Start Up No.1202: Facebook’s chatbot hit, Ring and the police, tracking MPs’ extra income, Escobar’s folding phone (really), and more


Sundar Pichai is on top of Google – and now of its holding company Alphabet too. CC-licensed photo by Daniel Cukier on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Try a search! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A letter from Larry and Sergey • Google Blog

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Today, in 2019, if the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost. While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!

With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it’s the natural time to simplify our management structure. We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets. We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we’re passionate about! 

Sundar brings humility and a deep passion for technology to our users, partners and our employees every day. He’s worked closely with us for 15 years, through the formation of Alphabet, as CEO of Google, and a member of the Alphabet Board of Directors. He shares our confidence in the value of the Alphabet structure, and the ability it provides us to tackle big challenges through technology. There is no one that we have relied on more since Alphabet was founded, and no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future.

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TL;DR: Sundar Pichai replaces Larry Page at the top of the company that owns Google. My hot take on this is: Alphabet is going to turn back into Google, the battleship around which the other businesses sail in more or less close formation. I don’t see Pichai finding it too much of a hassle running both Alphabet and Google.

Where does Page go? More to the point, where has he been the past few years? In September 2018 Bloomberg asked “Where’s Larry?” and didn’t have an answer. Sergey Brin is also going to stop being “President”, and the role won’t be filled. But they’ll keep their shares: unaccountable power at one of the biggest, more powerful companies in the world.
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Facebook gives workers a chatbot to appease that prying uncle • The New York Times

Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac:

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Some Facebook employees recently told their managers that they were concerned about answering difficult questions about their workplace from friends and family over the holidays.

What if Mom or Dad accused the social network of destroying democracy? Or what if they said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, was collecting their online data at the expense of privacy?

So just before Thanksgiving, Facebook rolled out something to help its workers: a chatbot that would teach them official company answers for dealing with such thorny questions.

If a relative asked how Facebook handled hate speech, for example, the chatbot — which is a simple piece of software that uses artificial intelligence to carry on a conversation — would instruct the employee to answer with these points:

• Facebook consults with experts on the matter.

• It has hired more moderators to police its content.

• It is working on A.I. to spot hate speech.

• Regulation is important for addressing the issue.

It would also suggest citing statistics from a Facebook report about how the company enforces its standards.

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Just in case your family didn’t think that you had been absorbed into a cult.
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Liam Bot • Glitch

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The ‘Liam Bot’ teaches Facebook employees what to say if friends or family ask difficult questions over the holidays. We hope it’s helpful!

Uncle: When are you planning on having kids?

🤖: Some problems lend themselves more easily to A.I. solutions than others.

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Reload for all the answers to those difficult, difficult questions. (It would be nice to be able to pose your own questions, but I guess you can’t have everything.)
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Building a more honest internet • Columbia Journalism Review

Ethan Zuckerman:

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Thirty years after the invention of the World Wide Web, it’s increasingly clear that there are significant flaws in the global model. Shoshana Zuboff, a scholar and activist, calls this model “surveillance capitalism”; it’s a system in which users’ online movements and actions are tracked and that information is sold to advertisers. The more time people spend online, the more money companies can make, so our attention is incessantly pulled to digital screens to be monitored and monetized.

Facebook and other companies have pioneered sophisticated methods of data collection that allow ads to be precisely targeted to individual people’s consumer habits and preferences. And this model has had an unintended side effect: it has turned social-media networks into incredibly popular—some say addictive—sources of unregulated information that are easily weaponized. Bad-faith actors, from politically motivated individuals to for-profit propaganda mills to the Russian government, can easily harness social-media platforms to spread information that is dangerous and false. Disinformation is now widespread across every major social-media platform.

In response to the vulnerabilities and ill effects associated with large-scale social media, movements like Time Well Spent seek to realign tech industry executives and investors in support of what they call “humane tech.” Yes, technology should act in the service of humanity, not as an existential threat to it. But in the face of such a large problem, don’t we need something more creative, more ambitious? That is, something like radio? Radio was the first public service media, one that still thrives today. A new movement toward public service digital media may be what we need to counter the excesses and failures of today’s internet.

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(Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT.)
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Ring let police view map of video doorbell installations for over a year • CNet

Alfred Ng:

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For more than a year, police departments partnered with Amazon’s Ring unit had access to a map showing where its video doorbells were installed, down to the street, public documents revealed. So while Ring said it didn’t provide police with addresses for the devices, a feature in the map tool let them get extremely close. The feature was removed in July.

Public documents from the Rolling Meadows Police Department in Illinois, obtained by privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur and reviewed by CNET, revealed that police had access to a heat map that showed the concentration of Ring cameras in a neighborhood.

In its default state, the heat map showed police where Ring cameras are concentrated: the darker the shade, the more the cameras. But when zoomed in, it would show light circles around individual locations, essentially outing Ring owners to police. Police could also type in specific addresses to see the cameras in the surrounding area.

In a statement, Ring denied that its heat map tool gave exact locations of its users.

“As previously stated, our video request feature does not give police access to the locations of devices. Ring is constantly working to improve our products and services and, earlier this year, we updated the video request process to no longer include any device density information,” the company said.

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As heat maps go, it gave you a pretty good idea where the devices were.
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UK MPs’ additional income • Lobo

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The annual salary for an MP in the United Kingdom is £79,468. But MPs can earn additional income by, for example, giving speeches, writing articles and advising companies. They must declare these earnings, but not in a format that enables easy comparison across MPs. So, we’ve written some code which converts all their payment declarations into a common format. All £8.4 million of them. Here’s what we found.

Between 8th June 2017 and 31st October 2019 (the most recent Parliament), the average MP earned £12,879. That’s roughly £5,330 every 12 months, earned mostly through second jobs (with a fixed, regular salary).  But also through other ad-hoc tasks like giving speeches. We can’t see income from rental properties or financial assets.

Most MPs have not declared any additional earnings. This means that earnings are concentrated: 15 MPs account for over 50% of total earnings. Boris Johnson alone earned almost 10% of the total: nearly £800,000 or £27,440 a month. That was mostly earned through giving speeches. All 15 top-earners are men.

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Only one of those 15 isn’t a Conservative. Would love to see this for previous Parliaments. And the gender gap is remarkable.
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Climate change is forcing one person from their home every two seconds, Oxfam says • CNN

Jack Guy, CNN:

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People are seven times more likely to be internally displaced by floods, cyclones and wildfires than volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and three times more likely than by conflict, according to the report released Monday,

The issue is one of a raft of topics set to be discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 25, which starts on Monday in Madrid.

Oxfam is calling on the international community to do more to fund recovery programs for poorer countries affected by the climate emergency, which is set to intensify as extreme weather events are projected to increase in both severity and frequency.

Low- and lower-middle income nations, such as India, are more than four times more likely to be affected by climate-fueled displacement than high-income countries like Spain and the US, according to the report.

Geography also plays a role, with about 80% of those displaced living in Asia.

Small island developing states (SIDS), such as Cuba, Dominica and Tuvalu, are particularly badly affected, making up seven of the top 10 countries with the highest rates of displacement from extreme weather disasters between 2008 and 2018.

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I’d really like to know what governments’ detailed reports about food production, shortages and mass migration look like. A question I’ve seriously been wondering about is in which decade of this century governments will introduce rationing.
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Pablo Escobar’s brother unveils folding smartphone with help of hot models • TMZ

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Pablo Escobar’s brother knows how to move merchandise — show off the goods … and make sure to toss in a little extra eye candy. Or a lot.

The notorious Colombian kingpin’s bro, Roberto, is adding to his tech portfolio by unveiling one of the world’s first foldable smartphones. Based on the ad … sexy women in lingerie will especially enjoy using it.

According to his company, Escobar Inc., the flexible screen Android easily folds out into a 7.8in screen tablet … and comes with all the top-of-the-line bells and whistles.

Its name – the Escobar Fold 1. Retail price – $349. The company says they’ll sell out quickly, because it’s only producing 100,000 units to start … so get ’em while they’re hot.

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First, I don’t think the quality’s going to be up there – this has surely come from a Chinese knockoff company, especially at that price.

Second, what a classic celebrity magazine story: don’t care about interrogating the tech, just look at the name!

Third, I don’t think you’d really want to make a complaint to customer service. “What did you say your address was? Ah, we’ll send someone round to deal with.. the problem.” (Thanks Jim C for the link.)
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Why the paper on the CRISPR babies stayed secret for so long • MIT Technology Review

Antonio Regalado:

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More than a year after the birth in China of twin girls known as Lulu and Nana, the world’s first gene-edited babies, the affair is still shrouded in secrecy. US researchers and universities have given incomplete or equivocal accounts of their involvement with He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysicist who used CRISPR to make changes to the girls’ DNA while they were still embryos. In China, if you distribute a news story to WeChat asking what happened to the twins, state censors will issue a takedown notice.

No reason is given. No appeal is possible.

The silence hasn’t served only to conceal what really happened to the girls. It is hiding the scientific facts themselves. Starting late last year, manuscripts written by He describing the creation of the twins were considered for publication by at least two supremely influential journals: Nature and JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. Neither has published his work.

The reason isn’t only that He’s project trampled ethics rules. Another major obstacle to a full account is that He has not been seen or heard from for months. He didn’t make it to his home village for Chinese New Year in February, his father told us. His lab and data, according to one insider, were seized by Chinese authorities last December, and his original team of 10 has scattered to the four winds. An American collaborator, Michael Deem of Rice University, is the subject of an investigation by that institution; it has come to no public conclusion or disclosed any findings. So there may be nobody who can answer questions, expand upon the data, or carry out follow-up experiments, as scientific review by a journal often demands.

Although the reaction to the CRISPR babies was overwhelmingly negative, the future that the unpublished manuscripts unveil—a future of genetically engineered humans—is coming faster than many people realize. Genome-writing techniques are improving at a blazing pace. Select researchers remain keen to employ them in human embryos, tempted by the chance to prevent disease or improve heredity. The fear is they will do it again in secrecy, in some other country with lax oversight, and repeat He’s mistakes.

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Hang on – a country that has access to CRISPR and high-quality laboratories and yet has lax oversight? Where is it, Jurassic World? But at least the article (3,000+ wds) goes into the detail of the paper, and why it hasn’t been published: the gene-deleting work with CRISPR might have gone wrong.
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10 thoughts on “Start Up No.1202: Facebook’s chatbot hit, Ring and the police, tracking MPs’ extra income, Escobar’s folding phone (really), and more

  1. “But they’ll keep their shares: unaccountable power at one of the biggest, more powerful companies in the world.”

    This doesn’t compute. I understand it comes from the background of super-shares ripping off regular shares in the short term (IPO/buyouts), and usurping strategic power in the long run. But both are issues between shareholders, any company whatever its share structure is still accountable mostly to users, to customers, and to the law.

    Neither in theory nor in practice, I’m not aware of companies run by founders, nor of companies run by a separate manager but still majority-owned by founders, being more or less criminal than other companies. That’s still hugely criminal, I’d guess 100% off the DJ and S&P and NASDAQ are convicted criminals (Sun’s McNealy said his major pride was retiring w/o having done anything criminal, but… he got beaten ^^), but I haven’t seen any study about how share structure impacts either financial success (the narrow view) or criminality (the larger view), either in theory or in practice. You must have, to hold such a clear editorial line. I’m interested in it.

    • “Unaccountable” doesn’t have to mean “criminal”, so to suggest that that is what I’m saying is a distortion. Unaccountable means you don’t have to listen to anyone else and you can’t be held to account for what you do. Page and Brin hold 54% of the voting stock, so whatever instructions they give or don’t give can’t be outvoted by the board or public stockholders. They don’t have to answer to users (who would probably want fewer ads; see how far that gets you) or customers (who probably want more transparency on where ads are placed; GLWT); and as to the law, the company has already been fined billions by the EU and hasn’t changed its practices at all. So where’s the accountability there?
      Sorry if it’s hard to learn your idols have feet of clay. One day you’ll have to accept it.

      • You keep saying that Google is my idol and that I’m a Xiaomi zealot.

        Let’s compare:
        – I bought my last 2 phones from Xiaomi, and my last tablet, no PC nor laptop, a drone an air purifier and nothing else. You and Apple ?
        – I go out of my way to avoid using Google stuff whenever practical: no gMail (client nor server), no Chrome, mostly no Maps, adblockers/trackblockers… You and Apple ?

        There’s an allegory about a speck and a log ? Psychological term for it is, mostly, projecting ?

      • re. Accountability, you think Brin et Page having 54% prevents users from leaving if they want ? I don’t get your reasoning.
        To me, criminal is the epitome of unaccountable. It’s usually detrimental to all parties incl. shareholders in the long run.
        And the question remains: where’s the actual data on privileged stock being detrimental to any one ? Or are you just objecting on principle ? Which one ?

      • “the question remains: where’s the actual data on privileged stock being detrimental to any one ?”

        Maybe time for you to go back and look at what the principle of “shares in a company” is about. How did it work out for the people with options at WeWork that the CEO had shares whose voting rights were 10x those of any other stockholder, and so he could make determinations and outvote anyone for schemes such as buying a company name from himself? That’s not strictly criminal because it was done by a legal vote. (By himself, for himself.) But if you can’t see it’s unethical, you shouldn’t be allowed to have a bank account. That’s just one easy recent example that has been linked here multiply. Knock yourself out. There are plenty of others.

      • to elaborate, I think one of the biggest issues with US capitalism is short-termism. I’d argue concentration of voting rights might be part of a solution. When your accountability is 100% to this quarter’s numbers, maybe accountability ain’t that great ?

        I’m not saying whatever Google does = good. You should try and stop saying whatever Google does = bad. Or have some chips to back it up, beyond platitudes.

      • Shares with extra voting rights are a bit of a concern, but, again, it’s a thing between shareholders. If one guy extorts a billion from a VC that way, the guy is a crook and the VC is a chump, and employees who went for underclass options are idiots. The issue is well-known by now.

        I’ve got less of an ethical issue with that than with walled IT (content, repairs, political censorship), with companies blacklisting critical journalists, frankly, with CEOs glad-handing Trump and Xi, with tax optimizations (because those hurt the general public directly, which skewed shares don’t)…

        You ethics stance seems to be : “if Google does it is bad, if Apple does it it’s OK”. Or, even worse, your ethics sense seems to activate only when Apple isn’t involved. I’m not sure what bank accounts have to do with that.

      • Possibly you’re trying to see how far you have to push me to see when I’ll block you for misrepresenting me and being insulting.
        The answer is: not much further.

      • I’m still open to an explanation about accountability. I probably disagree with you that it varies quantitatively, it certainly does varies vary qualitatively. Basically motivations always exist, the question is where the motivations come from. I’m not convinced motivations from general public+institutional shareholders are provably “better” than motivations from individuals especially founders especially when they’ve reached crazy-money level. I actually kind of suspect the über-rich can turn out less greedy and less short-term (see: Bill Gates). And that diluted ownership is mostly absentee ownership.
        Again, accountability amongst shareholders I don’t care about, I’m talking about accountability to society.
        Also, again, I think whatever accountability companies have is mostly exogenous (customers users laws), not endogenous (sharehodler… conscience ?). The case against the myth of a shareholder conscience fostered by egalitarian shares: Bhopal, GM selling faulty cars, VW cheating on pollution tests, HSBC dealing w/ drug dealers… all those (and many more) led to actual deaths, often even directly. And were from companies with little if any privileged shares.

        To me , this means no spontaneous accountability, and no impact of share structure on accountability. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong. Or to no longer be sold that myth.

  2. I think the core of the issue is that I dislike Google less than I dislike Apple. My reasons for that:
    1- I think ad-supported IT has more value than Luxury IT. I think Google vanishing overnight would have a lot deeper consequences, for a lot more people, than Apple vanishing. I like HBO, but I’d choose all of broadcast before HBO.
    2- I think walled IT is a cancer. I can no more accept a computer that won’t let me run any app I want than a car that won’t let me drive wherever I want or a TV that won’t let me watch whatever I want. Ditto for repairs. I find it iffy when democratic governments do that, undemocratic government and private corps shouldn’t be allowed to. Especially when it redefines private corps as agents of gov censorship.
    3- I kinda prefer Google’s attitude to Apple’s. Granted, the “openness” is mostly fake, and fading, but still, Amazon can make FireOS, and Linage LineageOS, and Huawei something-something, off Android, and on top of that get a (self-serving) pass on sideloading gapps. Journos and bloggers can criticize Google (but not Apple) w/o consequences. Google drones (not Apple’s) still speak up a little bit.

    This doesn’t fix the facts that Android is a dirty hack forever trying to catch its footing (and ChromeOS is even more objectionable, if less hacky), that the data/tracking free-for-all (not a Google-only issue, but Google is prominent) can’t go on + intensify ad aeternam, that Google’s monopoly + MS-like sideways moves should be blocked…

    But in the end, Google betters, however flawedly, a lot of lives. Even if as a iFan said “the only reason to buy an Android is the price” (a false statement), that’s a very powerful reason. And there are all the free, cross-platform services on top of that.

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