In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carter Maslan.
Before starting Camio, Carter was Director of Product Management at Google, where he brought us Local Search in Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Mobile and Web Search. Previously, he was Director of Technical Evangelism at Microsoft, and Director of Product Management & Marketing at Inktomi via the acquisition of Impulse Buy Network. He earned his BSE in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Princeton University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up with an unusual cultural mix. I was a latch-key kid in rural Virginia until the age of 12, then moved to Los Angeles to live with my dad and stepmother. It was a big shift from “creek walking” among copperheads with rope swings to posh West LA. Having a Southern Baptist mother, Russian Jewish father, and Puertorican Catholic stepmother gave me a rich mix of perspectives without feeling fully at-home with any of them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Actually, very early in my career, I volunteered as a Spanish translator and note-taker for a human rights trip to Cuba. We interviewed political prisoners, met with Fidel Castro, walked the Malecon with the backdrop of huge Russian oil tankers. It felt important, but it was a loss of innocence. As the trip progressed, I realized that the human rights investigation seemed secondary to exploring commercial interests in Cuba: broadcast rights to the Pan American Games, hotel development, film distribution, etc. I felt naive. But it taught me early to see non-binary outcomes and to watch what people do, not what they say.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Several people have inspired me for different reasons. Michael T. Jones, Chief Technology Advocate at Google said as I was leaving Google to start Camio, “the future will be recorded, the question is what are we going to do with it.” He imbued me with his optimism, ethics, and pragmatism. He encouraged me to run with the wild expectations of non-technical people — for example, when people using Street View complained that they couldn’t see their car parked outside of their house even though they knew it was there today (as if Street View were magically real-time imagery), he wouldn’t judge them. He’d instead look with curiosity at ways to make their unreasonable expectations reasonable. That attitude is powerful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the sentiment from Tony Bennett in the Amy Winehouse movie when he said, “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough.” It reminds me of the humility required to roll with the punches and to view life as a journey of continual growth and learning.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Resilience. The ability to do the next right thing over and over again in times of uncertainty or difficulty — to calm myself and travel with my eyes on the horizon, not on all the bumps in the road. We had invested a lot to create software for a 4G-connected dashcam partner that went out of business. It was a big setback. We looked at other scenarios in need of bandwidth efficient video monitoring and worked without pay to repurpose work that enabled us to become the leading B2B VSaaS provider.
- Integrity. I’m the same person regardless of the setting or stressor. I want the best for everyone around me. Full transparency and honesty in every interaction. When we pivoted to B2B VSaaS, I promised to make teammates whole for their investment in that switch, while explaining that I’d still need to get board approval for stock grants and loans. We repaid everyone, including a key teammate that left to pursue his space travel dreams at SpaceX.
- Diligence. Work hard on the right things. Take ownership of outcomes, not effort. As a product manager, I’m keenly aware of hundreds of ways our product could be better. When the team hears criticism that we haven’t yet delivered the 93rd item on our stack-ranked list, they have the confidence and patience that they’re working hard on the right things in the optimal sequence.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?
I co-founded Camio with a simple question. Why can you search the entire web in 50 milliseconds, but you can’t find anything in video without hours of review? There is so much useful information that can be derived from understanding what’s captured by all the cameras all around us. Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), Camio puts industry-standard cameras to work to tell us when something important happens in the real world. Camio helps people identify and remediate environmental, health and safety problems without jeopardizing privacy.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Camio real-time video search makes it economically feasible to apply visual analyses to any health, safety, or environmental challenge. Its innovation is enabling existing inexpensive cameras to exploit the latest advances in Artificial Intelligence without proprietary equipment or large upfront costs. We’re focused on pragmatic solutions that are cheap enough to solve the long tail of problems that are intractable without machines that can see and understand the real world.
For example, when COVID-19 hit early last year, a Chilean mining company acted quickly to develop a comprehensive system to safeguard employees, including mask wearing and social distancing requirements, health screening questionnaires, and training programs. While the company had strong protocols in place, there was no efficient way to monitor compliance, identify problem areas, and track anomalies. With Camio, they detected problem areas immediately and sent automatic, real-time alerts to authorized personnel. Interactive dashboards enabled management to see problem areas, sometimes revealing surprising areas of risk, and communicate with team members. The technology not only helped ensure the health of hundreds of employees who live and work in close proximity, but it also ensured business and employment continuity. Closure of the mines for one month would cost more than 300 jobs and 4M dollars in losses.
The technology can also be used in everyday situations to protect workers. Cameras connected to Camio at a warehouse can identify unsafe practices such as forklifts moving without maintaining minimum clearance distances, missing hardhats, and people too close without PPE. Real-time video search transforms health and safety with continuous monitoring of risks rather than ad hoc policy spot checks.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Several experiences inspired me. When Google Street View debuted, usability studies revealed that people mistakenly thought it was real-time imagery. But that experience got me thinking. Why not have real-time information about any place people care about? Like private, encrypted Google search for your own places. Second, a gun incident at my son’s school illustrated how the transparency and accountability that video evidence provides is vital to protect lives. 3 of 4 witnesses were scared to testify when a drug-dealing student brandished a loaded revolver in a dormitory. All we needed was video evidence. The encounter exposed the frailty of the legal system. Prosecuting bad actors is predicated on evidence. But people may fear repercussions of testifying. The social fabric of our society relies on willingness to speak up. Cameras can’t be intimidated. They’re objective. Video has become central to justice.
How do you think this might change the world?
Camio can help correct a long-standing imbalance of power in open societies — where a few bad actors exercise outsized impact on the public “soft-target” majority. With Camio, the private sector can martial a coordinated response to threats instantly and without sacrificing privacy. Using standard privately owned cameras connected to Camio, private sector companies and citizens can share links used collectively to respond to public safety emergencies.
There’s been a false choice between an Orwellian future and public safety. Technology advances have made private encrypted video with information accessible only to its owner a pragmatic part of our collective defense — without conceding privacy to any centralized authority.
For example, when a bomb exploded in downtown Nashville early Christmas morning 2020, a Camio customer located near the epicenter used its street-facing perimeter cameras to help law enforcement with the bombing investigation. Using Camio, the company found video of the RV in under two minutes. Investigators had instant insights to help determine whether the bomber acted alone or was assisted by others departing the blast site prior to the explosion. Private cameras have the power to work for the public good, enabling proactive intervention and keeping our neighborhoods, workplaces, and cities safe.
My office at Google had letters from around the world demanding that a border be changed, a sea renamed, or an island annexed by a country. A Nicaraguan commander even blamed Google Maps for an invasion of Costa Rica. The technology that gave everyone a view of the entire world on their phones to order pizza, browse vacation spots, or save rain forests also created disputes and information disclosure risks.
Camio enables machines to see and understand the real world in real-time. That saved lives and livelihoods in the pandemic with automated social distancing and mask detection and contact tracing for essential workers. Yet the same AI techniques could be used by others to hurt people too. For example, Camio doesn’t store biometrics behind face recognition. There are very good use cases for face recognition. Hospitals ask us for BOLO (Be on the Lookout) alerts when a dangerous gang member or abusive spouse returns to the Emergency Room. If we were to support that feature request, we’d have to think through ways to ensure BOLO alerts cannot become indiscriminate tracking of anyone and everyone. Our team thinks a lot about “AI for Good” while making pragmatic choices in what we enable.
Even well-intentioned regulations of this technology produce unintended consequences. For example, GDPR requires deletion of any data related to any individual upon request. That means that tech companies can no longer break the association between individuals and their data, because they have to know what to delete! Companies would have otherwise broken the link altogether, which is likely a better privacy protection.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
- Pay attention to the user and everything else follows. It’s critical to anchor on that first to ensure you’re solving important problems without getting distracted by all the “noise” from competing interests. Our end user customers wanted to protect the health and safety of their employees when the pandemic hit. Employment laws prohibit recording video in break rooms, for example, when those were the areas with high risk of COVID-19 transmission! Both the employees and employers wanted to mitigate that risk with Camio social distancing and mask detection. We focused on the good outcome first, then followed up on any HR agreements that needed revision.
- Paint a very clear picture of how you are changing someone’s life. Clearly articulate a before-and-after scenario. Illuminate with clarity the change and capability you’re trying to produce. For example, people were overwhelmed at the start of the pandemic. Giving people working in essential services the confidence that COVID-19 transmission hotspots could be identified and remediated automatically using their existing security cameras — before outbreaks happened — was a big part of returning to work safely.
- Ship early and often. Teams learn most from actual usage. With SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) in particular, you need early user feedback for learnings to improve your product. That way, you avoid optimizing unimportant things and missing important things. The very first version of Camio didn’t even play video! And it’s a video product! People wanted the event summaries and alerts without caring as much about video playback. That insight helped us focus on the AI and search engine indexing for the fastest time-to-result — which continues to be a key reason people choose Camio.
- Think people before projects. People matter more than the projects. The whole team loved a phenomenally productive software engineer that contributed a ton to Camio in its first four years. But he was a PhD Physicist that had always loved the possibility of space travel. He joined SpaceX when we still needed him badly. But we continue to help each other, and our paths will cross again.
- Stay curious. Falling in love with your first product, or even business assumptions, can be dangerous as it creates resistance to change. The marketplace tells you what it needs eventually. Camio started as a consumer company that enabled old phones and tablets to become free remote video monitoring cameras. That jump started our video processing pipeline with 50,000 pet parents. But the market quickly led us to solve critical health and safety issues worldwide using the security cameras that were already in place.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Do work that doesn’t feel like work. Pick something that’s big and ambitious, and that demands your curiosity. Then you’ll have the passion and the fortitude to create products that can change people’s lives, and ultimately, the world.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Peter Gabriel. I love his music, but I’m also eager to learn from his experience with his organization named Witness. When you see families huddled along the fence of an airport runway only because that’s the only place they’re seen to avoid mass killings, it makes you think deeply about the ways transparency enables justice.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.