But working through that adversity was an essential ingredient in bonding the network together, Palantir alumni say.

“It’s really hard for companies like Google to have these sorts of mafias because everything is just too good. It’s like crazy profit margins or the growth profile is wild. Everyone gets incredible comp. So you don’t build that sort of resilience that’s required to go and become really high-caliber founders,” Stephens said.
Palantir was relentless in pursuing the top talent in Silicon Valley when it started. That’s the first step in the Palantir playbook: Hire the best and brightest talent, typically from universities, and then get them to bring in their friends.
“It’s really hard for companies like Google to have these sorts of mafias because everything is just too good.”
One of Palantir’s co-founders took an advanced Natural Language Processing class at Stanford after he had graduated in order to recruit the best talent on campus, recounted Moore, Palantir’s first hire who is now a partner at 8VC after starting a few other companies. The early Palantir team also used its own network-analyzing product in combination with Facebook’s friend-connection data to pin down potential recruits’ social links.

Another time, an eBay employee let the team secretly set up shop in a conference room and interview people to poach them from inside the eBay office, said Lonsdale, who is also founder of multibillion-dollar startups like Addepar and the venture firm 8VC. “It’s a level of aggression to do whatever you can to get the top people to bring them over,” he said. “The culture of the company was who are your smartest friends, who are their smartest friends, and whatever they’re doing is not as important as what we’re doing.”
It wasn’t just a matter of getting the brightest technical talent in the door that set them up to become a new wave of startups after their tenure at the company. The company is unique in using forward-deployed engineers, or FDEs, to basically replace a sales team and embed with customers to solve their problems on-site. It was a strategy in part to help with talent, Lonsdale said: The more engineers were exposed to customers’ problems, the more likely they would feel responsible for their work and bring in their friends to help solve them.
Deploying engineers in what it called an 80-20 model — where Palantir’s software could solve the first 80% of a customer’s needs and then the FDEs had to make tweaks and revisions to the other 20% on-site — also meant that Palantir employees had a lot of ownership of the product.
“It’s rare to have that up-front perspective inside an enterprise to the real-world problems,” said Pratap Ranade, whose startup Kimono was acquired by Palantir in 2016. He left in 2017 and worked at another company before starting his latest venture in AI, Arena. “That was a powerful lesson that we carried over, which was that mindset of going physically to customers, spending time with the customer and their people and really understanding it,” Ranade said. “Even though to some degree, you’re doing things that don’t scale.”

The do-whatever-it-takes mentality is something that’s deeply ingrained in the Palantir culture because the company is so mission-driven and focused, said early employee Matt Grimm. During his tenure, he ended up deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan to implement Palantir’s tech.
Amplitude IPO day on Nasdaq Amplitude, co-founded by Palantir alum Jeffrey Wang (front in gray blazer), was valued at $5 billion shortly after its market debut in 2021.Photo: Nasdaq
“When you as an employee go through that, you build this sort of connective fiber, this in-the-trenches-with-your-colleagues kind of mentality that in the long run leads to a very tight and close-knit community. And I think Anduril’s no clearer example than that,” said Grimm, who co-founded the company and is now COO. “There’s a reason that in our C-suite, four of us all started at Palantir within six months of each other and all had that exact same early experience and that exact same kind of struggle and then worked through it.”
The same intensity in the culture that helped bond the Pack together is also what many alums say has helped them become deeply obsessed with the problems they’re solving and being willing to tackle ambitious ideas.
Some are building on top of Palantir’s software through its new Foundry for Builders program, which is giving startups access to its Foundry software to build a company on top of it. While Palantir doesn’t invest as a company in its former employees like some companies have done, the first class of Foundry for Builders was specifically for its alumni companies, ranging from Medicare adviser Chapter to legal-tech software Hence to defense communication software Adyton.
“I notice that many Palantir alums have gone on to found companies where transforming an entire industry is the actual mission of their company,” said Palantir’s Meredith McNaughton, head of the Foundry for Builders program. “They have an ambitious use case in mind where getting the data foundation right is central to the success of their company.”
Building on top of Palantir’s products isn’t a prerequisite of the Palantir Pack, though. The one thing linking them is that there’s a story behind why the founders cared about starting them beyond just wanting to start a company, says Stephens.

“It’s rare to have that up-front perspective inside an enterprise to the real-world problems.”
“One of the most pathetic versions of Silicon Valley is what I would call whiteboard founders. There are people that are like, ‘I want to start a company because it’s the fastest path to making a ton of money, so I’m gonna stand in front of a whiteboard, I’m gonna write every idea I can come up with, and then pick the least bad one,’” Stephens said. “I don’t think Palantir alumni companies start that way.”
Often their work at Palantir informed their next company. Peregrine Technologies’ Nick Noone worked on law enforcement during his tenure at Palantir before starting a company focused on using data for public safety. The co-founders of Blend had worked on commercial lending projects at Palantir before starting their digital mortgage provider, which went public last year at a nearly $4 billion valuation. Mosaic’s co-founders all worked together on Palantir’s finance team before leaving to build better software for CFOs, recently raising $25 million from Founders Fund. Vontive’s Shreyas Vijaykumar spent seven years at Palantir and worked on a partnership with Freddie Mac, where he met his co-founder. The pair raised $135 million from Palantir-linked firms like Goldcrest Capital, 8VC and XYZ Venture Capital and emerged from stealth earlier this year with a data-focused approach to investment real estate mortgages.
Health care, an emerging focus in Palantir’s business, has seen a similar rise in startup interest from alumni. There’s companies like Little Otter focused on pediatric mental health and Kranus Health, which is working on digital erectile dysfunction therapy. In Australia, Michael Winlo is working on Emyria, a drug development biotech focused on psychedelics.
There’s even a handful of Web3 companies like unicorn OpenSea, which was co-founded by Alex Atallah, and consumer companies like Partiful, described as Eventbrite but for Gen Z.
A common link running through the network is the funders who support them. Much like the PayPal Mafia, an essential ingredient to the emergence of the Palantir Pack is having well-connected alumni who continue to back companies.

Lesiva’s Palumni VC group is the most-targeted venture capital arm, but Palantir alumni are also a force within venture capital. Lonsdale co-founded 8VC and has several ex-Palantir alums like Moore as partners. Stephens works with Thiel at Founders Fund. Tan, the 10th employee, later started Initialized Capital. Others like Accel’s Steve Loughlin and XYZ’s Ross Fubini were advisers to Palantir. Goldcrest’s Adam Ross, who was on Palantir’s board, is also a key investing link between many of the companies. When Ranade raised money for Arena earlier this year, he ended up with investment from Founders Fund, Initialized and Goldcrest — not even realizing that all three had Palantir ties.
The one part of Palantir’s culture and playbook that many alumni have purposefully chosen not to follow is Palantir’s penchant for secrecy. For Ranade, that means being transparent about the org structure and decisions inside the company. For Anduril, it’s meant explaining from the beginning what its technology can and can’t do, and getting multiple people from the company out there as public faces.
“There’s just no reason it needed to be as controversial as it was. And I think that that’s what we’re trying to work actively against at Anduril. It was like we’re just going to tell people exactly what we’re doing,” said Stephens.
The power of the Palantir network is that it can still continue and is creating more companies. In the summer 2022 Y Combinator batch, there are at least four startups that are from Palantir alumni: Ilumadata, Moonshot, Medplum and Windmill.
Many employees join Palantir and do a tour of duty before taking some time off and starting their next thing, says 8VC’s Moore, who is still on the board of Palantir. The intensity of the company and its culture makes it feel like the engineering equivalent of wanting to join SEAL Team Six. “Instead of going to grad school, they go to Palantir,” Moore said. “They do their tour of duty and they make the company a little bigger, better, but it’s not a short-term optimization where you’re making a fortune. It’s not like crypto last year. There’s no tricks to it. It’s just hard work.”
But just like pressure can turn carbon into diamonds, it can turn engineers into founders and Palantir alumni into the next generation of startup founders. Palantir used to be a footnote to the PayPal story, but through their distinct experiences, unique culture and refined playbook, its offspring have built out their own network in the valley. One extensive enough that it might take Palantir software and a forward-deployed engineer to analyze its true extent and scale.

Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.
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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety’s first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.
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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety’s first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.
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