Start Up No.1672: Microsoft, Minecraft, metaverse?, Github’s China question, Nintendo Switch chip drought, and more


The iconic London black cab is making a comeback as Uber prices rise, forced up by a driver shortage. CC-licensed photo by JOHN LLOYD on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. The blue site’s back. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


You could always try a book: Social Warming, my latest book, which looks at how social networks affect us. (Here’s a recent video review, just a couple of minutes.)


Facebook’s ban on facial recognition isn’t what it seems • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:

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Facebook first began using facial recognition tech back in 2010 as a way to make tagging photos a bit easier for the folks uploading photos for the platform. Facebook’s software would suggest friends that were potentially in your photos, and even tag them for you, cutting down on the time that people would spend manually tagging everyone they knew in their pics. Facebook automatically opted its users into this system until 2019, when it finally announced it would let us decide whether to turn it on—and let the company continue scanning every uploaded photo for a sign of your face—or off.

And now, the platform’s doing away with the feature entirely. As part of the change, the company notes that those that are still opted into Facebook’s Facial Recognition setting will “no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos.”

On top of that, the facial template being used to recognize each of these users will be deleted from Facebook’s systems. “The platform will still encourage people to tag posts manually,” in order to help users find friends that might be in a photo or video, the blog post notes.

As for why Facebook’s making this move after slightly more than a decade of collecting countless faces, it looks like the company’s finally realized what watchdog groups and tech critics have been saying for years: facial recognition, by and large, does way more harm than good. (At minimum it’s realized the tech does reputational harm.) And for the most part, the real-world harms are disproportionally felt by people of color that are often misidentified by these systems.

“Every new technology brings with it potential for both benefit and concern, and we want to find the right balance,” wrote Jerome Pesenti, one of the heads for artificial intelligence at Meta, in the Tuesday blog post. “In the case of facial recognition, its long-term role in society needs to be debated in the open, and among those who will be most impacted by it.”

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Not clear though whether Instagram or Spark AR (Facebook’s augmented reality platform) will give up facial recognition.
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GitHub is China’s ‘last land of free speech’ – but for how long? • Rest of World

Meaghan Tobin:

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In 2020, nearly 10% of GitHub’s 56 million contributors came from China. GitHub has been a triumph there for parent company Microsoft, which bought the platform for $7.5 billion in 2018. With the departure of foreign social networks like Facebook and the rollback of Microsoft-owned LinkedIn’s services there, GitHub is now the last major foreign-owned platform accessible in China that hosts user-generated content — an unpredictable set of information that would normally be at risk of censorship, screening, and even summary blockage. Some users have referred to it as “the last land of free speech.” 

Though GitHub continues to provide an unparalleled bridge to the global open source community, China’s developers have begun to wear their reliance on the platform more uneasily. Adding to the mounting pressure is a tech policy environment that is increasingly challenging, even for China’s own top tech companies – including, from November 1, the new Personal Information Protection Law. Intended to protect citizens’ data and store it inside the country, the law applies to any company that transmits Chinese user data.

As an open source platform, GitHub is more in alignment with Chinese tech policy goals in general than LinkedIn was, said Kendra Schaefer, head of tech policy at Trivium China, a Beijing-based consultancy. But, she said, “Open source policy goals do not supersede online content and algorithm regulations. The rules that make it more difficult for platforms with social elements to do business will still apply, and Microsoft may still decide they don’t want to deal with them.”

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Yahoo just pulled (the last of its remaining sites) out. Hard to see how Github is going to be able to carry on under the new PIP law.
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Nintendo to make 20% fewer Switch consoles due to chip crunch • Nikkei Asia

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Nintendo will only be able to produce about 24 million units of its popular Switch game console in the fiscal year through March, 20% below an original plan, Nikkei has learned.

Its production has been held up by shortages of semiconductors and other electronic parts amid strong demand for Switch, including for its latest version released on Oct. 8.

Nintendo’s trouble is a reminder of the far-reaching impact of the global supply crunch that has affected a wide range of industries from autos to electronics to machinery.

The Kyoto-based company originally planned on producing a record 30 million Switch units on the back of rising demand for computer games triggered by the COVID pandemic, which has forced people to spend more time at home.

However, production bottlenecks quickly emerged around springtime for key components including microcomputers. The company concluded it would have to revise down production targets as it was not able to secure enough supplies. Nintendo’s suppliers have already been notified about the production cuts.

A Nintendo spokesperson acknowledged that the production is being affected by component shortages. “We are assessing their impact on our production,” the spokesperson said.

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All this unfulfilled demand. Wonder where that goes: do people just hold on to their money, waiting for a time when they can get that Switch they briefly wanted? Or do they buy something else that’s available? (Of course it won’t all be one of the other, but the balance of what happens is the question.)
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Black cabs roar back into favour as app firms put up their prices •The Guardian

James Tapper:

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While drivers with a cab talk of people running towards cabs when they stop to let out a passenger, arguing about whose taxi it is, or queues of 100 people outside Victoria train station or Liverpool city centre, there are plenty of licensed drivers without a vehicle.

“People are coming to us every single day looking for a cab,” said Lee DaCosta, a founder of Cabvision which runs payment systems for taxis and also rents a fleet for drivers who don’t own a vehicle. “We’re having drivers turning up literally walking the streets from garage to garage going ‘got any cabs?’”

Transport for London (TfL) figures show there were 13,858 licensed taxis in London on 24 October, compared with historic levels of about 21,000.

…some of the decline pre-dated the pandemic, and DaCosta says TfL’s policy of forcing older, diesel taxis off the road has not been accompanied by enough support for electric cabs.

…“Getting older polluting vehicles off the road is obviously a good thing,” he said. “But the average age of a person in the industry is 54, and so you’re looking at about £50,000 of finance. For someone in their 50s, that’s not worth it.”

About 1,200 drivers a year are leaving the trade, DaCosta said, but only about 300 a year are joining. There are only about 900 people doing the Knowledge – the requirement, since 1865, for drivers to learn each street in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, which takes more than three years of training and practice before a licence is granted.

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Remarkable that the Knowledge is still a prerequisite. I’d like to see a competition between an Uber driver using a satnav, and a taxi driver with the Knowledge. (Besides the taxi getting the preferential use of a lane.)
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The metaverse is already here. It’s Minecraft • Medium

Clive Thompson:

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“[Zuckerg’s vision of the metaverse] looks like junk,” wrote Ethan Zuckerman, who built a metaverse 27 years ago. “His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows.”) Despite Facebook’s attempts to make things look jolly, and despite the bazillions of dollars they probably spent on this demo, it was almost experimentally lifeless.

Big tech firms are desperate to launch a metaverse. They keep on promising it’ll be here — some day soon! It’ll transform daily life, letting you hang out with friends — any day now! You’ll see art, go to live events, be creative, play games, run businesses — like, soon, we mean it!

Of course, these tech giants all want to be the earliest entrant, praying they’ll lock in first-mover advantage and build Hotel-Californian network effects. They want to create the metaverse, a walled-garden from which they can harvest all the profits.

This is why they’re doomed to build such dreary, mall-like wares.

The truth is, a thriving metaverse already exists. It’s incredibly high-functioning, with millions of people immersed in it for hours a day. In this metaverse, people have built uncountable custom worlds, and generated god knows how many profitable businesses and six-figure careers. Yet this terrain looks absolutely nothing the like one Zuckerberg showed off.

It’s Minecraft, of course.

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Minecraft definitely fits the bill, and has all the quirky elements that Ryan Broderick suggested last week would be part of a successful metaverse.
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John Carmack, one of the key players in building Facebook’s metaverse, is pretty bearish about the idea • Fortune

David Meyer:

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Carmack is a legend in the gaming and virtual reality (VR) worlds, being cofounder of id Software, the firm that published the seminal Doom game. Eight years ago he became chief technology officer (CTO) at Oculus VR, the VR-headset outfit that Facebook—which was rebranded as Meta on Thursday to reflect its new focus—acquired soon after he joined. A couple years ago he stepped back into a consulting-CTO role. He’s highly respected to say the least, and he doesn’t think much of Zuckerberg’s plan.

“I want it to exist, but I have pretty good reasons to believe that setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse,” Carmack, who has been talking up the metaverse concept since the 1990s, said. The problem, he explained, is that the concept is a “honeypot trap for architecture astronauts…a class of programmers or designers that want to only look at things from the very highest levels.” Such people don’t want to talk about “any of the nuts and bolts or details,” he complained.

“But here we are, Mark Zuckerberg has decided that now is the time to build the metaverse, so enormous wheels are turning, resources are flowing, and the effort’s definitely going to be made,” the tech guru said. “So the big challenge now is to try to take all of this energy and make sure it goes to something positive, and we’re able to build something that has real near-term user value, because my worry is that we could spend years, and thousands of people, possibly, and wind up with things that didn’t contribute all that much to the ways that people are actually using the devices and hardware today.”

…Carmack also warned against “the metaverse” being under the control of one company. “The problem is that if you make a bad decision at the central level, nobody can fix it,” he said. “You can cut off entire swaths of possibility—things that might be super important. I just don’t believe one company ends up making all the right decisions for this.”

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Well, since he mentioned it…

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Microsoft takes on Facebook by launching metaverse on Teams • Financial Times

Richard Waters:

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Microsoft has taken its first step towards bringing the metaverse to office life, in the latest sign that some of the biggest tech companies see the blending of the digital and physical worlds as one of the most important new trends in computing.

The US software giant said that in the first half of next year, users of its Teams collaboration software would be able to appear as avatars — or animated cartoons — in video meetings. Remote workers will also be able to use their avatars to visit virtual work spaces, which would eventually include replicas of their employers’ offices.

Microsoft’s first moves to blend the virtual and physical worlds are modest compared to the expansive vision that Facebook laid out last week when it changed its corporate name to Meta to reflect its new focus on the metaverse.

However, Microsoft’s plan is based on underlying technology, known as Mesh, that it unveiled earlier this year to handle far more complex virtual interactions on different types of hardware, from PCs to virtual reality headsets. Also, Microsoft executives said they saw the adoption of personal avatars as the first step in a progression that would see workers become increasingly comfortable with new forms of virtual interaction that might seem alien to them now.

“With 250m people around the world using Teams, the introduction of avatars will be the first real metaverse element to seem real,” said Jared Spataro, the head of Teams.

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Not sure if anyone’s keeping count, but we’re definitely up to three, maybe four metaverses now.
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Tesla recalls 11,706 vehicles over Full Self-Driving beta software bug • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:

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According to the safety recall report, the problem affects Models S, X, and 3 vehicles built between 2017 and 2021 and Model Y vehicles built between 2020 and 2021 that are running firmware release 2021.36.5.2. The updated firmware was rolled out to drivers in its beta testing program on October 23 and, once installed, caused a pair of chips to stop talking to each other when the vehicle wakes up from “sentry mode” or “summon standby mode.”

That error prevents the neural networks that operate on one of the chips from running consistently, causing it to throw false-positive collision warnings and—more seriously—false-positive AEB [automatic emergency braking] activations.

Tesla acted quickly after unleashing the faulty software. After receiving multiple reports of problems, the company halted the rollout and disabled the two affected safety features on the affected cars by the next day. On October 25, a new firmware version was released, correcting the problem and restoring collision warning and AEB to the affected cars.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this story is that Tesla initiated the recall process through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a software issue. Almost all the affected cars have already been patched, and Tesla doesn’t often feel the need for such formality.

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On seeing the headline, you’d think that Tesla has had to drag a load of cars back to its repair bays. Not at all: it just hit a button at headquarters and beamed out a software update/downgrade. In all, a total of 11,706 vehicles were affected. And then unaffected. A new way for cars to get broken, and fixed.
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Elon Musk says Tesla hasn’t signed deal with Hertz despite earlier announcement • WSJ

Omar Abdel-Baqui:

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Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said the electric-vehicle maker hasn’t signed a deal with Hertz Global Holdings yet, which appeared to contradict a Hertz announcement late last month that the company was ordering 100,000 Teslas.

“I’d like to emphasize that no contract has been signed yet,” Mr. Musk said in a tweet late Monday. “Tesla has far more demand than production, therefore we will only sell cars to Hertz for the same margin as to consumers. Hertz deal has zero effect on our economics,” he said.

Representatives for Hertz and Tesla weren’t immediately available for comment.

In late October, Hertz said it ordered 100,000 Teslas to be delivered to the rental-car company by the end of next year, a bulk purchase that promised to expose more mainstream drivers to Tesla’s technology.

Hertz said last month it was “announcing a significant investment to offer the largest EV rental fleet in North America and one of the largest in the world. This includes an initial order of 100,000 Teslas by the end of 2022 and new EV charging infrastructure across the company’s global operations.”

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Well this is embarrassing, though probably more for Hertz than for Tesla, which is apparently never going to be short of people who want its cars. (Hertz doubled down, insisting it’ll start offering the cars by the end of next year.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the mystery [from Monday] of why the guy wanted the Apple computer (we assume Mac, not iPad) that came in the smallest box isn’t resolved. We’re going to try asking him. Stay tuned.

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