Axios - Technology
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Pittsburgh sours on Uber's driverless car experiment

Gene J. Puskar / AP

Nine months after Uber rolled out its self-driving car trials in Pittsburgh, the relationship is deteriorating, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: Self-driving car companies are forming partnerships with cities that will allow them to test their vehicles on their streets. It's a high-risk, high-reward proposition for city leaders.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told The Washington Post this fall, "Is there going to be an accident in a robot car? Yes there is. But the greater goal is to make our streets safer in the long term. We have to start at some point and we can't wait for regulation to catch up with innovation."

The city's complaints: Uber began charging for rides that were expected to be free; it withdrew support from Pittsburgh's application for a major federal grant to overhaul transportation; and it hasn't hired local workers as it promised.

Uber's response: "Uber is proud to have put Pittsburgh on the self-driving map, an effort that included creating hundreds of tech jobs and investing hundreds of millions of dollars," Uber told the Times in a statement. "We hope to continue to have a positive presence in Pittsburgh by supporting the local economy and community."

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Zuckerberg: I'm not using this trip to run for office

Jeff Chiu / AP

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook post Sunday:

"Some of you have asked if this challenge means I'm running for public office. I'm not. I'm doing it to get a broader perspective to make sure we're best serving our community of almost 2 billion people at Facebook and doing the best work to promote equal opportunity at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative."

His learned insight: Zuckerberg said he sees an opportunity for Facebook to connect users beyond people they already know, and is hoping to soon introduce a system that recommends "people you should know," like mentors and people outside of your social circle who can provide "a source of support and inspiration."

Read next: Inside Zuck's real political strategy

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Ford replaces CEO Mark Fields with autonomous driving exec

Carlos Osorio / AP

Ford will announce Monday morning that it is replacing CEO Mark Fields with Jim Hackett, who ran Steelcase furniture for 20 years before joining the car company, reports The New York Times. Hackett most recently headed Ford's autonomous vehicle subsidy, known as Ford Smart Mobility.

Under Fields, who served as CEO for three years, Ford shares dropped 40 percent. He also was criticized by investors and the board for failing to make Ford a competitive player in the development of high-tech vehicles for the future.

Between the lines: The shake-up shows that Ford is shifting its focus to accelerate its self-driving technology. As the NYT points out, Ford has lagged behind other large automakers like General Motors and tech companies like Google, both of which have already begun testing their own autonomous vehicles. Ford is promising it will have a fully operating driverless car on the road by 2021.

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Striking AT&T workers head back to bargaining table

CWA

Over the weekend, AT&T stores were closed in a number of cities — from San Francisco to Boston to D.C. — when 40,000 workers walked off the job on Friday after the company failed to reach an agreement with the Communications Workers of America union. (AT&T told Fortune the majority of stores stayed open.)

In Oregon, Sen. Jeff. Merkley joined the picket line with workers. In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio signaled support on Twitter.

Why it matters: It's the first labor strike AT&T has faced since 2012. AT&T is the largest U.S. telecom company, and the only one with a major union presence in its wireless business — the fastest growing part of the company. As a result, AT&T is having to contend with the pressures of competing with nonunion rivals in the increasingly competitive wireless sector, a company spokesman told the NYT.

At issue: CWA says AT&T has cut 12,000 U.S. call center jobs while moving jobs overseas, and has shifted jobs from company-owned retail stories to third-party reseller chains. Workers are also frustrated about rising healthcare costs and changes to commission rates. AT&T, for its part, says it's offering fair wage and pension increases and healthcare benefits. "Our employees are returning to work, and we remain committed to reaching fair agreements in these contracts," a spokesperson said.

What's next: In an email to members Sunday evening, CWA rep Dennis Trainor said the union will be back at the bargaining table Monday: "We stood up not only for ourselves and for our families, but for all working Americans who are sick and tired of being taken advantage of by greedy corporations. This fight is even bigger than AT&T. Let's congratulate ourselves for a job well done and walk into work tomorrow very proud."

Updated to include AT&T statement.

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Tech adoption skyrockets among older adults

Over 40% of American adults ages 65+ own a smartphone, more than double the amount since 2013, according to the latest survey from Pew Research Center. At the same time, more than two-thirds of seniors use the internet — a 55% increase from 2000. And for the first time, half of seniors have broadband at home.

Reproduced from 'Tech Adoption Climbs Among Older Adults' Pew Report

Why it matters: Despite these milestones, seniors still report feeling disconnected from the internet and digital culture. The study also found that roughly one-third of older internet users say they have little to no confidence in their ability to use electronic devices to perform online tasks, and roughly half of seniors say they usually need someone else to set up a new electronic device for them or show them how to use it. As more aspects of daily life become dependent on technology, particularly health care, senior adoption of new technologies will become increasingly important.

Other takeaways: The study also found that broadband access was dependent on household income and education levels. It's important to note that tech adoption among seniors is happening as the average population of seniors is on the rise in the U.S. Today, people ages 65+ account for 15% of the overall U.S. population and that number is expected to jump to 22% by 2050, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.

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Why it's a great time to be a telecom company again

Lazaro Gamio / Axios


A busy season of regulation-slashing in Washington has big upside for a major industry: phone & cable companies.

For the past eight years, tech firms like Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon have been seen as having a leg up in Washington over the phone and cable companies that run the nation's broadband networks. But that's changing under the Trump administration. The country's biggest telecom providers — Comcast, Charter Communications, AT&T and Verizon — have already racked up some major policy victories.

Why it matters: The shift is indicative of the types of companies the Trump administration sees as being crucial to the economy, and it's no secret there's no love lost between Trump and Silicon Valley. It also reflects a de-regulatory approach that generally squares less with the popular online platforms than with the physical pipes that deliver them.

A few reasons why the telecom industry is well positioned these days:

  • While tech companies mostly have employees on the coasts, telecom companies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter Communications are important employers throughout the country.
  • The telecom industry is typically aligned with Republican politics while tech companies are liberal-leaning — one factor that helped them cozy up to the Obama administration.
  • Trump has an affinity for traditional jobs, like manufacturing. Although telcos don't run factories, they employ hundreds of thousands of workers to run fiber and cable lines and install wireless equipment — therefore supporting a segment of Americans who feel left behind by the high-tech industry.
What's happened so far:
  • Net neutrality reversal: The most obvious win for telecom companies is the FCC's proposal to undo Obama-era net neutrality rules that subject broadband internet service providers to more regulation. The telecom industry has repeatedly sued the FCC over this topic during the past decade. Chairman Ajit Pai last week cleared the first hurdle in the process to dismantle the rules, a move the tech companies oppose.
  • Privacy rules rollback: Congress killed the FCC's privacy rules that would have forced ISPs to get their customers' permission before sharing or selling their personal details to third parties like advertisers. That means ISPs can better compete against the likes of data-giants Google and Facebook in the growing online advertising market.
  • Infrastructure: Telecom providers are hoping a hefty slice of Trump's infrastructure package will spur broadband network buildout — a very capital-intensive effort — to fill in coverage gaps around the country.
  • Zero-Rating: Pai rescinded a report slamming some so-called "zero-rating" offerings, giving the providers the green light to offer their free data programs.
  • Business lines: The FCC made reforms to the $45 billion special access market — which governs access to the large-capacity data lines going to big businesses and banks — that favor companies like AT&T, Verizon, Frontier and CenturyLink.
  • Curtailing conditions: The agency eliminated a condition attached to the merger of Charter and Time Warner Cable, so Charter no longer has to "overbuild" its broadband network to certain areas where broadband service already exists.
  • Mergers: Despite Trump's populist bent, Wall Street and telecom CEOs see the new administration as more open to industry consolidation, opening the door to potential combinations like Sprint andT-Mobile, or even the rumored marriage of Charter and Verizon. Meanwhile, there's growing pressure to reign in the power of data behemoths like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
At the White House: Under the Obama administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy was led by Silicon Valley techies such as former Googler Megan Smith and former Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivary. Today, that office remains largely unstaffed.

The other side: Generally speaking, the administration's early days haven't been terrible for the tech industry, despite the ugly fight over net neutrality. Trump and Pai have both met with Silicon Valley companies. And web companies stand to benefit if efforts to expand broadband to unserved areas are successful — more people hooked up to high-speed broadband means potential new users for their services.

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App tells 6-minute horror stories through text messages

Flickr cc

An app called Hooked is pulling in millions of millennials with its 6-minute horror fiction stories told entirely by text message. The app's slogan "Fiction for the Snapchat Generation" embodies the founders' goals: revive fiction from being lost in the social media generation.

"Our goal was engagement, getting teenagers and millennials spend time in a narrative and complete that story and not get distracted," Hooked co-founder and CEO Prerna Gupta told CNBC.

And that's just what Hooked has done. According to mobile analytics app SensorTower, Hooked has already been downloaded more than 20 million times, and most readers are between the age of 18 and 24, with 69 percent under the age of 25. The app has also generated more than $6.5 million in worldwide revenue since it launched in Sept. 2015.

How it works: Users, including some professional authors, submit stories of about 1,000 words told as a conversations between characters in text-message form. As for consumers, the app is free as long as they read each story in 6 minutes or less, otherwise they hit a paywall called a "hoot."

Why horror? "Horror was the first thing that clicked," said Gupta. "[It] is a visceral and very universal genre. It appeals to our very basic responses."

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Co-founder: "I'm sorry" if Twitter helped elect Trump

Richard Drew / AP

On Friday, Twitter co-founder and Internet mogul Evan Williams said that if Twitter is to blame for the presidency then, "Yeah. I'm sorry." He added, "It's a very bad thing, Twitter's role in that." His remarks come less than a month after Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey said "it's important" the president has the power to tweet because it holds him accountable.

Why it matters: The conflicting perspectives resemble a familiar dilemma for tech media giants: Could their openness and accessibility, meant to promote democracy, be causing more political chaos than we are equipped to responsibly handle?

Everyone's pressured:

  • Facebook: Following the election, media experts and political flacks alike pointed the finger at Facebook, saying fake news on its platform helped sway the election, but Facebook has continued to profit and retain more users than ever. Mark Zuckerberg initially shrugged off the allegations, but has since made a big deal of his fight against fake news globally. Facebook has invested millions in providing resources and attention to local newsrooms through the Facebook Journalism Project and has taken out ads in the UK, Germany and France showing users how to spot fake news ahead of their elections. It's made numerous tweaks to its ad format and algorithms to nix bad content.
  • Twitter: In an interview with Stephen Levy in Business Insider Friday, Dorsey said the platform is always looking for opportunities to "show what matters faster," to limit distracting conversation. Twitter recently moved from a time-ordered to elevating content they feel users should be seeing and content that pertain to their interests, "and potentially showing the other side of what you're interested in, as well."
  • Google: Last month, Google announced it will start using data from more than 10,000 human contractors known as "quality raters" to teach its algorithms how to better spot offensive, incorrect or misleading information. The company has made tweaks to it's algorithms to weed out bad content, and added a fact-checking tool to help flag bad content.
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SoftBank raises $93 billion for its massive tech fund

Eugene Hoshiko / AP

Japan's SoftBank today announced a $93 billion first closing for its long-awaited Vision Fund (with plans to be at $100 billion within six months), which will invest globally in both private and public technology companies.

Why it matters: This is the largest private equity fund ever raised, let alone one to focus exclusively on technology companies.

The unveil: SoftBank timed today's news to President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, which committed $45 billion via one of its sovereign wealth funds. Plans for Vision Fund were underway well before last November's election, but Trump took credit after SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son visited Trump Tower and promised that half the money would be invested in the U.S. and that it would create 50,000 new jobs.

Investment strategy: Vision Fund will take both majority and minority equity positions, as Axios previously reported. It also has the right to acquire certain existing SoftBank investments, including deals for Guardant Health, Intelsat, NVIDIA, OneWeb, SoFi and nearly 25% of its stake in British chipmaker ARM.

Investors: Beyond the commitments from Saudi and SoftBank itself ($25 billion ― $8.2 billion of which comes via the in-kind commitment of ARM shares), other investors in Vision Fund include Apple, Sharp Electronics, Foxconn Technology Group, Qualcomm, Sharp Corp. and a sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates.

More details, per a source familiar with the situation:

  • Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund has the right to refrain from participating in deals of over a certain size.
  • It also has the right to sit in on deal meetings, but it doesn't have a vote.
  • The above negotiations delayed the initial close, which originally had been expected to occur months ago.
  • Because of potential conflicts of interest related to existing investments in Uber (Saudi PIF) and Didi (SoftBank), Vision Fund will not participate ride-hail deals anywhere.
  • SoftBank continues to seek the elusive $100 billion mark, in part, because Son has a preference for big, round numbers (seriously). The fact that hitting such a figure could remain six months off, however, indicates that the extra $7 billion remains elusive.
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Singapore tests Robot security guards

Aaron Favila/AP

Robot security guards are Singapore's newest use of robot-technology, and are being looked at as an answer to their growing worker shortage, according to Financial Times. The robot guards, called O-R3, will patrol outdoor areas and trigger an alarm when something or someone is suspicious. The four-wheeled robot is 1.5m tall, and has a drone attached to its side.

Why it matters: These robots will be a solution to the narrowing labor market and the aging Asian population, specifically helping these security companies who find themselves looking to technology to replace humans. The facial recognition capabilities will be more accurate than humans, the chief executive of the robot company claims.

The caveats: The company admits that it will take time for the machine to learn and perfect facial recognition. The machine needs to be charged every four to five hours to be at full capacity. It will cost $10,000 a month to lease.