Sep 27, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Read the rest of the newsletter first, I'll think of something clever to say.

Today's Login is 1,255 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Our augmented-reality future

An image of Osma.ai, an augmented reality art project in which a terrarium is watered based on how many likes its AI-generated selfies get on Instagram. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

There are technology breakthroughs still needed before we get to strap on a pair of affordable, lightweight augmented reality-glasses with all-day battery life that seamlessly overlay information over an unobstructed view of the real world. But the time to start preparing for that future is now.

Why it matters: Augmented reality offers a range of enticing possibilities, but also will raise fresh concerns about privacy, advertising and just how much we want our lives to revolve around constant connectivity.

Driving the news: A pair of events this week served to illuminate and highlight the possibilities and the potential pitfalls.

  • The Augmenting Cities conference brought together civic leaders, academics, tech leaders and students in Oakland for 2 days of imaging how AR and play could make our world a better one.
  • Adobe's Festival of the Impossible art exhibit in San Francisco showed, in fanciful and provocative form, how digital technologies are leaping off the screen and blending with human experience.

This future is both near enough to imagine and far enough off to still be shaped. Here are some of the issues we will face...

Privacy and the AR cloud: While some truly powerful games and utilities can be built once the world is mapped in 3D space, using them could mean giving up a lot of personal information, especially if the companies assembling those maps don't do so responsibly.

AR beyond glasses: We tend to think of AR in the form of glasses, but many believe audio will play a big role in our AR future, especially in the near term. This is already here in some forms, such as Siri or Alexa on earbuds.

  • You can also see it in projects like Duncan Speakman's Only Expansion, on display at the Augmented Cities conference. The headphone-based experience confronts listeners with what their physical space might sound like in the years to come due to the effects of climate change.

The technology is coming: The industry isn't yet ready to deliver a dream headset, but early devices are already here, with more promising ones likely next year and true consumer-ready products possible by 2021.

Inclusion matters: A big topic at Augmented Cities was not just when the technology will be ready, but also who will have access to it.

  • Some of the most powerful applications of augmented reality could lie in making cities more accessible or helping the poor find healthy food options. But much of the industry's energy goes toward apps for the wealthy who can afford the latest technology.

These experiences will use a ton of data: That's good if you are a cellular carrier trying to figure out what to do with a 5G network, but maybe not so good for those worried about tech's carbon footprint.

  • "It's going to be important for industry and the public to reckon with the environmental costs associated with data transfer and storage," said USC professor Jeff Watson, who attended the Augmenting Cities event. "The internet already has a big carbon footprint, and calls for the increased data-fication of everyday life need to be put into conversation with the grim realities of the onrushing climate catastrophe."
2. Facebook meets with civil rights groups

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spent Thursday in Atlanta as part of a town hall Facebook held with a number of civil rights groups. Nearly 100 people took part in the 5-hour meeting, which comes ahead of a civil rights audit due before the end of the year.

Why it matters: Facebook has come under fire for a number of actions and policies, including providing a forum for white supremacy and allowing targeted advertising that facilitates discrimination.

What they're saying:

  • Jessica González, co-founder, Change the Terms and VP of Strategy, Free Press: "Only when tech leaders are taken out of their Silicon-Valley bubble to meet with people directly impacted by online hate, can platforms truly begin to understand the public safety crisis that their piecemeal approach to content moderation has on diverse communities. People in our communities are dying at the hands of white supremacy — the stakes are that high."
  • Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson: "No single forum can alter the massive, systemic challenges at Facebook, but Sheryl's commitment to listen and engage on these issues is the first step toward a necessary cultural shift at Facebook."
  • Heidi Beirich, co-founder, Change the Terms and intelligence project director, Southern Poverty Law Center: "Facebook continues to serve as a powerful tool that is used by extremists to spread their hateful messages into the mainstream. While it has taken steps to implement content moderation policies in an attempt to reduce the amount of toxic bigotry on its platform, it has mostly been lip service."
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (per AP): "We know better than most companies that we have a lot to do in terms of strong actions to restore confidence."
3. Joel Spolsky's next act

Joel Spolsky, speaking at the 2018 RISE Conference 2018 in Hong Kong. Photo: S3studio/Getty Images

Earlier this week Joel Spolsky announced he was stepping down as CEO of Stack Overflow, but the software industry veteran remains busy, as chairman not only of that company, but of two others — including an interesting AI startup, Hash.

While machine learning is the most talked-about sector in AI today, Hash specializes in a different AI technique, agent-based simulations.

Why it matters: Though computing intensive, such simulations have the benefits of being more easily explainable as well as being able to work in situations where you don't have tons of training data.

"There are all kinds of problem spaces where people are applying machine learning but don't really have enough data."
— Spolsky

One area where there is interest in the approach is the financial services sector, where good money can be made if you can find, say, a better way to figure out where oil prices are headed. Simulations can also help with health-related issues, like modeling how an epidemic might spread or what level of vaccine coverage is needed to prevent an outbreak.

Hash is using open source technology with a business model still to be determined, Spolsky told me. And it's early days for the New Y0rk-based company, which has just seven employees, including CEO David Wilkinson. Spolsky is among the investors, though the company isn't saying who the others are.

4. Uber adds safety measures, revamps app

Photo: Alastair Pike/AFP/Getty Images

Uber is rolling out several new safety features while redesigning its app to integrate its ride-hailing and food delivery services.

As Axios' Kia Kokaticheva reports, the safety improvements include the ability to send text messages to 911 dispatches from within the Uber app, and an option for riders to receive a unique PIN to verify their driver's identity.

Yes, but: The news comes as the company and rival Lyft continue to face criticism over the safety of their services and how they handle complaints.

Meanwhile, the revamped app combines company's existing services, while also paving the way for more options in the future.

  • Uber is also expanding the cities where it will include public transit information.
  • Piloted in Denver and London, Uber is adding transit information, already piloted in Denver and London, for San Francisco, Mexico City, and Paris, with New York City and other cities coming later this year.
  • It's part of what CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says is an effort to provide "the operating system for your everyday life."
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Following a delay, Samsung's $2,000 foldable smartphone, the Galaxy Fold, goes on sale in limited quantities at AT&T, Best Buy and Samsung Experience stores.

Trading Places

  • 2 more executives are said to be leaving WeWork, per Bloomberg, following the departure of CEO Adam Neumann. Chief product officer Chris Hill and vice chairman Michael Gross, both of whom have close ties to Neumann, are reportedly exiting.

ICYMI

6. After you Login

Watch as these CalPoly students build a path so a classmate could take part in their bonfire.

Ina Fried