May 11, 2018

Axios Login

Good morning ... Situational awareness: AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told employees this morning that hiring Michael Cohen was a “big mistake” and that its lobbying boss Bob Quinn “will be retiring.”

1 big thing: Computers that listen and chat raise new questions

Google CEO Sundar Pichai demoing the controversial chatbot. Screenshot: YouTube

The uproar over Google's impressively provocative computer-calls-hair-salon demo highlights the many ethical, security and cultural concerns raised when computers can convincingly converse with humans.

Quick recap: The demo in question featured a Google AI assistant calling a hair salon and going back and forth with a receptionist to find a suitable appointment time.

  • Many who saw the demo were both awed by the technology and alarmed that the computer didn't appear to identify itself as such.
  • Google says it always intended for its systems to disclose themselves, though it says it hasn't yet figured out what is the best mechanism for doing so.

The big question: Even if Google uses the technology responsibly, how will others use it?

  • The potential for mischief, harassment and crime is enormous.
  • As just one example, think how bad robocalls are today. Imagine if instead of a recording with a couple of pauses, such calls were instead powered by a smart assistant — perhaps one that also knew a few things about you?

The bottom line: The singularity is a ways off but we already need new rules for computers to identify themselves.

Meanwhile: A New York Times article highlights a related but opposite issue that comes about when computers can surreptitiously send commands to computers designed to respond only to human voice, like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

  • It's worth pointing out everyone praised an early example of this — when Amazon used this ability to prevent its Alexa commercials from triggering the Echos of all the people watching the Superbowl.
2. Google (finally) heeds Tristan Harris' call

Several features in Android P aim to address phone addiction. Photo: Google.

In 2013, Tristan Harris called for Google to do something about how people were getting sucked into technology. Five years later, it appears his former colleagues are starting to listen.

Flashback: In a slide presentation (made public yesterday by the Verge), then product manager Harris called for the company to "Minimize Distraction & Respect Users' Attention."

  • In his internal presentation, Harris said that modern technology acts like an "attention casino" producing a range of real physical symptoms.
  • People, he said, often interrupt their breathing and have their nervous system activated and their heart race as they read through email or a news feed.

At Google I/O this week, the company showed off several new features designed to help users both see how much time they are spending with their apps as well as take some steps to control their usage (should they choose to do so.)

Harris' response: He told The Verge that Google's moves represent "baby steps" toward the humane technology movement he has called for, but added "it’s really important to celebrate the fact that Google is really doing it.”

Why it matters: There's clearly more work to be done, but Google's moves show it's seeing demand for such tools and it could also encourage others to make similar moves.

3. The internet mourns Klout, a service it forgot

Screenshot: Klout

The response to the death of Klout highlights all the things wrong with the social media rating service in the first place.

What's happening: Word that Klout was permanently shutting down sent the social media elite into a self-referential stroll down memory lane, with everyone rushing to check their score and ruminate on the service they had forgotten in the first place.

Context: For those fortunate enough not to have heard of Klout, it was an attempt to give people a score (and possibly rewards) for their social media influence.

Key quotes: That said, here are a couple of the best takes on its demise.

  • Andreessen Horowitz' Benedict Evans: How will autonomous cars work out who to avoid hitting if they can’t use your Klout score?"
  • Glitch CEO Anil Dash, tweeting a picture of his 84 Klout score: "I feel like this Klout score should have gotten me into more parties. "
  • Klout founder Joe Fernandez, who sold the site for $200 million in 2014: "Sad to see it go at a time the world could really benefit from a service that helps us understand the impact and legitimacy of social media content."
  • And, one from me: "All this social media attention is really going to help Klout’s Klout score."
4. Uber unveils flying car prototypes

Earlier this week, Uber hosted its second conference, this time in Los Angeles, focused on so-called “vertical take-off and landing” vehicles — or “flying cars” — and announced a slew of partnerships and plans, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva writes.

The highlights, per various media sources:

Be smart: Similarly to its strategy with self-driving cars, Uber doesn’t not intend to ever manufacture these flying vehicles, or even own then. Rather, it wants to partner with other companies to develop the technology and avoid a lot of headaches that come with complex tech like this.

But bear in mind: Despite Khosrowshahi’s enthusiasm about the business opportunities, this is also largely a way for the company to remain innovative in the eyes of its employees and potential partners and job candidates.  

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Microsoft, Google and Red Hat developers may finally get a break after several days of developer conferences. Or, more likely, a chance to respond to all the email that has been piling up in their inboxes.

Trading Places

  • WeWork has hired former White House information security head Cory Louie as its first chief security officer, per Recode.


  • In its first earnings report, Dropbox exceeded Wall Street estimates with $316 million in revenue and per-share earnings of $0.08.
  • Nvidia crushed earnings expectations, buoyed by strength in both gaming and its data center business, Bloomberg writes. It also says it got nearly $300 million from chips sold to those mining cryptocurrency, an amount it expects to drop substantially this quarter.
  • Spotify said it will stop promoting the work of R. Kelly as part of a new policy on "hateful conduct and hateful content." People can still play his music on the service, but it won't be included on Spotify's own playlists, both human-curated and those programmed via algorithms.
6. After you Login

The mini retro video game trend continues, this time with Neo-Geo.