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November 18, 2019

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Today's Login is 1,309 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Tech companies battle for developer attention

a scene from Dreamforce 2018

Photo: Salesforce

As giant tech firms fight for the attention of their industry, they're putting more money and effort into transforming their conferences into mindshare-grabbing shows.

Why it matters: Tech firms use these events to woo business partners, inspire users, reward loyal developers and attract programming talent. For a wildly profitable industry, they're also becoming a new arena of excess.

Driving the news:

  • Salesforce's Dreamforce, which runs this week in San Francisco, features former President Obama, soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Apple CEO Tim Cook, among many, many other people not known for their CRM software expertise.
  • It's not just Dreamforce, though. Splunk paid for Obama to appear at its conference earlier this year, while everyone from Adobe to Zoom uses celebrities to fill seats and boost buzz at their events.

What they're saying: "Every year we look at the previous year's Dreamforce and think 'How can we go bigger and better?' Somehow every year we raise the bar," Brigitte Donner, Salesforce's Dreamforce chair, told Axios.

New this year:

  • More monks: 30 monastics will travel from Plum Village, a monastic community in France, to lead over 6,000 people in mindfulness practices, with a keynote on Friday.
  • Where's the beef? Not at Dreamforce. Organizers say going beef-free at this year's conference will save at least 9 million gallons of water.

By the numbers: Dreamforce is the biggest of the company events, drawing 170,000 people to San Francisco's Moscone Center and snarling traffic downtown.

  • "We love hosting 170,000 of our closest friends, but it does bring some logistical challenges," Donner acknowledges.

Perks: In addition to providing a roster of celebrities during the day, it's common for these conferences to throw a gigantic attendee party at a big stadium, concert venue or amusement park. I've been to...

  • Microsoft events at Universal Studios
  • San Francisco's baseball stadium rented out by Oracke
  • and heard everyone from Pat Benatar to Metallica to Maroon 5 play for a crowd of developers. (Fleetwood Mac is playing at Dreamfest this year.)

Yes, but: Developer conferences can also cost a couple thousand dollars to attend. That's fine if your employer foots the bill, but can be quite a burden for freelancers and the self-employed.

The bottom line: Corporate decision makers wield a lot of purchasing power and tech companies are spending freely for their attention.

2. The dangers of "AI washing"

Illustration of a woman working at a computer, with a robot mask over her face

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While artificial intelligence is an important new wave of tech, the term is being vastly overused. As Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports, zealous marketing departments, capital-hungry startup founders and overeager reporters are throwing the AI label on many products that are actually driven by simple statistics — or in some cases, human labor.

Why it matters: This "AI washing" threatens to overinflate expectations for the technology, undermining public trust and potentially setting up the booming field for a backlash.

The big picture: The tech industry has always been infatuated with the buzzword du jour. Before AI landed in this role, it belonged to "big data." Before that, everyone was "in the cloud" or "mobile first." Even earlier, it was "Web 2.0" and "social software."

  • About three years ago, every company became an "AI company," says Frank Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a leading Silicon Valley VC firm.
  • Now, investing in a purported AI startup requires detective skills, Chen says: "We have to figure out the difference between 'machine learning that can deliver real competitive differentiation' and 'fake ML that is a marketing gloss over linear regressions or a big team in the Philippines transcribing speech manually.'"

Plenty of companies rely on one or the other of those tactics, which straddle the line between attractive branding and misdirection.

"It's really tempting if you're a CEO of a tech startup to AI-wash because you know you're going to get funding," says Brandon Purcell, a principal analyst at Forrester.

The tech sector's fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude plays into the problem.

  • Many AI systems are slow to improve and require a good deal of human hand-holding at first, says Andrew Ng, founder of, a startup that helps other companies implement AI.

3. Hawley bill targets Apple and TikTok over China

Josh Hawley

Sen. Josh Hawley. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a prominent Big Tech critic, is introducing legislation today meant to protect Americans' online data from flowing to China and other countries that raise national security concerns, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports..

How it works: Hawley's bill takes aim Apple and TikTok by prohibiting American companies from storing user data or encryption keys in China, and preventing Chinese companies from collecting more information on American users than necessary to provide service here.

The big picture: Hawley's introduction of the National Security and Personal Data Protection Act follows his repeatedly raising concerns about TikTok's and Apple's connections to China, including at a hearing this month before the Senate Judiciary crime and terrorism subcommittee.

How it works: For TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, the bill bans the transfer of user data to China, and curbs both the collection of data and what can be done with the information.

  • TikTok, which has passed Facebook in popularity among younger teens, has said it stores U.S. users' data in the U.S., with its data centers located outside of China.
  • But Hawley fears the company could be pressed by the Chinese government to turn over Americans' user data. "If your child uses TikTok, there's a chance the Chinese Communist Party knows where they are, what they look like, what their voices sound like, and what they're watching," Hawley said in a statement.

On the Apple front, the legislation would prevent American companies from transferring user data or encryption keys to China, as well as prohibiting them from storing data in China.

  • China enacted laws requiring cloud services offered to its citizens be operated by Chinese companies and that Chinese customers' data be stored in the country, forcing Apple to choose between discontinuing iCloud service there or adjusting its operations.
  • Apple chose to partner with a state-owned company, Guizhou-Cloud Big Data Industry Co. Ltd., for its data center for Chinese users, but has said that Apple alone controls the encryption keys.

4. Tech tracks pets' health and well-being

An illustration of a dog wearing a fitness tracking watch

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Just as humans use technology to connect with one another, they're now using machines to interact with their pets, as Axios' Ursula Perano reports.

The big picture: Apps and devices are now offering pet owners a more intimate look at their animals' wellbeing, from veterinary care to fitness.

Details... Technology dips into pet care with:

  • Pet fitness trackers: Much like a FitBit or Apple Watch, companies are now producing wearable fitness-tracking devices for pets. The gadgets offer insights into exercise and nutrition, allowing owners to know, for example, when their pet could use a walk or run. The gadgets often come with GPS trackers, giving owners the ability to keep tabs on their animals' whereabouts.
  • Camera monitoring and intercoms: In-house monitoring systems and intercoms can connect to an owner's personal device, allowing them to view their pets and talk to them. Some also come with treat dispensers to "relieve boredom."
  • On-demand pet walkers and sitters: Pet lovers can now support the gig economy, with on-demand dog walking and pet sitting apps. Two popular platforms, Wag and Rover, allow customers to use their phones to request the services of trained walkers.
  • Telehealth for pets: Remote veterinary services are on the rise, allowing owners to access pet care without leaving home.
  • Microchip pet doors: To ensure pesky intruders such as raccoons or mice stay outside, pet doors are now able to recognize animals' microchips or collar tags as a sort of key for entry, and otherwise remain locked.

Yes, but: Just as tech is improving lives for pets, improvements in robots create virtual pets that can cuddle and play fetch without needing to be fed or go for walks.

Go deeper: How a faulty dog leash became a new threat for Amazon and crew

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Code Media takes place today and tomorrow in Los Angeles.
  • Techonomy runs through Tuesday in Half Moon Bay, California.

Trading Places

  • Anjelica Dortch has joined IBM’s government and regulatory Affairs team focusing on AI, science and R&D, cloud and blockchain. She's spent the last decade in federal government, most recently as a senior technology adviser at the Office of Management and Budget.


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