Start Up: Google’s promise, DeepMind investigated, facial recognition reunites, 2bn Androids, and more

Open-plan offices: how much of a threat are they to work? Photo by Rum Bucolic Ape on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Please tell us you’re not “completely exhausted”. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s perfect future will always be just around the corner • WIRED

David Pierce:


For two and a half hours, CEO Sundar Pichai and a handful of execs rattled off a staggering list of futuristic features and products: A camera that understands what it sees! AI tools a high-schooler can use to help detect cancer! An omniscient, omnipresent virtual assistant! Independent, incredible, immersive virtual reality! To watch the address was to feel like the future had just arrived, all at once, right before your eyes.

Then you go down the list of actual new things, the stuff you can try right now. An Assistant app for iPhone, a way of sending simple email replies without typing them, Google for Jobs. And you realize I/O felt less like a Jobsian product reveal and more like a TED talk: good ideas, educated guesses, and impressive research, but precious little practical application. The same could be said for last year’s event, too. Remember that awesome Google Home launch video? You’re still waiting for many of the things it promised. It was a vision for a product, not a product.

Google’s not alone. In many ways, the entire tech world finds itself in limbo. The internet, smartphones, and Facebook conquered the world and are now ubiquitous. Meanwhile, the next wave of technology lingers just around the corner: Self-driving cars ruling the road, a world filtered through augmented-reality glasses, and artificial intelligence in every person, place, and thing. All of that and more is definitely coming. Someday. And every day it doesn’t, it feels late.


I certainly feel like tech is in a limbo period. In that way, it’s like the period from 2000 or so to 2007 in phones. That’s how long this not-happening stuff can go on.
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Why Google DeepMind’s work with the NHS is being investigated by the regulators • Business Insider

Sam Shead:


A letter leaked to Sky News and published on Monday shows that the National Data Guardian (NDG), Dame Fiona Caldicott, wrote to The Royal Free in February 2017 to let them know that the legal basis for the data-sharing deal that they used to test Streams was “inappropriate”.

“Given that Streams was going through testing and therefore could not be relied upon for patient care, any role the application may have played in supporting the provision of direct care would have been limited and secondary to the purpose of the data transfer,” she wrote. “My considered opinion therefore remains that it would not have been within this reasonable expectation of patients that their records would have been shared for this purpose.”

Those words can’t have gone down well with execs at DeepMind or The Royal Free. 

So if “direct care” wasn’t the legal basis for the data-transfer deal then what was? DeepMind and The Royal Free are yet to specify another legal basis for their deal, possibly because it doesn’t satisfy any of them. 

Julia Powles, a technology law professor at Cornell University, told Business Insider: “Any other basis required approval in advance — and DeepMind had no such approvals.” 


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Global renewables are growing, but are only managing to offset the decline in nuclear production • Our World In Data

Hannah Ritchie:


What we see from 2005 onwards is a distinct divergence in renewable and nuclear trends (they are essentially a mirror image of one another). Renewable energy’s share has increased by 4-5%, meanwhile nuclear energy’s share has decreased by approximately the same (4-5%). Our share of ‘low-carbon’ electricity has remained unchanged. We have simply substituted one low-carbon energy source (renewables) for another (nuclear energy).

What we don’t produce from renewables or nuclear is, of course, produced from fossil fuels. In the chart [below in the post] we have plotted the share of electricity production from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), and our combined low-carbon (nuclear plus renewables) sources from 1990-2014. We see that despite an increase in renewable energy production, the share of electricity production from fossil fuels has remained almost completely flat (or even increased marginally) over the last decade. It still represents 66-67% of electricity production.

Whilst the world is making progress in the uptake of renewable technologies, it appears our growing aversion to nuclear has been offsetting progress in decarbonising our electricity grids.


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How The Economist thinks • Current Affairs

Nathan J Robinson on the popular magazine’s worship of free markets:


I remembered Current Affairs’ ostensible rivalry with The Economist, and thought it might be a good idea to at least read the damn thing if we’re going to be selling bumper stickers calling for its execution. [They say “Death to The Economist”.] I am nothing if not open-minded and fair.

What, then, did I find upon navigating over to The Economist’s website? The very first article on the page was a piece called “A selective scourge: Inside the opioid epidemic,” subtitled “Deaths from the drugs say more about markets than about white despair.” Its theme is classic Economist: the American opioid epidemic is not occurring because global capitalism is ruining lives, but is the tragic outcome of the operation of people’s individual preferences.


I recall that many, many years ago, my brother was studying accountancy and my parents offered to buy him a subscription to The Economist. He turned them down, saying in his letter to them that the Economist was “V V RIGHT WING”. (He wasn’t.) For myself, I was hugely amused by its attempts to explain the 2008 global recession brought on by too-lax regulation on some form of inefficiency in the markets.

As long as you know what you’re getting – and what the biases are – you can extract value. Robinson’s argument is that too few Americans know what they’re getting.
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Open-plan offices kill productivity, according to science •

Geoffrey James:


Earlier today, I got a story pitch on the “office of the future” that featured the following bullet points:

• Remote Work Will be the New Norm: According to recent Fuze research, 83% of workers don’t think they need to be in an office to be productive, and 38% said they would enjoy their job more if they were allowed to work remotely.
• Physical Space Will Shrink: We’ll see more companies shift to a more collaborative office space model with workspaces that bring together teams, spark conversation, and create the best ideas.
• Traditional Desks Will Disappear: The so-called cubicle farm will become a distant memory and people will start embracing an environment that suits their needs — whether it be a table at a coffee shop, a standing desk, or collaboration space.
• “Office Hours” Will Become Obsolete: The workday isn’t 9 to 5 anymore, it’s 24/7. In fact, a recent Fidelity survey found that Millennials will take a pay cut for a more flexible work environment.

The list (which is very much “conventional wisdom”) illustrates the crazy-making way that companies think about open-plan offices. Can you see the disconnect? Bullets 1 and 4 are saying that people don’t want to work in an office, while bullets 2 and 3 are defining the very office environment where people don’t want to work.

And isn’t that the sad truth? Most people would rather work at home and or tolerate angry stares from the other patrons in a coffee shop (should one need to make a call) than try to get something done in an open-plan office.


When I think about it, I realise I worked in open-plan – or semi-open – offices all the time. Never had a specific room.
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Facial recognition helps parents find son 27 years after abduction • Vocativ

Jennings Brown:


In 2009, nearly two decades after Gui was kidnapped after school, he uploaded the earliest photo he had of himself, taken when he was 10, adding it to the database of tens of thousands of images. In January of this year, Gui’s father uploaded a photo of Gui when he was 4.

Baidu’s AI was capable of matching the two images, taken six years apart.

Since Baobeihuiji [Baby Back Home, an NGO dedicated to reconnecting lost children to their parents] began using Baidu’s AI a couple of months ago, they have found a few matches. So far one has been verified by a DNA test — Gui’s. Baidu arranged a meeting between Gui and his biological family, but Gui was suddenly hospitalized. Instead their first reunion took place over video conference on April 8. Gui’s birth mother was overcome with emotion when she saw her son’s adult face on a phone screen. The family later visited him at the hospital.

Baidu has been working on facial recognition AI for six years and will no doubt continue to find ways to use the technology for security and surveillance. But the company says it is committed to using it for other altruistic causes.


Got to love the throwaway tone of that “no doubt continue.. security and surveillance”.
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Android: celebrating a big milestone together with you • Google blog

Dave Burke, VP of engineering:


When I started working at Google in early 2007, it was before Android, before iOS. Mobile was still niche. And while many of us had a sense that mobile was going to be big, I’m not sure we really realized just how big it was going to get. Fast forward to today, and there are now 2 billion monthly active Android devices globally. This is an extraordinarily humbling milestone—and it’s the largest reach of any computing platform of its kind. Today at Google I/O, we celebrated that milestone and showcased a number of ways we’re working to make Android even more useful, including a beta release of Android O and a new initiative to help bring Android to the next billion users.


This is interesting because Apple claims a billion active devices, which includes Watches, Macs, iPhones, Apple TVs and iPads. Android’s includes phones, tablets, Chromebooks, smartwatches, and TVs. There might be a lot more iPads in use than Android tablets, though it’s odd how Android tablets keep outselling iPads.

If one ignores the Chromebooks, smartwatches and TVs – and the Macs (about 80-100m) – then it implies that iOS has a bigger share of devices in use than sales stats (80% Android) would suggest. Neat of Google to give us the data.

I also noticed this:


TVs: With 1 million new device activations every two months, Android TV has doubled its number of users since last year. And today we announced Android TV is revamping its home screen with a new channel-based, content-first experience so you can discover new shows and watch your favorites even faster.


A run rate of 6m per year has doubled the number of users? That’s not a very big user base by these standards.
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Real lack of interest in virtual reality • WSJ

Miriam Gottfried:


There were $1.48bn in VR hardware sales in 2016, according to SuperData Research. That is far from the $12.65bn the research firm is forecasting for 2020. That estimate has come down, and there is still reason to question whether VR will get there.

In a March, digital marketing research firm Thrive Analytics asked the question to internet users who were not interested in owning a VR headset. The survey, as summarized by eMarketer, showed many of the expected reasons: the headsets were too expensive, lack of virtual reality content and poor quality of what was out there and fear of motion sickness.

The biggest chunk, some 53%, said they were “just not interested.”


The problem with VR, at least at present, is that either you spend a ton on a super-high-end PC for a top-end experience (but content is hard to find) or you have the phone version which is much cheaper, and has super-cheap “headsets”.
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Trump fatigue? The good times for politics publishers are over • Digiday

Max Willens:


Four months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, most politics-focused publishers are tallying monthly traffic totals that are flat, or sometimes even lower, than the totals they fetched during the same period last year, according to comScore data.

In April, Attn:, a policy-focused social publisher that’s quietly turned into a giant of distributed video, saw its monthly traffic totals drop more than 10% year over year. Politico’s declined 3 percent. The Daily Beast, which puts politics front and center on a menu of many topics, saw a steep drop, from over 18 million unique visitors to just 11 million. Even The Hill, which attracted more than twice as many unique visitors — 18 million — this past April than it did a year earlier, has seen its traffic decline for three consecutive months, down from a January high of 25 million unique visitors.

Politics is a seasonal interest for most Americans. But the slide should also give pause to the many publishers that were starting to put politics more front and center to capitalize on interest in the first reality-TV president, and it may also signal that it’s time for even the more laser-focused publications to begin broadening their coverage, particularly on platforms like Facebook.


Perhaps it’s flat year-on-year because last year was crazy too? Though it’s also engagement (shares etc) that are falling.
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What to know about The Guardian-Rubicon Project lawsuit • Digiday

Jessica Davies on the case where the Guardian news organisation is suing a programmatic ad trader, alleging it held back fees paid by advertisers:


Whatever the outcome, big transparency issues exist in ad tech, and publishers across geographies are fighting for more control in the digital media supply chain. The Guardian isn’t the first publisher to have questions for Rubicon Project about hidden fees. Dutch media group De Persgroep was frustrated by certain fees the vendor drew in the last year that the publisher hadn’t initially known about, according to Digiday sources. De Persgroep has not filed a lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the publisher said: “De Persgroep has not filed a lawsuit against Rubicon Project, but [it is] following the discussion closely. We, too, want an ecosystem with transparent cost models and an unbiased exchange for both publisher and buyer. This lawsuit [with the Guardian] is part of the broader debate on transparency in programmatic trading.”


Rubicon was meant to be the way the Guardian and others escaped the grip of Google and Facebook for ads. Turns out not to have been nirvana at all.
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The strange mix of reasons why bitcoin is setting new price records • Quartz

Joon Ian Wong:


All markets have their own complexities and odd wrinkles, but bitcoin has a special array of oddities. I spoke to a range of institutional traders, exchange owners, and informed observers of the bitcoin markets. This is the picture that emerged. It connects the dots between (are you ready?): bitcoin’s civil war; Wells Fargo and a Taiwanese banking freeze; an obscure cryptotoken known as Tether; Japanese payments regulations; an explosion of interest in the usually anemic market for altcoins; and the phenomenon known as the initial coin offering (ICO), which is being touted as a mechanism to upend traditional venture capital raising.


Good luck if you can follow the chain of reasoning behind this. Bitcoin, as the author says, is now the reserve cryptocurrency; all cryptocurrencies that are going to fiat, and vice-versa, pass through it, and any crimp on its liquidity pushes up the price.
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Clean the keyboard of your MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2015) and later • Apple Support


If your MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2015) and later has an unresponsive key, or a key that feels different than the other keys when you press it, follow the instructions below to clean the keyboard with compressed air.


Hm. Never had this with the old key design, did we?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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