Start Up No.1,186: Google’s data grab, Apple’s AR headset timings, what if China makes Libra?, and more


Magic Leap has put up a bunch of patents as collateral for a loan. Is it in trouble? CC-licensed photo by Collision Conf on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not unseated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s ‘Project Nightingale’ gathers personal health data on millions of Americans • WSJ

Rob Copeland:

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The data involved in the initiative encompasses lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.

Neither patients nor doctors have been notified. At least 150 Google employees already have access to much of the data on tens of millions of patients, according to a person familiar with the matter and the documents.

Some Ascension employees have raised questions about the way the data is being collected and shared, both from a technological and ethical perspective, according to the people familiar with the project. But privacy experts said it appeared to be permissible under federal law. That law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients, as long as the information is used “only to help the covered entity carry out its health care functions.”

Google in this case is using the data, in part, to design new software, underpinned by advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, that zeroes in on individual patients to suggest changes to their care. Staffers across Alphabet, Google’s parent, have access to the patient information, internal documents show, including some employees of Google Brain, a research science division credited with some of the company’s biggest breakthroughs.

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Apple eyes 2022 release for AR headset, 2023 for glasses • The Information

Wayne Ma, Alex Heath and Nick Wingfield:

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Apple’s headset, code-named N301, will offer a hybrid of AR and VR capabilities, according to people familiar with the device. It resembles the Oculus Quest, a Facebook virtual reality headset released earlier this year, but with a sleeker design, these people said. Cameras will be mounted on the outside of the device, allowing people to see and interact with their physical surroundings, they said. Apple wants to make heavy use of fabrics and lightweight materials to ensure the device is comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, executives said in the presentation in October.

The headset will have a high-resolution display that will allow users to read small type and see other people standing in front of and behind virtual objects. The technology will be able to map the surfaces, edges and dimensions of rooms with greater accuracy than existing devices on the market, executives said at the meeting. To illustrate these capabilities, attendees at the October meeting were shown a recording of a demonstration in which a virtual coffee machine was placed on a real kitchen table surrounded by people in a room. The virtual coffee machine obscured people standing behind it in the room.

Apple is planning to reach out to third-party software developers as early as 2021 to encourage them to build apps for the new hardware, the company told employees at the October meeting. 

In contrast, Apple’s AR glasses, code-named N421, present bigger technical challenges than the headset and are further from release. They are meant to be worn all day, and current prototypes look like high-priced sunglasses with thick frames that house the battery and chips, according to a person who has seen them. 

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“Thick frames”. Hmmm. At least three years away from production though.
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All Magic Leap patents have apparently been assigned to J.P. Chase Morgan as collateral • Karl Guttag

Karl Guttag:

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Things have been very quiet lately with respect to Magic Leap. So quiet, that apparently the assignment of all of Magic Leap patents over 2 months ago went unnoticed. Except for a few users trying to keep it alive, the Sub-Reddit on Magic Leap pretty dead for many months. The initial source of information for this article came from a post on the AR_MR_XR Sub-Reddit. Reddit user, u/LegendOfHiddnTempl found that USPTO is now showing all Magic Leap patents to be assigned to J.P. Morgan Chase as collateral. The patents include the former Osterhaut Design Group (ODG) patents Magic Leap acquired via Magic Leap’s shell company Mentor Acquisitions earlier this year.

I checked on the official USPTO website and sure enough, the assignment as collateral document was executed on August 20th, 2019 and is publicly available copied here. I have cut and pasted a few key parts of the 451-page document listing all the patents and applications that have been assigned. I have not checked every patent, but it appears to be all of Magic Leap’s I.P. including the former ODG patents.

Apparently Magic Leap needed to put up their I.P. as collateral for a loan. As recent as April 2019, it was announced that NTT Docomo had invested $280m on top of deals with AT&T and SK Telecomm. Magic Leap is estimated to have over 1,800 employees and 19 office sites.

Employees of high-tech companies doing work like Magic Leap typically run about $250,000 or more of salary, benefits, office/facilities/equipment per employee per year. Senior R&D people can cost even more, but even if technicians are paid much less, the equipment they run is often very expensive. Then you have the SG&A on which Magic Leap appears to be heavily spending with a lot of marketing and facilities. When you total it all up, most people I talk to think Magic Leap is spending somewhere between $600m and $800m per year and that they have burned through all of their initial $2.4bn.

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Ooww. There’s still no sign of Magic Leap.. leaping. It’s barely even crawling. Another crunch for a hugely hyped augmented reality startup.
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Deep learning has a size problem • Heartbeat

Jameson Toole:

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There are many examples of massive models being trained to achieve ever-so-slightly higher accuracy on various benchmarks. Despite being 24X larger than BERT, MegatronLM is only 34% better at its language modeling task. As a one-off experiment to demonstrate the performance of new hardware, there isn’t much harm here. But in the long term, this trend is going to cause a few problems.

First, it hinders democratization. If we believe in a world where millions of engineers are going to use deep learning to make every application and device better, we won’t get there with massive models that take large amounts of time and money to train.

Second, it restricts scale. There are probably less than 100 million processors in every public and private cloud in the world. But there are already 3 billion mobile phones, 12 billion IoT devices, and 150 billion micro-controllers out there. In the long term, it’s these small, low power devices that will consume the most deep learning, and massive models simply won’t be an option.

To make sure deep learning lives up to its promise, we need to re-orient research away from state-of-the-art accuracy and towards state-of-the-art efficiency. We need to ask if models enable the largest number of people to iterate as fast as possible using the fewest amount of resources on the most devices.

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This does then go very deep into all the machine learning models out there. But the general point seems worth making.
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The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising • The Correspondent

Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn:

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Two weeks later, [professor of economics at the UCal Berkeley, Steve] Tadelis met the marketing consultants in the flesh. The advisers had put together a slick presentation demonstrating how eBay was raking in piles of cash with its brilliant ad campaigns. Tadelis recalled: “I looked around the room, and all I saw were people nodding their heads.”

Brand keyword advertising, the presentation informed him, was eBay’s most successful advertising method. Somebody googles “eBay” and for a fee, Google places a link to eBay at the top of the search results. Lots of people, apparently, click on this paid link. So many people, according to the consultants, that the auction website earns at least $12.28 for every dollar it spends on brand keyword advertising – a hefty profit!

Tadelis didn’t buy it. “I thought it was fantastic, and I don’t mean extraordinarily good or attractive. I mean imaginative, fanciful, remote from reality.” His rationale? People really do click on the paid-link to eBay.com an awful lot. But if that link weren’t there, presumably they would click on the link just below it: the free link to eBay.com. The data consultants were basing their profit calculations on clicks they would be getting anyway.

Tadelis suggested an experiment: stop advertising for a while, and let’s see whether brand keyword advertising really works. The consultants grumbled.

When, a few weeks later, Tadelis contacted the consultants about a follow-up meeting, he was told the follow-up had come and gone. He hadn’t been invited.

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This is a deep look at what’s fairly evident: a lot of ad spend is to make people (advertiser, publisher, middlemen-aplenty) feel good.
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About the Apple Card (JHH) • DHH

Following on from that “Apple Card gave my wife lower credit than me” row..:

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My name is Jamie Heinemeier Hansson. Since my husband, David, tweeted about an unfortunate and ridiculous situation with AppleCard that involves me, I have been (or my credit-worthiness has been) the subject of lots of speculation. Unlike David, I am an extremely private person who does not post on social media. I am slightly mortified to have my name in the news. However, lest I be cast as a meek housewife who cannot speak for herself, I would like to make the following statement:

I care about digital privacy. It’s why I wanted an AppleCard in the first place.

I care about transparency and fairness. It’s why I was deeply annoyed to be told by AppleCard representatives, “It’s just the algorithm,” and “It’s just your credit score.” I have had credit in the US far longer than David. I have never had a single late payment. I do not have any debts. David and I share all financial accounts, and my very good credit score is higher than David’s. I had a career and was successful prior to meeting David, and while I am now a mother of three children — a “homemaker” is what I am forced to call myself on tax returns — I am still a millionaire who contributes greatly to my household and pays off credit in full each month. But AppleCard representatives did not want to hear any of this. I was given no explanation. No way to make my case.

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Unpacking the Apple Card credit limit fiasco • FinTech Today

Ian Kar follows up on the original post of the above:

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we just gotta get this outta the way: There’s no way Goldman Sachs nor Apple — two of the biggest companies in the world — didn’t vet the shit outta their cobranded credit card prior to launch. Goldman’s not made up of idiots that just skirt regulation whenever they want. And Apple isn’t the type of company to just allow gender discrimination (or any other type) on a financial product they put their name to. And, as Aaron Suplizio pointed out, that’s also very illegal. [You can’t use gender/age/ethnicity as an input for a credit line amount in the US.]

How likely do you think it is that Apple and Goldman Sachs rolled out an illegal credit card?

…Also, discrimination is a tricky thing of course, but there have been a few instances (also on Twitter) that show that the opposite of DHH’s experience, namely from my buddy Alex Cohen [who got a lower credit limit than his wife]. 

The second bit: I’m not DHH’s accountant nor am privy to his financial situation but it’s safe to assume that the founder of a successful software company is more wealthy than the average person. But the Apple Card was designed to be a mass market credit card for the average American. Retrofitting that for the ultra-wealthy—like DHH, Steve Wozniak, and others—is difficult and something that’s not really scalable. And yelling at GS customer support people won’t do much—they’re not privy to all the details, (like, you know most customer service teams.)  

The most likely issue here is around spending behavior: credit card limits are designed to enable spending within your means. If you spend $5,000 a month, what the hell are you going to do with a credit card with a spending limit of $30,000? If anything, those credit card systems would be irresponsibly: they’d be enabling users to potentially fall into debt. These are also unsecuritized credit lines. A bank isn’t and doesn’t want to be in the business of repoing assets to pay back credit card debt, so its unlikely things like assets matter that much. 

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That “spending per month” point seems the best one. But: it would still be good to know.
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A Chinese digital currency is the real threat, not Facebook’s Libra • The Guardian

Professor Kenneth Rogoff (economics and public policy at Harvard U):

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China’s burdensome capital controls, its limits on foreign holdings of bonds and equities, and the general opaqueness of its financial system leave the yuan many decades away from supplanting the dollar in the legal global economy.

Control over the underground economy, however, is another matter entirely. The global underground economy, consisting mainly of tax evasion and criminal activities, but also terrorism, is much smaller than the legal economy (perhaps one-fifth the size), but it is still highly consequential. The issue here is not so much whose currency is dominant, but how to minimise adverse effects. And a widely used, state-backed Chinese digital currency could certainly have an impact, especially in areas where China’s interests do not coincide with those of the west.

A US-regulated digital currency could in principle be required to be traceable by US authorities, so that if North Korea were to use it to hire Russian nuclear scientists, or Iran were to use it to finance terrorist activity, they would run a high risk of being caught, and potentially even blocked. If, however, the digital currency were run out of China, the US would have far fewer levers to pull. Western regulators could ultimately ban the use of China’s digital currency, but that wouldn’t stop it from being used in large parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, which in turn could engender some underground demand even in the US and Europe.

…Just as technology has disrupted media, politics, and business, it is on the verge of disrupting America’s ability to leverage faith in its currency to pursue its broader national interests.

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Libra worries me, because of its potential to become a completely out-of-control global currency. A Chinese cryptocurrency could, as he points out, be equally bad, but in different ways.
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Facebook claims we’re ‘clickbait.’ and it won’t explain why • Truth or Fiction?

Arturo Garcia:

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Even as Facebook hides behind “free speech” concerns to justify a lack of action against the spread of far-right content, it does reserve the right to determine what constitutes “clickbait” with no explanation as to how that decision is reached and who makes decisions when affected outlets file an appeal.

In August 2019, we were notified that our fact-checking site — which is made up entirely of reporters who once worked for a former Facebook partner, Snopes.com — has been deemed by the platform several times as engaging in “clickbait” practices. In each case, the notices contain vague advisories about “misleading or sensational headlines”.

As we can confirm from speaking to two other legitimate outlets tagged as “clickbait” in Wonkette and KTOO-FM, Facebook’s appeals process does not provide an opportunity to speak with an actual person behind the platform’s rationale for limiting the reach of our posts and with that our ability to make money through pageviews and reader engagement.

Rebecca Schoenkopf, owner and publisher of the often acerbic news and commentary site Wonkette, told us that being docked as “clickbait” had not affected her site’s reach, because she believed that Facebook had already been throttling the site — since at least January 2018.

“We’re getting 2,000 visitors from Facebook a day across a dozen posts, with [having] 100,000 followers on Facebook,” she said. “Now they have an official excuse to do it, though.”

According to Schoenkopf, her site also began getting “clickbait” notices in August 2019. An appeal on their part was denied. “They just tell us that we have been clickbaity and we will be throttled and we can appeal, and then we appeal and it just says, ‘Your appeal is the same, you are clickbait,” Schoenkopf told us. She called it “aggravating” for right-wing blogs like the Daily Wire and Breitbart to receive consistent boosts from Facebook.

“I can’t imagine there’s no clickbait in any of their headlines,” Schoenkopf said. “It really feels like we’re being scapegoated.”

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I bet there’s a Facebook moderator saying “ehh, this site gets people sharing it when a meme comes up. Must be clickbait.”
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Netflix, HBO and cable giants are coming for password cheats • Bloomberg

Gerry Smith:

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Programmers and cable-TV distributors are considering an array of tactics to cut off people who borrow credentials from friends and relatives to access programming without paying for it. The possible measures include requiring customers to change their passwords periodically or texting codes to subscribers’ phones that they would need to enter to keep watching, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some TV executives want to create rules governing which devices can be used to access a cable-TV subscription outside the home. While someone logging in from a phone or tablet would be fine, someone using a Roku device at a second location could be considered a likely freeloader, one person said.

If none of those tactics work, pay-TV subscribers could someday be required to sign into their accounts using their thumbprints.

“I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall,” Tom Rutledge, the chief executive officer of Charter Communications Inc., said during an earnings call last month. “It’s just too easy to get the product without paying for it.”

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How is Netflix going to organise it for its family accounts, where you have multiple users who might legitimately be in multiple locations (parents, students, older children)? Will thumbprints be de rigeur there too? What if you don’t have a thumb-enabled device, or any biometrically-capable device? There’s a very “bell the cat” approach here: everyone wants it to have happened, but nobody wants to actually do it.
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The ham-handed, money-driven mangling of Sports Illustrated and Deadspin • The New Yorker

Louisa THomas:

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Former Deadspin staffers have strongly disputed G/O Media’s contention that non-sports posts did not attract the highest traffic. In fact, they have claimed the opposite. (A story in the Los Angeles Times looked at the numbers and backed up the former staffers.) On another level, though, that argument doesn’t matter: it has long been a fundamental tenet of the site that in order to understand what happens in sports you have to look outside of them. You have to understand power, money, and the broader culture in which athletes—and the people in their orbit—operate. If you want to understand the flaws in the way the major sports leagues address domestic violence, for instance, you need to understand the problems with zero-tolerance policies. To understand anything in America right now, you have to talk about the context that has created Donald Trump, and the context that Trump, in turn, has helped to create. And another of Deadspin’s central themes has been that human beings should be allowed to talk about important things, and joke about ridiculous things, regardless of what their job is—not because they have a platform or a mandate but just because they’re human beings.

I don’t doubt that ESPN’s audience research suggested that many people, as they eat their Cheerios, prefer not to read about anything more controversial than going for a two-point conversion. That’s a human impulse, too. But the anxiety around preserving sports as a carefully insulated and entertaining distraction may be as damaging as treating them merely as a vehicle for short-term profits—and may not be entirely unrelated.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,186: Google’s data grab, Apple’s AR headset timings, what if China makes Libra?, and more

  1. re. Edge AI: The problem with say natural language recognition is either you do it well or it’s not worth doing. It’s barely usable right now in French for example because
    a) we have a lot of homophones (infinitive and past participle; singular and plural; masculine and féminine…) and of silent letters or letter that combine into a ambiguous sound
    b) often have a liaison between the end of a word and the beginning of the next one.
    c) have lots of exceptions (eg, “e” marks femine, “s” marks plural, yet it’s la foi, le foie, une fois; also 9 words ending in -ou use “x” for plural, schoolchildren learn them in a short rhyme; etc..)

    In the end, “les adorer'” is pronounced “lé zadoré” and could have a silent s at the end; “l’adorer” is pronounced “la doré” and could have a silent e, and could mean to love or to broil or to “golden” (with gold leaf).

    I’m trying to use voice typing more, it requires a) enunciating each word separately and b) either sending stuff as-is with lots of grammatical mistakes or going back and editing them out. It’s clear current AI doesn’t use context much, because I’m getting lots of 9yo-type mistakes (missing s in plural or e in feminine or -er instead of -é even though gender/quantity/infinitive vs participle… is obvious).

    I understand language recog in general and French recog in particular is hard, but in that specific case, I’m not sure we’re at the simplify stage yet. And I wonder in which other areas we’re willing to trade accuracy for CPU cycles. Medical ? Financial ? Industrial ? I thought the whole point of the Cloud is that we could do stuff the right way on high-end servers….
    .

  2. re Libra: I find parallels with Trump.
    1- we have a, initially good-enough systems that’ allowed to decay and serve special interests (mostly, the rich and powerful) instead of the common good. Especially in the US, there’s no limits on credit nor even mandatory info; some workers are paid on cards that have withdrawal fees; lots of unbanked; high and undisclosed fees…
    2- Instead of correcting and making the system work for regular Janes, we let it get to a point where an abysmal no-rules corrupt alternative sound better.

    The core issue is not the alternatives, it’s that the main system is failing.Impeaching Trump or Libra is curing the symptom.

  3. Is Snap the anti-Google ? They’re on gen 3 of their spectacles, which AFAIK aren’t very succesful, and do exactly the half I didn’t like about gGlass: they shoot, but don’t display. Nice perseverance anyway, I wish Google had some of that grit.

    Also, I’m increasingly thinking we needed Noticaters, as in peripherals that only handle a phone’s notifications, now that those are so customizable (filers per app and per sender) and powerful (canned replies, some actions…). A watch or glasses that’d do that don’t need a real OS nor anything really besides a microcontroller and BT LE, ie small size and long life.

    As with iOS (Android for me, thanks !) on desktops/laptops/consoles, I’m wondering if I’m dead wrong or way ahead. Disruption theory says I’m ahead.

    https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/12/20951783/snap-spectacles-3-review-snapchat-glasses-price-specs-features

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