Google eases tech stress with app controls, table-booking assistant

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.(Reuters) – Google on Tuesday showed how its virtual assistant can now call restaurants and salons to book appointments, navigating complex conversations, as the Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) unit acknowledged that a technological onslaught was leaving users frazzled and needing a cure.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

The demonstrations at Google I/O, an annual event for creators of Google-compatible products, showed how big technology companies are positioning themselves for a lucrative artificial intelligence revolution while grappling with heightened scrutiny about their societal influence.

Chief Executive Sundar Pichai and other officials said Google should find ways to reduce stress from technology and improve customers’ “digital well-being.”

“We can’t just be wide-eyed about the innovations technology creates,” he added.

Google showed how its email program can suggest sentences and how Google Assistant can call a salon or restaurant to make an appointment or reservation.

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A new tool in its Android software, which runs most of the world’s mobile phones, will notify users how much they are using apps and let them set limits for themselves and family members.

Google, Facebook Inc (FB.O), Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) and other technology leaders are vying to keep users in their apps to maintain booming businesses of selling ads, goods or online computing services.

Offloading tasks to virtual assistants to manage photos, emails and schedules is part of the companies’ remedy for decreasing screen time.

Shares of Alphabet closed at $1,058.59, down almost 0.1 percent.

Google and its rivals have faced unprecedented criticism from former employees and U.S. lawmakers over the last year.

Critics have urged the companies to halt the spread of misinformation and extremist propaganda, improve data privacy protections and play a greater role in combating app addiction. How artificial intelligence may replace human work or be infected with human prejudices is a growing concern.

Still, Google is infusing more services with artificial intelligence, which has become more powerful in recent years because of software breakthroughs and decreasing hardware costs.

Google Maps will make more dining suggestions by learning user habits and be able to pinpoint users’ locations by using smartphone cameras to analyze their surroundings, the company added.

LG Electronics Inc (066570.KS), Xiaomi Technology Co (IPO-XMGP.HK) and other smartphone makers will begin integrating artificial intelligence into devices so that users can pull up reviews for a piece of clothing by holding their cameras up to it.

Editing by Peter Henderson and Richard Chang

Drive.ai Launches a Self-Driving Car Service in Frisco, Texas

In the evolving geographic distribution of self-driving cars, the go-to getaway is Arizona, where good weather and minimal government interference make testing two-ton robots something like fun in the sun. But as with all such places, the more crowded it gets, the less people want to go there any more. Maybe that’s why Mountain View–based startup Drive.ai isn’t taking its robo-cars to the land of the Grand Canyon, but to the wilds of the Lone Star State.

Starting in July, the company will run a fleet of driverless vehicles around Frisco, Texas, a city of 164,000 people on the northern edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Announced today, the six-month pilot—which will keep human safety operators behind the wheel, ready to grab control if the car gets confused or misbehaves—marks Drive.ai’s first large-scale effort to put people in its cars, and the first such deployment in Texas. Waymo has done some testing in Austin, but this service will provide regular rides to the public.

The Drive.ai setup will look like more like an airport shuttle than a taxi service. The company’s easily recognizable orange and blue Nissan NV200 vans will run only in a tightly geofenced area, along fixed routes.

Drive.ai hasn’t divulged much in the way of details, but says one such route will serve employees at an office park in the southern bit of the city, taking them between buildings and to a nearby stadium and apartment complex, at no charge. It will use fixed pickup and drop-off locations, so the cars don’t have to worry about finding a safe space to pull over.

“By choosing geofenced regions and working with partners, we can take advantage of self-driving cars’ strengths while diminishing their weaknesses,” says Andrew Ng, a member of Drive.ai’s board, and a leading artificial intelligence expert.

For the foreseeable future, this is how everyone will manage their fleets. Making a car that can handle any conceivable situation is just too hard; the world is too complex. By limiting a vehicle to fixed routes, or at least a limited area, you can be sure you’ve got fully updated maps, you can keep track of conditions like construction that might make things tricky, and you can stick to the simplest situations. As your technology proves itself and everyone starts to feel more confident, you can expand.

Drive.ai’s vans will use exterior screens to communicate with people on the street.

Drive.ai

Indeed, in later stages of this project, Drive.ai hopes to dump the human backup driver and fill the passenger seat with a human “chaperone,” to help guide passengers through the service. And, like just about every company working on autonomous operations, it will have ready-to-help humans sitting in a remote location, monitoring the vehicles and issuing instructions as needed.

Drive.ai stands out among the host of companies in this space for its consideration of how its vehicles talk to the world around them. Because, when you put a computer in charge, you lose the human ability to wave a pedestrian ahead, or make the eye contact that lets that cyclist know you see her.

“We need to be able to communicate in all directions, and we need to be able to show intention and have a conversation with the other players on the road,” Drive.ai co-founder and president Carol Reiley told WIRED back in 2016, when the company was starting to test with roof-mounted “billboards” that could display messages. For the Frisco pilot, the Nissan vans will have panels mounted on all sides to say things like “Waiting for you to cross,” “pulling over,” and “passengers entering.”

And now, maybe, “Welcome to Texas, home of the robo-revolution.”


Robo-Revolution

Snap names Amazon's Tim Stone as CFO

(Reuters) – Snapchat-owner Snap Inc (SNAP.N) said Tim Stone, an Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) veteran who had led the integration of Whole Foods acquisition, would replace Andrew Vollero as chief financial officer.

FILE PHOTO: The Snapchat messaging application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo

Stone, 51, has been with Amazon since March 1998 and led the online giant’s physical stores until February 2018, according to a regulatory filing from Snap. (bit.ly/2JX36jy)

Stone will take charge on May 16, while Vollero will remain as an adviser until August 15.

“He (Vollero) has done an amazing job as Snap’s first CFO, building a strong team and helping to guide us through our transition to becoming a public company,” Snap Chief Executive Officer Evan Spiegel said.

Stone will have an annual salary of $500,000, according to the filing.

The appointment comes a week after Snap’s quarterly results failed to enthuse Wall Street. A recent redesign of its Snapchat messaging app had turned off some long-time fans and advertisers.

Snap’s shares were up nearly 1.6 percent at $10.91 in extended trading on Monday.

Reporting by Laharee Chatterjee and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Shounak Dasgupta

Cambridge Analytica Could Be Reborn Under a Different Name

Cambridge Analytica, the data-driven electioneering firm that set off a global uproar over the uses of Facebook data, announced that it was shutting down just last week, blaming the disappearance of clients following the scandal. But filings in the U.K. suggest its leaders could be planning to simply resume operations under a different name or names.

Emerdata Limited was incorporated in the U.K. in August of 2017, around the time the earliest reporting about Cambridge Analytica was gaining traction. Cambridge Analytica Chief Data Officer Alexander Tayler was initially listed as an owner along with Julian Wheatland, chairman of Cambridge Analytica parent company SCL. Another company, Firecrest Technologies Limited, was incorporated as a subsidiary of Emerdata in March 2018, according to public records highlighted Saturday by the Guardian.

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Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix was for a time listed as a director of both companies, but has been removed. Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer, however, are still listed as directors of Emerdata. They are daughters of Robert Mercer, the U.S. hedge fund billionaire who helped fund Cambridge Analytica, and also supported both Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the campaign for Brexit.

Emerdata Limited is described in filings as conducting “data processing, hosting and related activities,” while Firecrest Technologies is described as engaging in “business and domestic software development.” Either or both of those companies could encompass the psychographic profiling that Cambridge Analytica sold to political campaigns in India, Kenya, and the United States.

UK Regulators Demand Cambridge Analytica Hand Over User Data

The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office issued an order Friday requiring SCL Elections, the British affiliate of the controversial data mining firm Cambridge Analytica, to turn over all of the data it collected about a United States-based academic named David Carroll. Carroll filed a request for this data in January of 2017 under British data protection law, and received a response in March of that year that the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham describes in the order as “wholly inadequate.” Now, Denham is requiring SCL to comply with the request, or face criminal charges.

The enforcement order comes just days after Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, announced that it would shut down and declare bankruptcy, along with its international affiliates, following revelations that the companies had harvested the data of up to 87 million Americans without their knowledge. The company’s former CEO Alexander Nix was also recorded this year on undercover video, appearing to brag about using tactics like bribery and entrapment on behalf of Cambridge Analytica’s clients.

Long before the name Cambridge Analytica became notorious in households across the country, though, Carroll, a professor of media design at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, became suspicious about the way the company built its so-called psychographic profiles of US voters. These profiles, the company claimed, contained information not only about people’s demographics, but their personalities as well. Given that Cambridge Analytica originally spun out of a British company called SCL Group, Carroll filed a request under the UK’s Data Protection Act seeking access to all of the information the company had collected on him.

When SCL sent Carroll back his file, he was utterly unsatisfied. It ranked his interest in topics like immigration and gun control on a numeric scale, but offered no insight into what data was being used to generate those scores, or who actually used them. In mid-March, the same day Facebook announced it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from its platform as punishment for their transgressions, Carroll filed a request for disclosure in the UK in an attempt to force SCL to hand over the underlying data and answer a litany of questions about how they were being used.

Though that case is still ongoing, the ICO’s order does accomplish some of that work for Carroll. In the order, Denham describes the months-long battle between her office and SCL’s office over Carroll’s data request. According to the order, SCL repeatedly argued that as an US citizen, Carroll had no right to request his data under British laws, going so far as to write in one response that Carroll had no more data access rights in the UK “than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of Afghanistan.”

Denham disagreed with that assessment. In March, after the undercover videos of Nix went public, the ICO stormed the company’s offices and seized its servers. Now, the regulator is giving SCL 30 days to provide descriptions of Carroll’s personal data, the purpose that data served, a list of all the recipients of that data, copies of the data itself, and the sources of that data.

“It’s quite exciting,” Carroll says of the order. “At the minimum, it’s the beginning of a victory and pointing toward winning.”

Still, he says, “It didn’t have to come to this. We’ve been trying for more than a year to do this out of court…It just kept escalating.”

SCL now has the opportunity to appeal the ICO’s order. Representatives for SCL didn’t immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

Cambridge Analytica Exposed

Spotify Released Its First Earnings Report Ever–Wall Street Was Not Impressed

Spotify‘s first quarterly report as a public held company struck the wrong note with investors, even though its music-streaming service hit the subscriber-growth target set by management just before its stock began trading.

Total subscribers increased to 75 million through March, up by four million from the end of 2017. The gains announced Wednesday enabled Spotify to maintain a large lead over Apple’s music-streaming service, which has about 40 million.

Spotify had projected it would end its first quarter with 73 million to 76 million subscribers in a disclosure made a week before its stock debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in early April.

The stock hit a new high of $171.23 Wednesday before backtracking slightly and then tumbled by more than 11 percent in extended trading after the results were released.

Before the retreat, Spotify was valued at $30 billion, even though the Swedish company has never turned a profit.

Besides perhaps hoping for more robust growth to start the year, investors may have been disappointed with management’s outlook for the current quarter ending in June. Spotify predicted it will end the period with 79 million to 83 million subscribers.

But Apple has been stepping up its efforts to promote its music-streaming service in tandem with its recent release of the HomePod, an internet-connected speaker that is designed to learn its listeners’ tastes and serve as an automated disc jockey. The push by the world’s wealthiest company threatens to topple Spotify from its perch.

Two other deep-pocketed technology companies, Google and Amazon, also offer music-streaming services, raising the specter that they too will become more aggressive as they all chase after Spotify, which ended March with 1.6 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in cash — pittance compared to its richer rivals.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek downplayed the threat posed by those rivals in a Wednesday conference call with analysts. “We don’t see any meaningful impact of competition,” he said.

But the competition could make it more difficult for Spotify to make money, which has proved to be a challenge since its music service launched a decade ago. The main problem has been covering the royalties owed to artists, songwriters and labels that license their music to Spotify’s service.

Spotify could raise its subscription prices (now $10 per month in the U.S.), but that could drive customers to the other music services run by its larger rivals. Ek said he doesn’t anticipate raising prices the near future.

Besides selling subscriptions, Spotify brings in money from ads played on a free version of the service that accounts for the biggest part of its total audience. All told, Spotify had 170 million users through March.

The company depends on its ability to convert users of its free service into paying customers for most of its subscriber growth.

Spotify lost 169 million euros, or 1.01 euros per share, in the first quarter, narrowing from a loss of 173 million euros at the same time last year. Revenue in the latest quarter increased 26 percent to $1.1 billion euros.

–The Associated Press

'Next generation' flaws found on computer processors: magazine

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Researchers have found eight new flaws in computer central processing units that resemble the Meltdown and Spectre bugs revealed in January, a German computing magazine reported on Thursday.

The magazine, called c’t, said it was aware of Intel Corp’s plans to patch the flaws, adding that some chips designed by ARM Holdings, a unit of Japan’s Softbank, might be affected, while work was continuing to establish whether Advanced Micro Devices chips were vulnerable.

Meltdown and Spectre bugs could reveal the contents of a computer’s central processing unit – designed to be a secure inner sanctum – either by bypassing hardware barriers or by tricking applications into giving up secret information.

C’t did not name its sources because researchers were working under so-called responsible disclosure, where they inform companies and agree to delay publishing their findings until a patch can be found.

The magazine said Google Project Zero, one of the original collective that exposed Meltdown and Spectre in January, had found one of the flaws and that a 90-day embargo on going public with its findings would end on May 7.

Intel shares were down 0.3 percent in afternoon U.S. trading, in line with a decline in the Nasdaq Composite Index. An Intel representative declined to comment on the vulnerabilities described in c’t magazine.

In a statement on its website, Intel said it routinely works closely with customers, partners, other chipmakers and researchers to mitigate any issues that are identified, and that part of the process involved reserving blocks of CVE numbers.

“We believe strongly in the value of coordinated disclosure and will share additional details on any potential issues as we finalize mitigations,” the statement said.

Representatives with AMD and ARM could not immediately be reached for comment. Google did not immediately respond to a Reuters request to comment.

Reporting by Douglas Busvine, additional reporting by Laharee Chatterjee in Bangalore. Editing by Jane Merriman

Aerospace suppliers look to blockchain for parts tracking

BERLIN (Reuters) – Aerospace suppliers are starting to explore blockchain technology to keep tabs on their supply chain, potentially tracking parts such as those identified as the cause of a Southwest Airlines accident last month.

FILE PHOTO: An Airbus A321 in the final assembly line hangar at the Airbus U.S. manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama, September 13, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Spooneybarger/File Photo

While blockchain is best known as the digital transactions technology that underpins cryptocurrency bitcoin, it can also be harnessed to track, record and transfer assets across all manner of industries, potentially smoothing operations, cutting costs and improving cash management.

The challenge faced by the aerospace industry in keeping track of tens of thousands of different parts came to light when it emerged after last month’s fatal explosion that some airlines do not keep track of the history of each individual fan blade within an engine.

In addition to the operational and cost benefits, improved parts management could speed up safety checks after an accident, industry experts said, and an increasing number of aerospace suppliers are looking at blockchain as a potential solution.

Blockchain offers a secure encrypted audit trail because there is only one version of the data, meaning it can be used to ensure traceability without reams of paperwork. It is already being used to track cobalt on its journey from Congo mines to smartphones, for example.

Moog, a U.S. manufacturer of flight control systems, is working with partners to create a blockchain-based solution called VeriPart, which will initially be used to track 3D printed components.

Moog’s technology chief George Small said the aerospace industry, like other highly regulated sectors such as the medical and nuclear power industries, was expending considerable effort on tracking parts across the supply chain to keep up with quality and regulatory demands.

TRANSPARENCY

Small said the use of blockchain could increase efficiency and transparency in the sharing of data and that customer feedback has been positive so far. Though VeriPart is still in development, Moog has already had talks with customers on other potential uses for the technology.

“The solution is broadly applicable to manufactured goods and associated data that need to be tracked across supply chains from origin to delivery and on into service,” Small said in an emailed response to questions.

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Advocates for the technology say transparency is ensured by the encrypted audit trail and because blockchains are open and decentralized, allowing different parties to share information.

Engine maker Rolls-Royce (RR.L) is among those working with blockchain developers to establish how it could be used in the supply chain and says it is rapidly developing solutions.

“The company sees opportunities to automate records for complex products that currently require significant manual effort to ensure they are well managed,” a Rolls-Royce spokesman said.

Technology company Sabre (SABR.O), which has been looking at various uses for blockchain in the travel and aviation industries, said it could see the case for using it as a system to track components.

“It’s a situation where you don’t need ultra fast technology, but you need to be able to trust what’s in the blockchain record,” said Philip Likens, director of Sabre Labs.

Likens said the technology could be used to show who created what part on what date, when it was put on a plane and then how many hours the plane was in operation.

“You want to know that all those things are right and correct, that’s the immutability part,” he said, referring to how blockchain entries cannot be changed.

Planemaker Airbus (AIR.PA), meanwhile, is looking for a blockchain solution architect to be based at one of its sites in either Toulouse, Filton, Broughton or Hamburg, according to an online job posting.

It has formed a working group within the company to identify business challenges worth addressing with blockchain and a spokeswoman said the supply chain seems a natural fit.

“Blockchain could improve the tracking of goods and become a complement to, not a wholesale replacement of, suppliers’ procurement software,” she said

EXAGGERATED CAPABILITIES?

But blockchain isn’t the only technology that can be used to keep a closer eye on parts in the supply chain.

Enders Analysis, in a wide-ranging note on blockchain and its use across various industries, says that a lot of the capabilities of blockchain are exaggerated or misunderstood and that existing technology can often perform the same roles.

It says that while blockchain-inspired technology could be used to bring transparency to supply chain management, it could be hard to guarantee that goods really were delivered as specified on the blockchain.

“Upgrading systems to take advantage of technological progress is important and can increase efficiency,” the analysts wrote in general advice to any company looking at blockchain.

“But those ends are much more important than the means: there is no point deploying blockchain – or a product marketed as blockchain – just for the sake of it.”

In an example of other technology that can be used to improve supply chain efficiency, Airbus last week signed up aircraft structures maker Premium Aerotec to its cloud-based aviation data platform, Skywise.

The platform will take order, production and quality data from Airbus and Premium Aerotec and analyze the data with a view to keeping the manufacturing process stable and providing transparency in the supply chain.

“To build the aircraft, Airbus needs to know where the parts are and when they are coming,” Premium Aerotec CEO Thomas Ehm told Reuters, adding that the Skywise platform aims to provide much better visibility of the manufacturing process.

Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by David Goodman

Apple services segment faces margin, competitive challenges

(Reuters) – Apple Inc is betting on services such as app downloads and music subscriptions to help drive growth as the cell phone market matures, but the company faces tough competitors and potentially low profit margins in some of its target areas.

FILE PHOTO – An Apple logo hangs above the entrance to the Apple store on 5th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City, July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

Investors support Apple’s effort to look beyond its signature product, the iPhone, for growth. A 31 percent increase in services revenue to $9.2 billion was a bright spot in earnings reported on Tuesday, lifting overall gross margins as well as sales, the company said.

Apple subscribers, who include customers paying for third-party apps on iPhones, rose 100 million in the last year to 270 million.

But profitability varies widely among service offerings, and some businesses appear to have lower profit margins than the 38.3 percent company-wide figure Apple reported.

The App Store and iCloud storage are similar to high-margin software businesses while entertainment, such as Apple Music and a nascent video business, are similar to lower-margin media businesses.

“Some of these services are for sure going to have much lower margins” than Apple’s core hardware business, said Bob O’Donnell of TechAnalysis Research.

Apple’s music effort likely “can’t be dramatically different from Spotify or Pandora or any of those companies. My guess is the next few Apple services aren’t going to be investment-light services, with content being the preeminent example.”

Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri said he expects services to boost margins but allowed for uncertainties due to product mix.

“As we’re able to grow the services business, that should provide a positive (to margins), a tailwind,” Maestri said in an interview. “At the same time, within the services portfolio that we have, we have services that have different levels of profitability, so we also need to take into account the mix of services we’re going to be selling.”

The App Store is the largest component of the services segment, Maestri told Reuters. Apple receives 30 percent of the price of one-time app purchases and purchases made within apps, such as items in video games, and 15 percent of App Store subscriptions to services like Netflix Inc after a year.

That is a high-margin business, but the company has been in it for a decade.

“App revenue probably hasn’t peaked, but it isn’t the long-term future either,” said Julie Ask, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Apple’s iCloud online storage business revenue rose 50 percent in the most recent quarter, likely with high margins. Dropbox Inc, for example, had gross margins of 68 percent in 2017 when excluding stock compensation costs.

CHALLENGES IN ENTERTAINMENT

Entertainment, though, is a tougher business where Apple may have to spend substantially to compete with entrenched rivals.

Apple has an installed base of 1.3 billion gadgets, but many play competitors’ entertainment.

Apple’s servicers could be “hard to grow in the face of the competitive monsters who have more history and deeper relationships with services customers,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

Apple Music has grown rapidly to 40 million paid users and 8 million trial users since launching in 2015, but its chief rival, Spotify Technology SA, had gross margins of 20 percent for 2017, due to the cost of music rights.

And Apple plans to spend $1 billion developing original video content, although it doesn’t charge for its shows on its Apple TV device. Netflix’s so-called “contribution margin” for its streaming business – the metric the company uses to gauge margins on that segment – was 37 percent in 2017.

“Look at what Netflix and Amazon are doing. Those guys are spending hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars on content,” O’Donnell said.

Reporting by Stephen Nellis; editing by Peter Henderson and Cynthia Osterman

Facebook to allow users to clear browsing history with new feature

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc (FB.O) Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said on Tuesday the social network is building a new privacy control called “clear history” to allow users to delete browsing history.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook Inc’s annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S. May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Zuckerberg, in a post on his Facebook account, said he will discuss the feature at Facebook’s annual F8 conference which begins today.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook Inc’s annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S. May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

“This feature will enable you to see the websites and apps that send us information when you use them, delete this information from your account, and turn off our ability to store it associated with your account going forward,” the company said in a separate blog post.( here )

Zuckerberg compared the new tool to the option of clearing cookies in a browser, which he said can make parts of the user experience worse as users may have to reconfigure things.

Facebook said it will take a few months to build the update, adding the company will work with privacy advocates, academics, policymakers and regulators to get their input on the new approach.

Tech companies are under intense scrutiny about how they protect customer data after Facebook was embroiled in a huge scandal where millions of users’ data were improperly accessed by a political consultancy.

“One thing I learned from my experience testifying in Congress is that I didn’t have clear enough answers to some of the questions about data,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernard Orr