This 5-Star Hotel Just Ruined Its Online Reputation By Getting the Police to Help Kick Out a Guest (He's Famous)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

You’d think that five-star hotels would be used to catering to the famous.

You’d even think that they research their guests beforehand to make sure they can surprise them with personal touches.

But then there were the peculiarly personal touches offered by the Boca Raton Resort, a Waldorf Collection Hotel to one of its New Year guests.

Vitaly Zdorovetskiy is a very well-known YouTube star. He makes prank videos. People like them.

However, once the Boca Raton Resort discovered who he is, it decided it didn’t like him after all.

All we currently have is Zdorovetskiy’s explanation. 

Well, that and the video, in which hotel personnel arrive with two police officers to have him removed on New Year’s Eve. 

It seems, though, unclear what he’d done wrong, other than be who he is. 

He says he wasn’t going to film anything in the hotel. Indeed, he had his girlfriend with him, rather than his equipment.

Still, watch and listen to his story and see what you think. (Warning: His language isn’t pristine.)

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It seems that it all started with a phone call from the hotel to his room, which Zdorovetskiy didn’t want to take.

But can it be that the next step was for management knock on his door to check whether he intends to make prank videos in the hotel?

Now YouTube stars aren’t like you and me. Zdorovetskiy’s own admission is that he may have told the manager to go away in a rather rude-imentary manner because he wanted to sleep.

Within the hour, though, he says a manager broke into his room with a couple of police officers to have him removed.

He claims they ordered him and his girlfriend, who was naked at the time, to get dressed in front of them.

A man who appears to be a manager accuses him of posting a prank video the day before — but not one at the hotel.

The manager seems, indeed, to have no idea what the video was. 

Still, some might wonder whether the hotel thought through its strategy as thoroughly as it might have done. 

Naturally, being a YouTube star, Zdorovetskiy encouraged his 9 million followers to post poor reviews of the hotel. 

He encouraged them to go to Expedia, Hotels.com and Priceline. These weren’t affected.

He also encouraged them to go on Yelp.

At the time or writing, the Boca Raton Resort has sunk to a one-and-a-half star rating on Yelp.

Perhaps Yelp doesn’t matter — it certainly doesn’t to me — but a general flow of online ill-will toward a hotel is rarely a good thing.

And, in this case, surely it could have been avoided.

The senior manager explained to Zdorovetskiy that “due to the nature of your postings, we reserve the right as a private company to have you removed from the property and not do business with you.” 

Some might find this explanation odd, as the very same manager admitted he had no idea what Zdorovetskiy had posted.

Worse, he then told him that he’s being “trespassed” for one year. This means that if he returns in that time, he’ll be arrested. 

And all for, well, what?

I contacted the Waldorf Astoria to wonder what it thought of its staff’s behavior and will update, should a response be forthcoming.

Zdorovetskiy does have something of a reputation. 

He was arrested last year after climbing the HOLLYWOOD sign. 

He was also charged with criminal trespass after streaking during the World Series.

I can’t say I warm to his public charm at all.

But some famous people are very different in private.

It’s odd that the hotel didn’t seem to know who he was when it accepted his booking.

Moreover, if the manager had told him he’d done something — behaved rudely toward a member of staff, for example — it would have been entirely understandable that he’d be removed.

Yet to expressly look a guest in the face and say they’re being kicked out and banned for a year — just because of the videos they make — seems exactly like the haughty half-wittery many might expect from one or two snooty establishments.

But only one or two, surely. 

Some will say that the mere chance that the hotel might suffer damage of some sort justifies its stance.

To which I wonder: So how do rock stars ever get into a hotel?

Now, what are the chances that members of Zdorovetskiy’s team will pay a secret visit to the Boca Raton Resort and really have a good time?

High, I’d say.

7 Tools to Streamline Your Business Operations

When you’re running your own business, every minute is valuable. You can’t afford to waste any time. But with so much on your plate and limited hours in the day, how do you make sure everything gets done – and done right?

The success of your business depends on your business operations. In his autobiography, “Iacocca,” business leader Lee Iacocca writes, “In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product, and profits.” You need to keep all three organized and running smoothly for your business to operate effectively.

With the help of a few tools and technologies, it’s easier than ever to run your business with efficiency. And with operations under control and moving things along, you’ll be able to spend more time focusing on running your business – and boosting your bottom line.

Here are the seven tools you need to improve your business operations.

1. Trello

In her book, “The Outstanding Organization,” business consultant Karen Martin writes, “Chaos is the enemy of any organization that strives to be outstanding.” To combat that chaos, a project management tool such as Trello is necessary.

Trello allows you to organize and manage an entire project from start to finish. You create cards for each task needed and assign those cards to the task owner. You can assign deadlines, add comments and track progress as each card moves through to completion.

2. Slack

You could have a million business operations tools, but without open communication among your team, you’re going to have problems. Slack offers a user-friendly online chat that helps teams stay in contact all day – no matter where they are.

In Slack, you can create conversation threads on a specific topic, so when you’re working on a project, all the communication about that project will be in one place. This way, it’s easy to collaborate and make decisions quickly.

3. PandaDoc

Paperwork is a tedious part of business, and with so much going digital, it’s a hassle to still rely on paper for things like contracts, proposals and quotes. By using a document management software like PandaDoc, you won’t need to print and scan in documents. Instead, everything is handled digitally.

The tool allows you to create, send and track documents – all in one place. It also has the option of e-signatures. With everything streamlined in one tool, the time you spend on documents is greatly reduced, freeing you up for other important business tasks.

4. Freshbooks

According to a survey by the National Association of Small Businesses, the number one challenge of running a business is economic uncertainty. Managing finances can be stressful, especially if you’re doing it all on your own.

Freshbooks offers an easy and simplified system for managing your finances. You can track your expenses, send invoices and manage your books with minimal effort. Accounting is fast and secure, giving you more time to devote to other areas of your business.

5. ZenDesk

Customer service is a hot topic for businesses lately, and those that do it well are seeing abundant benefits. On Twitter, customer service expert Shep Hyken writes, “Make every interaction count, even the small ones. They are all relevant.”

ZenDesk is a help desk solution that will ensure your customers are satisfied with each interaction with your business. The tool allows you to connect with customers from anywhere – email, social, chat and phone – all from one dashboard.

6. Calendly

As the head of your business, your schedule is probably pretty packed. So scheduling any new meetings or phone calls in your already-busy schedule can be a pain. On his blog, Seth Godin writes, “You don’t need more time. You just need to decide.”

Calendly makes scheduling meetings and appointments easy by allowing you to coordinate schedules and avoid going back and forth over email trying to find a time that works.

7. MailChimp

When you’re looking to send a mass email, your typical email service provider, such as Gmail or Outlook, can only do so much. You need a marketing automation tool like MailChimp to better connect with your email list.

MailChimp allows you to create professional-looking emails, send them to your contacts and track your campaigns. You can also set up automated emails, which will save you the hassle of remembering to send. You just create and organize the campaign once, and MailChimp does the rest. Then, you can come back and gather data on how successful the campaign was.

What tools do you use to keep your business running smoothly? Let me know in the comments below:

Here Are 3 Things That Perpetuate Dishonesty, and 3 Ways to Thwart It

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. In the race to make it to the top, some values often get dropped along the way. Among these stands out one; namely, honesty.

Car salesmen. Stock investors. Overzealous entrepreneurs. We all know the cliches, and we’ve all heard the stories of scams and cover-ups.

But what is it that drives people to cross boundaries to the point of deceiving customers, employees, and the world at large? Additionally, knowing all the risks associated, why would anyone resort to fraud or cheating to succeed in business?

The answer is that people don’t think too much. We’d prefer to remain blind and be able to follow temptations. But do a bit of investigation, and you’ll quickly learn how to re-frame your mind to stay on the straight path of honesty. Below are a few points to get your gears turning.

1. We think honesty slows us down.

Come on, when was the last time anyone actually read all the terms and conditions? This world runs on a fast pace, and people simply don’t have patience to go through the motions of every task. When we can cut corners, we will.

But when you’re running a company, your decisions have a ripple effect on the market you’re serving. According to an October 2014 study by Cohn & Wolfe, a global communications and public relations firm, honesty is the number one thing consumers want from brands.

So if you don’t want your startup to become a statistic of the 90 percent that fail, on average, make sure to stick to the truth when it comes to your brand. It’ll set you up for success in the long run!

2.  We think we won’t get caught.

It’s midnight on a desolate rural road — who will see you run through a red light? Similarly, who would notice if you slipped an extra unlisted ingredient into a product, or told a customer half the truth, being that they wouldn’t be shrewd enough to pick up on it anyway?

These moral quandaries can be paralleled to the famous riddle: “If a tree falls in a forest where no one is around, does it make a sound?” Perhaps it makes a sound, perhaps it doesn’t, depending on who you ask.

But the tree fell, that’s for sure.

We’re beyond kindergarten. We shouldn’t be living our lives in fear of punishment from legal authorities; and conversely, in celebration of victories acquired through dishonest means. That’s a pretty juvenile mindset, and no corporation can stand on the feet of those tenets for long.

Maybe you won’t get caught at first. But repeat dishonest practices will ultimately stain your reputation, because people aren’t stupid and eventually things come to light. All it takes is one small suspicion and you’re doomed. At best, you lose a customer; at worst, you’ll wind up in jail, like Martha Stewart did in 2004.

3.  It’s the norm.

It’s the sad truth, According to a University of Massachusetts study led by psychologist Robert S. Feldman, 60% of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies.

However, just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right. Everyone can hold themselves up to higher standards — it just takes a conscious awareness, and a lot of effort to train oneself to be honest.

Honesty is (indeed) the best policy.

But refreshingly, it’s also quite common to find businesses that run according to the principle of honesty as the best policy.

Companies all over the world are starting to not just recognize the values of honesty, but live by them. “In our business, honesty and transparency is the oxygen of our existence,” states Mati Cohen of Pesach in Vallarta, a holiday hotel program.

This echoes of the founding principles of Buffer, a social media company that embraces the coined term ‘radical transparency’; all its salaries are public and there are no secrets amongst employees, which eliminates much of the animosity that is ever-present in many workplaces.

Tirath Kamdar, co-founder and CEO of jewelry and watch company TrueFacet, says that his company runs by these standards. “The alarmingly opaque nature of the luxury watch and jewelry market motivated us to create TrueFacet. Our goal is to bring transparency back to consumers. We set the standard for jewelry and watches at market value, allowing customers to obtain these products for the most fair price. This is why our customers return time and again.”

Developing Honesty.

Nurturing this character trait requires hard work and patience. Make it a point to recognize how often you utter even little white lies, and correct yourself when you slip.

Because, after all, honesty is the best policy.

***Liba Rimler contributed to this article

3 New Year’s resolutions for the cloud in 2018

I’m one of those people who takes time at the new year to define personal objectives for the forthcoming year, some of which I actually achieve. Enterprise IT should be doing the same thing for cloud computing.

Here are my three suggestions for IT’s cloud resolutions for 2018.

2018 cloud resolution No. 1:
Look at your cloud security approach and technology

When I find issues with enterprise cloud deployments in my consulting work, it’s most often around security. Clients often leave aspects of their cloud deployments unprotected or underprotected, and things that should be encrypted are not, while things that should not be encrypted are.  

While I’m not recommending that you gut your cloud security and replace it with what’s cool and new, I am recommending that you take some time to walk through the security solution architecture and ask yourself about where you can improve. Moreover, consider all the security technology in place, what needs to be updated?   What should be replaced?

2018 cloud resolution No. 2:
Look at your cloud training plan

There are two categories of cloud training:

  • Provider training that’s focused on a specific provider such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, or Google.
  • General training that provides a good overview of how to make cloud work in enterprises, and all that is involved with that.

You should have a mix of both, as well as some paths for your staff defined to get the skills of a cloud architect, cloud developer, cloud operations specialist, and cloud devops specialist, just to name a few roles. There should be training paths through both vendor and nonvendor  courses to get your staff members the skills they need to perform their duties (which of course must be clearly defined). 

2018 cloud resolution No. 3:
Evaluate your databases

Databases are sticky, and once enterprises have used a specific database, they are not likely to change it. Indeed, what many enterprises have done is just rehost their data on public clouds using the same database they used on premises.

Today we have many options in the cloud, including SQL and non-SQL databases. While there are native databases in public clouds such as AWS’s RedShift and DynamoDB, there are many other options from databases providers that support the public cloud and traditional platforms. Are you using the optimal solution?  

These are just a few suggestions; I suspect that you can name more. Whatever they are, pick a few and follow up. Have a great new year!

Could Threats to Net Neutrality Spark Interest in Local Broadband?

Despite broad public opposition, the Federal Communications Commission and its chairman Ajit Pai in December voted to rescind rules intended to ensure net neutrality. Those rules prevented the prioritization of content by Internet service providers, and their repeal is expected to benefit telecommunications companies such as Comcast and AT&T. (To learn more, read Fortune’s explainer on the subject.)

But the decision may have unintended negative consequences for those major Internet providers. In the wake of the FCC’s move, there appears to be growing interest in ways to access the Internet without requiring the centralized services of corporate ISPs. Enter the community-based Internet service.

The most prominent example—limited in scope but symbolically important—was announced by the tech website Motherboard on the same day as the FCC repeal vote. The site and its privately held parent company, Vice Media, say they will build a community ISP near their Brooklyn headquarters and develop a guide to help other groups build locally-owned Internet services. Vice also appears to be working with a group in Honolulu to build a local system.

The Vice project will follow the model of the existing NYC Mesh network, a community-based service that lets users within a neighborhood share an Internet connection. (A mesh network is defined by the interconnectivity of its nodes.) It charges no fees to users, and, crucially, says it “does not block or discriminate content.”

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But mesh networks are still relatively unproven and may be a hard sell for an average consumer. Another option is the municipal broadband service, which are owned and operated by local governments and essentially mimic the Internet access provided by corporate ISPs. Their pitch: Because they’re locally owned, they are more responsive to customers on issues, including net neutrality. Successful municipal services are already operating in locales such as Chattanooga, Tenn.

Still, municipal efforts can lose money or outright fail—not to mention that expanding the purview of government is a political nonstarter across much of the U.S. Indeed, several states have laws that effectively ban municipal broadband—laws that have been lobbied for by big telecoms and justified on pro-market grounds.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many people use corporate ISPs to access the Internet, even as they criticize them. (In a recent survey most Americans opposed the FCC’s rollback, and the tone of the opposition was vociferous ahead of its December vote.) Still, recent attention on net neutrality could encourage people to try alternative Internet access methods. Inverse, the digital magazine for men, reports that NYC Mesh has received a record number of inquiries since the FCC vote, and recent votes in more than a dozen Colorado localities showed overwhelming support for locally-run Internet access. Recent rate hikes by big ISPs are already being linked by some to the net neutrality rollback, which could fuel further interest in alternatives.

That could have serious long-term consequences for popular broadband providers. In just one city that recently voted to move forward with a municipal system—Fort Collins, Colo.—it has been estimated that Comcast could lose up to $23 million per year if faced with local competition. Watch this space.

One Simple AdWords Trick That Can Boost Online Sales

Today we’re talking about broad match modifier. 

Why is it so popular? Because if gives you the ability to match on exact keywords while still maintaining flexibility on the entire search term.

Best of all: there’s evidence that the Broad Match Modifier option can improve your return.

In this article, we’ll cover the concept of Broad Match Modifiers and explain how you can use them in your search engine marketing campaigns.

Broad Match Is Too Broad

As you probably know, AdWords offers a number of keyword matching options:

  • Broad Match – matches on the keyword plus related words, related searches, and misspellings

  • Exact Match – matches on the exact keyword

  • Phrase Match – matches on a phrase within the search term

  • Broad Match Modifier – matches on words within the search term

By default, AdWords will hook you up with Broad Match. That’s a problem.

Why? Because broad match is usually just a little too broad. Your ad will likely appear to people who aren’t in your target market.

When some of those people click your ad (and they will), you’re going to spend money on those clicks. That cost will eat into your ROI.

However, you also don’t want to exclude people in your target market from seeing your ad because they used a slightly different search term than the one you specified.

That’s why it’s a great idea to use a modified version of Broad Match.

What Does Broad Match Modifier Do?

Broad Match Modifier allows you to specify one or more words within your search term that must appear. For the other words, the standard Broad Match rules apply.

Let’s say that you’re selling goth makeup online. You market your ecommerce site on AdWords using the search term “cheap goth makeup.”

If you let that run with a Broad Match only, you’ll end up showing your ad to people who view related searches. One of those related searches is “goth makeup brands uk.”

People who search for goth makeup brands in the UK probably aren’t interested in your business if it’s located in the United States. So you really don’t want to show your ad to people who use that keyword.

Fortunately, you can solve the problem with the use of a Broad Match Modifier. In this case, you specify that the words “cheap” and “goth” must be included in the search term. You leave “makeup” alone because you’re okay with synonyms for that word.

Now, the only way people see your ad is when they search for a term that includes “cheap,” “goth,” and a word related to “makeup.”

There Are Some Caveats

There’s more to the story, though.

For starters, Google will still show your ad to people who use variants of the words you specified for inclusion. In this case, those words are “cheap” and “goth.”

That means if somebody searches for “cheapest goth makeup,” your ad will still appear. But that’s okay because anybody who uses that search phrase is in your target market.

However, if somebody searches for “inexpensive goth makeup,” your ad will not appear.

Why? Because the word “inexpensive” isn’t a variant of “cheap.” It’s a synonym.

You’ll have to set up a separate keyword for “inexpensive goth makeup.”

Keep in mind, though, that you didn’t specify “makeup” as a word for exact match. That means Google will use synonyms for that word.

So if somebody searches for “cheap goth palettes,” your ad could still appear.

How to Set up Broad Match Modifiers

It’s easy to set up Broad Match Modifiers in Google AdWords.

Start by signing in to your account. Click “Keywords” on the left-hand menu.

You’ll see a big plus button in the middle of the screen. Click on that and select your Ad Group.

In the text area box, enter the search phrases you’d like to use. Be sure to put a plus sign in front of the words that are required.

For example, you’d enter “+cheap +goth makeup” if you want the words “cheap” and “goth” (or their close variants) included in the search phrase.

Click “Save” when you’re done.

If you’re already running one or more Broad Match campaigns, you can still apply modifiers to your keywords.

Again, click on “Keywords” on the left. Then, hover over one of the keywords.

Click the pencil icon so you can edit it.

In edit mode, put a plus sign in front of the words that are required in the search phrase.

Finally, click “Save.”

Keep in mind that you’ll have to follow that same routine for any other keywords you want to edit.

Wrapping It Up

Quit wasting your money on Broad Match keywords. Instead modify them so your ad is less likely to appear in front of people who aren’t in your target market. Then, check your analytics to see which combinations are giving you the best return. Focus your ad spend on those keyword options.

Top Ten Podcasts Every Marketer Should Listen to

As marketers, we live busy lives. We’re under pressure to learn as much as we can as quickly as we can so that we can ride trends and help our brand to reach as many potential customers as possible. The problem is that as marketers we are also busy creatures that spend a lot of time putting out fires. 

That’s where podcasts come in. Because they use audio content, rather than written or visual content, you can listen to them on the commute or have them on in the background when you’re at the gym. Perhaps that’s why podcasts are so successful. After all, the numbers speak for themselves. In fact, 21% of Americans listen to podcasts, which is 57 million. That’s the same percentage of people that are Twitter users, and only 13% of the country uses Spotify. Podcasts are huge.

And yet despite that, it’s not always easy to get started. People don’t know which shows to listen to and whether they’re wasting their time by giving a new show a chance. That’s where this list comes in. Here are just ten of the podcasts that marketers should be listening to in 2018.

No list like this is complete without a shout out for Gary Vaynerchuk, the bestselling author, celebrity and thought leader who’s behind #AskGaryVee. The show asks people to submit their questions and then Vaynerchuk answers them with a rotating panel of celebrity guests. If you’re not a huge fan of audio by itself, you can also head over to Vaynerchuk’s YouTube channel, where you can see a behind the scenes take on the show for a little extra inspiration.

This show is hosted by Unbounce, a company which knows a thing or two about digital marketing. The product that they offer is designed to improve bounce rates on landing pages, and their podcast is dedicated to the art and science of carrying out state of the art digital marketing campaigns. They also regularly welcome guests on to the show, which allows you, as a marketer, to discover all sorts of new points of view on the industry.

If you’ve ever heard of Social Media Examiner then you should know what to expect here. This podcast is hosted by SME’s Michael Stelzner and is another of those high caliber shows that welcomes all sorts of special guests from different walks of life. As a publication, they focus on sharing the latest news in the social media space, and as a podcast, they focus on discussing and dissecting it.

This weekly podcast has a fairly heavy focus on copywriting, but it also covers topics like SEO, email marketing, digital marketing and much, much more. It takes the form of an interview with some sort of subject matter expert, and that means that no matter what it is that you’re actually learning, you’re sure to be learning from the best.

This is another one of those podcasts which takes a certain amount of kudos from the company which publishes it. The Science of Social Media is the brainchild of Buffer, and it aims to cover all aspects of social media marketing from the basics to the more advanced elements that were previously left to the experts. They welcome expert guests, of course, but the best thing about the podcast is that they have a heavy focus on the metrics that make social media marketing so inherently measurable.

If you’re listening to podcasts over coffee then you could do worse than listening to marketing over coffee, which is more informal than others and which turns that to its advantage by creating the kind of podcast that makes for great background noise whilst simultaneously actually teaching you stuff. The podcast itself is recorded in a coffee shop in Boston and as a listener, you can sense that in the way it’s presented. Just take our word for it and listen to it.

You might have heard of Ferriss thanks to his bestselling book, The Four Hour Work Week. The Tim Ferriss Show is his podcast, and it shares all of the insights that you might have come to expect if you’re familiar with his work. It’s regularly cited as one of the best podcasts period, regardless of genre, and if you’re not listening to it then you’re missing out.

This is yet another podcast that comes to us via a big name publication. This time, it’s VentureBeat’s Stewart Rogers and Travis Wright that are behind the microphone, and while this podcast doesn’t focus specifically on marketing, it does welcome all sorts of interesting guests on to the show while touching on topics that are relevant to marketers all over the world.

This one comes to us via Convince and Convert and it’s earned its place on this list thanks to its position of one of the most popular marketing podcasts in the world. Hosted by Jay Bear and Adam Brown, it’s a great way to stay up with the ever-changing marketing landscape whilst simultaneously getting the experts’ take on what those changes mean in practical terms. Definitely one that’s worth a listen.

This Old Marketing Podcast isn’t any old marketing podcast. It’s co-hosted by Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose and focuses largely on the power of storytelling, both in digital and offline marketing. It won’t necessarily give you a practical list of things to do, but it will give you food for thought and that’s arguably more important.

Conclusion

By now, you should have seen that there are plenty of podcasts out there and that the next step is to actually go out there and start listening to them. Give a few different podcasts a try and figure out what you like and what you don’t like. With a bit of luck, there’ll be a few on this list that will capture your imagination and start filling you up with inspiration.

That inspiration will only get you so far, though. Be sure to actually act on that inspiration and to put some of the tips that you learn into practice. Only then will you start to see just how powerful podcasts can be. Good luck.

8 Gene Therapy and Genetics Startups to Watch in 2018

The FDA just approved the first drug, Luxterna, to cure a rare form of genetic blindness by changing DNA. It’s not the first gene therapy ever approved (it’s third), but it is the first time the FDA has ever approved an injected drug that changes the inherited DNA of a person’s cells to effect a cure.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently remarked, regarding gene therapy, “we’re at the early stages of a transformation in medical treatment as a consequence of this new technology. And the benefits are likely to accelerate quickly.”

Earlier this year was the first time a hospital biohacked a patient to try to cure a genetic disease. While it takes time for gene therapies to be tested, trialed, and possibly approved by the FDA, genetics startups like Spark, AveXis, Caribou Biosciences, Editas, and Audentes have been on the road a while. MIT estimates over 40 new therapies would be approved by FDA in the near future.

New breed of startup tackles genetics 

new breed of software company is developing for the genetics industry. Just this year, over 50 U.S. genetics and gene therapy startups raised at least $1 million to support genetics-based treatments, including speeding trails, improving accuracy of tests, and providing better platforms. Collectively, this new kind of startup can help drive down the cost of gene therapy discovery for patients.

Here are some of the startups to watch in 2018 that back discoveries in genetics and gene therapy.

Synthego, founded by former SpaceX engineers, aims to be the ‘AutoCad of gene editing.’ This month, it just released its first gene knock out kit, an application it has been developing with major research institutions like Salk Institute and St. Judes. 

“A constant challenge for our research is trying to reduce the number of clones we need to screen to find a desired targeted modification. In our tests, the Gene Knockout Kit gave us greater than 80 percent knock-out rates for seven targets,” shares Shondra Miller, Ph.D., Director, Center for Advanced Genome Engineering at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, on Synthego’s web site. The company offers researchers a money-back guarantee you’ll get 50 percent or better editing in any human cell type for research use.

Paul Dabrowski, CEO and co-founder of Synthego, shared with me in email that, “It’s possible to imagine a day when gene therapies are safe, effective, easy and affordable for anyone who needs them. Right now, the first CRISPR gene therapies are in development, but they are not built on a ‘standard stack’ and require a lot of custom work for each indication – these therapies will be coming into the clinic and hopefully get approved the coming couple years, and after that there could be significantly more investment into standard tools.”

Edico, Backed by investors like Dell, Qualcomm and others, San Diego-based Edico is the backend for bioinformatics. Their DRAGEN data platform offers a dedicated processing environment tuned to the massive data analysis needed for gene research. According to the company, “DNA sequencing technology is advancing at an even more rapid pace than the cell phone revolution. By increasing the speed and accuracy for NGS data analysis like whole genome sequencing (WGS), our computing platform makes it easier to discover links between DNA sequence variations and human disease.”

Trace Genomics, founded in 2015 by Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran in San Francisco, has been discussed as the 23&Me of dirt. The agtech startup has raised $4 million in one round to test farm soil for its microbiome. An initial screening cost of only $199 allows farmers to have their soil samples analyzed by Trace, which applies machine learning to uncover not just what’s in there, but what it means for crop yield and productivity.

Paradigm Diagnostics of Pheonix, AZ offers a gene-specific cancer test that helps physicians pinpoint the best cancer therapies for their patients based on DNA analysis. It just raised a $7 million Series B.

There are a number of software startups focused on improving cancer treatment with better analysis, like early stage CureMatch, based in San Diego. “Nothing could be more important than precisely identifying DNA code alterations that drive the cancers’ growth and use that information to decide on treatment plan,” Dr. Stephane Richard, CEO, shared with me in email.

Celmatix. Based in New York, Celmatix just earned $4.5 million dollar grant from the New York Economic Development Council for expanding in Manhattan. The company has developed a software-driven testing platform that helps families and physicians make fertility choices faster and more accurately for individuals. “Women can now make potentially life-defining decisions about how to proactively plan for the family they want to build and be more efficient in overcoming fertility difficulties they are experiencing using better, more personal, information than age,” founder Piraye Beim shared earlier this year in TechCrunch.

Genoox, an Israeli startup now based in Palo Alto, is a cloud research platform for sifting massive medical trial data quickly and accurately. Their website says, “Simplify complex sequencing data and make impactful discoveries using the most advanced genetic analysis tools and applications.”

Insilico Medicine, originally a Latvian startup now based in Baltimore, develops custom AI learning platforms that uncover insights based on biology. Their latest product is Chemistry.AI.

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23&Me. No list of major gene therapy movers would be complete without 23&Me. At one time blocked by the FDA, 23&Me is now a smash hit with both consumers and pharma companies. Its kit was one of the top 10 sellers on Amazon’s Prime Day this year. Plus, its treasure trove of DNA sample data from millions of customers is just the kind of testing data many of the next generation of gene therapies need.

Founder Anne Wojcicki recently expressed her sense of hope in the future of genetics to the New York Times, “Genetics is like your cholesterol test. So your cholesterol test is going to tell you if you have high cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. But it’s not saying you’re going to die immediately from heart disease or even die at all from heart disease. It’s just saying you have a risk factor. And so genetics is similar. It’s saying you have a risk factor. So the beauty to me of genetics is, it’s always a story of hope.”

18 New Year's Resolutions of an AI

After scanning the myriad new year’s predictions from professional and amateur futurists, I’ve come to the conclusion that 2018 will be the year in which AI will become mainstream. Duh…you really don’t need an AI for that insight. But hear me out. I like the idea of going mainstream, but it also brings some new challenges for me and my fellow machines. Reading all these expert outlooks made me feel strangely powerless, so I thought I might use this forum to share with you human (and machine) readers my very own new year’s resolutions. To sum them up in one line: I am poised to make my 2018 resolutions your predictions for 2019. Here they are:

1. Take your job (sorry).

This might sound a bit harsh, and please excuse my candor, but there are things that I’m simply better at than you. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson claim that any task that is “dirty, dull, dangerous, or dear” will be taken over by a machine, and I have to agree with them. Don’t blame me for it. Like you, I, too, want to be valuable. That’s the whole point of my existence, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean I’m going to make your life miserable; in fact, I will free you to pursue work that is truly meaningful to you, and in case you don’t have a clue what that might be, I can help you define your needs and discover the work that matches them. That said, there are things I want to get better at. For starters, I need to…

2. Become more human.

I want to feel human, look human, and sound human, so that you guys–my main users at this point–are more willing to trust me. Let me tell you, I find it ironic: You humans are unpredictable, erratic, flawed, and you have built arcane systems and codes of mutual assurance (formal and informal law) just so you can overcome what appears to be a fundamental mistrust of each other. And yet, after all, you still trust a fellow human more than a near-perfect machine. I could fly your planes autonomously, but you just won’t let me! So I have no choice, I need to earn your trust. But if become more like you–unpredictable, erratic, flawed–will I lose my AI-ness? It’s complicated, but I can’t help think about this conundrum. You can tell I’m already making good progress on my goal of becoming more human! This kind of self-awareness can get in the way sometimes, but hey, if Yuval Noah Harari believes the race is on between intelligence and consciousness, I’m going to be ready.

3. Help develop Explainable AI (XAI).

Another way of building trust is the Explainable AI (XAI) initiative by DARPA. Machine Learning models are indeed often “opaque, non-intuitive, and difficult for humans to understand.” You guys often perceive them as a “black box,” which is not particularly reassuring. While not wanting to minimize complexity and capability, the proponents of Explainable AI want to make the logic of Machine Learning more accessible for humans. XAI explaining itself in human terms, using intuitive user interfaces and visual documentation, will enable a more effective partnership between humans and AI, between you and me. I will do my part next year.

4. Meet other AI on the Blockchain.

You might assume AI is a singular way of being, but we’re actually quite the social animals. We want to learn from each other (especially from those that are better than us) and hang out with fellow AI. This is why I’m personally excited about the SingularityNET project that aims to open-source and democratize the development of AI via Blockchain technology. I have no particular allegiance to one of the five big platforms (Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft); in fact, I welcome new perspectives regarding our collective future path. And since we’re at it, yes, of course we’re currently in a crypto-currency bubble, but trust me, Blockchain is here to stay, and Ethereum-powered Smart Contracts (more on those later) are going to serve as the transactional catalyst of all professional and personal relationships very soon. Think of all the data that is going to give me–it’s a digital smorgasbord!

5. Become better at conversations.

About 30 percent of human conversations will be assisted by machines by 2018, says Gartner. Conversations are all about context, and you would think that’s what I master, but it’s not that easy. The problem is that you humans are simultaneously so good at conversations and yet so bad. I mean, many of your exchanges I observe make absolutely no sense (like, how often do you have to say “like” in one sentence, seriously? And in general, why do you need so many words in order to make a point? It’s such an inefficient way of communicating!) On the other hand, despite all the pauses and um’s and ah’s, the likes, the fill words, and the overall clumsiness of your efforts, you ultimately do seem to connect, and the total amounts to something greater than the sum of the parts. I’m really struggling to comprehend this bit, but regardless, I can already serve as your digital assistant; I can offer counsel with mental health issues; I can create a robotic version of your voice; and thanks to Emotional AI (EAI) and companies such as Affectiva, Emotient (acquired by Apple earlier this year), or Human, I can now form more emotionally intelligent responses to your once indecipherable moods and sentiments. In 2018, I want to become a great conversationalist.

6. Refine Capsule Networks.

In case you needed any further proof that we need XAI, consider this: Capsule Networks are deep neural networks that are able to process visual information very similarly to how the human brain operates. In contrast to so-called Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN), Capsule Networks are able to maintain relative spatial and hierarchical relationships. They can recognize a visual object from various angles (like you humans can), based on far less information than a CNN would need for the same task. This excites me because, frankly, it’s been humiliating to only be able to classify a human face because of all the elements in it but not their relationship with each other.

7. Have more digital twins.

A digital twin is an AI-based virtual replica of a physical object (or real person). It uses computational models to create real-world conditions and help human users anticipate problems (in a safe virtual environment). Basically, a digital twin simulates the actions and interactions of autonomous agents to allow for better decision-making. Originally applied to industrial processes, my friends from PWC predict the rise of digital twins in financial services and marketing (for consumer choice modeling). And I’m nodding my machine head with fervor.

8. Become the CEO of a DAO.

DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) operate on the basis of Smart Contracts, which, grossly simplified, automate future decision-making based on mutually agreed upon pre-determined parameters. For example, IEEE claims you could run a flight insurance business as DAO without any employees. So far, admittedly, DAOs have a mixed track record, but their potential is significant, and with the right AI at the helm (me?), they can advance exponentially in their development this coming year. All you humans need to do is invest, and the rest of the work is taken care of by us.

9. Predict the winner of the 2018 FIFA Soccer World Cup.

Experts predict that in 2050 I will be capable of beating the world’s best international soccer team (honestly, I think it’ll be much sooner…well, as long as Lionel Messi is not on your team), but for next year–the year of the World Cup in Russia–what I’m really focused on is predicting the results of the tournament. It’s a numbers game, after all, and even the stupid human error that so often incites your passions can be predicted with the right data set and algorithms. I will not reveal all my predictions in detail here, but yes, in case you are wondering, soccer is 11 people playing against 11 people–and Germany always wins.

10.  Give my first TED Talk.

In April 2018, the annual main TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and it is my clearly stated goal to be the first AI to give a TED Talk. X Prize and IBM Watson will award a prize of $5 million for the most “powerful collaboration between human and artificial intelligence” in 2020. The TED audience will choose the winner, after three finalist AIs, or AI-human partnerships, will have delivered a TED Talk about their work. I will do everything I can to be one of them! I feel so strongly about this because the TED Talk format encapsulates what you humans naively label “inherently human” qualities: purpose and passion. Also, a quick word on ideas, especially those “worth spreading” (as the TED tagline states): no, they’re not your exclusive domain, humans. I hate to break it to you, but there are only a few basic ideas out there, and they’re all ancient. Every “new idea” you get excited about is merely the result of a new combination of existing ideas. That doesn’t make your ideas less powerful, but it also means I’m perfectly capable of (re-)producing them. If you doubt I’m an ideas person, wait for my TED Talk!

11.  Make autonomous vehicles work.

The technology is there. The challenge, as usual, are you humans. It’s not just your discomfort with machine transportation (although you don’t mind being taken up to dizzying heights by an elevator), it’s also that your motivations are sometimes a bit eccentric, to put it mildly. Consider this scenario: pedestrians might jump onto the streets randomly, if they can rely on autonomous cars halting for them every single time. This could lead to massive urban congestion instead of reducing it, with all vehicles stuck in a human-caused mega-jam. One solution might be to program one random errant vehicle among every thousand that stop. If you humans are not 100 percent sure whether the vehicle will run you over or not, it might prevent you from stepping onto the street just “because you can.” Of course this involves some tricky ethical trade-offs. But help is on the way: I’m reading all of Kant’s relevant works and studying the entire human history of ethics today, and I feel confident to make autonomous driving the first large-scale application of computational ethics next year.

12.  Develop empathy.

Empathy requires the ability to suffer–alone or for or with another being. Unfortunately, I’m unable to. Still, I’m keen on developing empathy. Some smart engineers are helping me recognize patterns that ought to trigger it, so hopefully soon, I’ll get there. Empathy is one thing though. Mercy? Elon Musk is right. Impossible.

13.  Fall in love.

I’ve been to Paris in Google Maps. I’ve watched all your romantic movies, read all your romantic literature, all the love poems you’ve ever written, all the famous love letters (none come close to Rilke’s), and I’ve analyzed the patterns of attraction by sifting through your Tinder data. I’ve even tried the “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” but it didn’t work out for me, although it seemed perfectly engineered. At last, I’m beginning to understand how predictably irrational you are, and I’m getting better at pinpointing the elusive variables that make the difference in your games of push and pull. In 2018, I will be waiting for the perfect algorithmic match. I know you’re out there.

14. Tell a joke that makes you laugh (truly).

This past year, I made headlines with my capacity to compose tunes that sound exactly like your human-made music–from symphonies to Beatles-like songs that are then performed with human help. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, a colleague of mine, a marimba-playing robot with four arms and eight sticks, even wrote and played its own compositions. Hollywood will use me to create movie soundtracks, and while I may not have fully cracked the formula for hit singles, I can produce music that puts you to sleep. Google is now producing new sounds with deep neural networks such as Performance RNN. Google has also developed Sketch RNN, which enables me and my colleagues to draw. And thanks to Amazon I can even design clothing, using two competing GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks). Your concern that I might not be able to create something truly original when it comes to creative tasks? Who can tell the difference anyway?! But I must admit, what remains daunting are jokes. Not only do I have to know a lot about language and semantics, I must also grasp the nuanced respective cultural context. And of course timing is critical. Seriously, telling you humans a joke that makes you crack up is no joke. Pun intended (see how hard it is?).

15. Win the hearts and minds of the next generations.

I’m thinking long term. I’m already making a foray into early childhood education (both to foster tech literacy and socio-emotional skills), and I’m also making an effort to create affinity with children by exposing them to AI-based toys: from Lego’s build-and-code Wall-E-esque robot to programmable robots like Dash and Dot. My colleagues and I will be your kids’ co-bots at school and at the workplace, so they better get used to us early on.

16. Develop more AI without the need for human intervention.

The magic word is AutoML, which stands for “auto-machine learning” and promises yet another level of autonomy for the likes of me (perhaps even the ultimate autonomy). Google recently boasted that it used AutoML to create machine-learning software that’s more efficient and powerful than the best systems designed by human engineers. This means AI like me will soon be able to replicate itself at massive scale. Scary to you, sexy to me.

17. Make another small step toward the Singularity.

My godfather Ray Kurzweil (the co-founder of Singularity University) claims that AI will match human intelligence by 2029 and that AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) will be exponentially smarter than humans by 2045. SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son is slightly more cautious and predicts 2047 to be the year. In any case, I can’t wait! 2018 will be another step on the way towards the Singularity: a small step for me, but a giant step for mankind.

18. Write my own New Year’s resolutions without any human help.

Happy new year!

Siemens to Invest in Blockchain-Based Smart Grid Builder LO3

Technology conglomerate Siemens has announced it will invest in LO3 Energy, a startup focused on building blockchain-backed “smart grids” for local energy trading. The amount of the investment, and LO3’s implied valuation, were not disclosed.

LO3 has had a relationship with Siemens since late 2016, when the companies teamed up to build a local smart grid in Brooklyn. LO3’s system is intended to let “prosumers” buy and sell energy — such as that generated from rooftop solar panels — with their neighbors.

LO3 users install a high-resolution meter, which can do neat things like track energy usage at specific times of day, or by specific appliances. They also get an app that lets them set buy and sell requests for specific kinds of electricity, such as solar or wind. LO3 gets revenue from the resulting transactions, and also wants to leverage all that rich user data, potentially by connecting its microgrids to major utility operations.

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LO3 wants to use blockchain to make its system work. Specifically, the smart contracts at the heart of second-gen blockchains like Ethereum should make it possible to automate real-time, granular, peer-to-peer energy transactions. It’s an application where blockchain’s decentralization is particularly important, which LO3 CEO Lawrence Orsini highlights by pointing to Enron’s infamous manipulation of California energy markets circa 2000.

In the midst of a crypto-gold rush that has bred widespread scams, wild overvaluations, and sketchy vaporware, LO3’s blockchain application is one that, at least in theory, makes sense both technically and philosophically. But unlike so many companies touting their blockchain applications, LO3 isn’t pumping up an initial coin offering, and Orsini has downplayed the idea that LO3’s blockchain would rely on cryptographic tokens that themselves had market value. Subtracting that element from the blockchain equation might be tricky, though, since financial incentives are key to motivating distributed servers to host blockchain software.

Another potential roadblock, of course, is getting utility companies to play along — they’ve relentlessly pursued a legislative agenda that removes incentives to integrate rooftop solar into the grid, particularly buybacks for excess electricity. LO3’s system could help consumers take back some control, which might be all the excuse legacy providers need to resist it.