What does Alexa bring to Amazon?

Amazon’s had the greatest success in the voice assistant race so far, surprising many – including Amazon, you’d imagine.

I have one in my kitchen, used for playing music, a couple of radio stations, the odd podcast (though I find the lack of controls frustrating) and asking the weather before I head out.

All very clever, but how is this of any use to Amazon? That’s the question that Benedict Evans tackles here:

[W]e’ve had two statistics recently from Amazon about Alexa: that 100m units have been sold, and that Amazon has 10,000 people working on it. This is vastly more people than one would normally expect to get the device made and the software working, especially given that the Echos themselves are produced by contract manufacturers. Rather, this is about experimentation and iteration: “what can we do with this and how can we expand the use case?” 

I don’t know the answer to this, but looking forward to seeing Amazon trying to figure it out. There has to be a strategy beyond sticking Alexa in absolutely everything. Or maybe there isn’t?

3D printing using light

A quirky approach to 3D printing from UC Berkeley that crafts light-sensitive goop into complex (if not yet particularly attractive) objects. From a press release:

Nicknamed the “replicator” by the inventors — after the Star Trek device that can materialize any object on demand — the 3D printer can create objects that are smoother, more flexible and more complex than what is possible with traditional 3D printers. It can also encase an already existing object with new materials — for instance, adding a handle to a metal screwdriver shaft — which current printers struggle to do.

See it in action here:

Now, the resulting objects in that video look a bit… imprecise. But that will get better. The breakthrough here is two fold. First, it’s much simpler and cheaper to shine a projector light into a spinning container of goop than it is to build most of the 3D printers we have today – which are essentially robots.

Second, current methods work by adding material layer-by-layer from the bottom up, which greatly limits flexibility. Researchers say this new method could help designers break free from that, making “3D printing truly three-dimensional”.

More from the press release:

“This is particularly satisfying for me, because it creates a new framework of volumetric or ‘all-at-once’ 3D printing that we have begun to establish over the recent years,” said Maxim Shusteff, a staff engineer at the Livermore lab. “We hope this will open the way for many other researchers to explore this exciting technology area.”

The Economist on how to handle a problem like Huawei

The Economist has a strong leader today on the US vs Huawei/China.

It argues well that the counts laid out in Monday’s indictment were missing one big thing: a smoking gun that proves that Huawei could be used to spy on Americans:

Rumours of this have circulated for years without any public evidence (including this week), but it makes sense to be wary. Huawei has a high market share in new 5G networks, which will connect everything from cars to robots. The networks’ dispersed design makes them hard to monitor. And China’s leaders are tightening their grip on business, including firms such as Huawei in which the state has no stake. This influence has been formalised in the National Intelligence Law of 2017, which requires firms to work with China’s one-party state.

But, despite considerable effort, the US hasn’t been able to pin anything related to surveillance on Huawei.

This is massive problem, though an arguably smaller one than if it had, and was moved to ban US firms from doing business with Huawei. That would almost certainly, The Economist writes, put China’s biggest tech firm out of business. Beijing would have no option but to retaliate.

Supply chains would be wrecked, at least 180,000 jobs would go, mainly in China, and customers would have less choice. On January 29th an Australian operator deprived of Huawei gear abandoned plans for a new 5G network. But the greatest cost would be a splintering of the global trading system.

I predict this issue to move way beyond Huawei this year. Just this week, an Apple engineer was arrested after he was spotted taking pictures in a secure area:

Apple began investigating Jizhong Chen when another employee reported seeing the engineer taking photographs in a sensitive work space, according to a federal criminal complaint unsealed this week.

Chen, according to the complaint, allowed Apple Global Security employees to search his personal computer, where they found thousands of files containing Apple’s intellectual property, including manuals, schematics, and diagrams. Security personnel also found on the computer about a hundred photographs taken inside an Apple building.

Apple learned Chen recently applied for a job at a China-based autonomous vehicle company that is a direct competitor of Apple’s project, according to the complaint.

NYT: Maybe only Tim Cook can fix Facebook’s privacy problem

On a day when Apple dramatically revoked enterprise access for Facebook, the New York Times’ Kevin Roose looks at Apple’s power in an increasingly impactful row over what it means to offer users privacy:

The move is the clearest sign yet that the cold war between Facebook and Apple over data use and privacy is heating up.

Mr. Cook, who has called privacy a “fundamental human right” and taken Facebook and Google to task for the misuse of user data in the past, could effectively become a technology regulator of last resort — using the power of Apple’s iOS operating system as a cudgel to force software companies to respect user privacy and play by the rules, or risk losing access to millions of iPhone users.

I was discussing this story with my editor as I drove in this morning, and it struck us that, as far as Apple is concerned, this is an almost perfect punishment.

It allows Apple to give Mark Zuckerberg a serious, embarrassing slap on the wrist – one you sense Tim Cook has been wanting to administer for some time – without upsetting the many millions who use the iPhone to access Facebook’s products.

Speaking of many millions, Facebook’s earnings shattered analyst expectations and stock is soaring. Crisis? Hardly.

 

MIT’s Jenga-playing has the delicate touch

Robots are far superior to humans in many respects, but they struggle greatly with something we all do instinctively: picking things up and putting things down.

There are various research projects ongoing that look at the issue of creating robotics that can handle intricate objects on the fly. I looked at one effort from Autodesk last year. 

Today, MIT published a paper (covered here in Wired) on its incredible Jenga-playing robot. Here it is in action:

We’ve seen Jenga robots before, but nothing this advanced. Identifying target bricks, applying just enough pressure to push it out, knowing when to retreive it from the other side, and then delicately placing it on top – that’s impressive.

It’s a big leap from previous Jenga robots we’ve seen. I loved seeing this rather brutal beast in action a couple of years ago:

Facebook to employees: Don’t panic!

The fall-out from TechCrunch’s scoop on Facebook’s market research practices is getting more serious by the moment, and there are signs Google might get dragged into the debate as well.

The most immediate problem for Facebook is losing its enterprise developer access – a move which has rendered many of Facebook’s internal, business-critical apps useless. Business Insider’s Rob Price reports:

Facebook employees told Business Insider that their colleagues at the company are “pissed” and “angry” about the news and looking for someone to blame, alternately attacking Apple or their own colleagues working on the project for the setback.

“Apple is technically doing their job and has a right,” one said. “This is probably one of the worse things that can happen to the company internally.”

While engaging in some crisis management with the press, Facebook also faces some PR management within its ranks. Business Insider says it obtained this memo from Facebook executive Pedro Canahuati:

TL;DR: We have a known issue with our internal, employee only, iOS apps. Please install the public versions from the App Store until we have resolved this problem.

Apple has revoked our enterprise certificates, which means our internal, employee only iOS apps may not work. This issue affects internal, employee only, iOS builds for: Workplace, Workplace Chat, Instagram, Messenger, Facebook, and other internal apps like Mobile Home and the Ride app. This should not affect WhatsApp and this is not affecting non-employees who use our apps in production.

I get the sense that this row could be a turning point for many within Facebook, particularly engineers – as highlighted by this comment, also unearthed by Business Insider:

“Having used Apple’s developer program for my own projects it’s very clear that the purpose of an enterprise account is for internal distribution amongst a company. We can’t aspire for good press while continuing to not play by the rules.”

Meanwhile, Facebook’s stock must be taking a real batteri… oh.

‘No, I only watch stuff that’s appropriate for my age…’

I just had to share this hilarious, human moment on Tuesday’s BBC News at Six. It came at the end of a piece by Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor.

Magic. Not often a news bulletin can make you laugh out loud.

The story, if you didn’t see it, was Ofcom’s annual report into UK viewing habits, which I mentioned briefly yesterday. Read the full report here.

For the first time, male cheerleaders at the Super Bowl

At this Sunday’s Super Bowl, Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies will make history as the first male cheerleaders ever to appear at the event.

CBS News has the story:

Jenn Padilla and Emily Leibert, two other cheerleaders, were floored. “There was a bit of shock at first but then you realize it’s nothing new and if the talent was there, which it was, then they deserve to be on this team,” said Leibert.

They’ll be supporting the Los Angeles Rams as they face the New England Patriots in what promises to be an AMAZING AFTERNOON OF FOOOTBAAAAA… sorry. I just can’t.

Still – good on you, lads. Gender stereotypes can be shattered in more ways that we perhaps think.

Chinese censors hurt Apple’s bottom line

The Verge pulls out an interesting detail from the Apple earnings call:

Apple says it lost revenue due to China’s temporary ban on approving new video games last year. The financial hurt from the censorship of iOS mobile games was one of the many reasons Apple cited for its $4.8 billion revenue decline in Greater China during the 2018 holiday quarter, with the company generally pointing to the country’s economic slowdown.

Obviously, Apple’s 27% revenue drop in China can’t all be attributed to this. But it does speak to the wider barrier to doing consistent good business in China.

Apple’s earnings were, on the whole, pretty positive – but only because investors had been primed for a bad bad quarter.

Services continue to boom and, as most predicted, the Apple Watch seems to have had a very good Christmas. We don’t know for sure how much of $7.3bn “wearables and accessories” sales were the Watch, but it’s a fair assumption to say it’s a very large part. The sector is now bringing in more than the iPad.

Elon’s year, as told by his air travel

Wonderfully inventive angle from the Washington Post. It dug up flight records from Elon Musk’s private jet, revealing a year of heavy, globe-spanning travel.

From the story:

Musk’s jet logged more than 250 flights for his work, pet projects and vacations across Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East during a year when he said his electric-car giant was losing up to $100 million a week and teetered on the brink of collapse.

Musk of course isn’t the only high-powered CEO with a private jet, of course. But the rules are arguably different for the man who runs one of the world’s most famous renewable energy advocates, and irony the Post points out:

[It] also reveals an awkward dynamic for one of the world’s most outspoken crusaders of renewable energy: In September, a few days after calling fossil fuels “the dumbest experiment in human history,” his plane burned thousands of pounds of jet fuel flying 300 miles from L.A. to Oakland so Musk could view a competitive video-gaming event.

There’s nothing particularly damaging here, and Tesla’s PR team has dodged the awkward “how much?” question by saying it did not cover Musk’s personal travel. But, as the article notes, that leaves a lot of wiggle room over what constitutes work/pleasure.