Bits: Farhad’s and Daisuke’s Week in Tech: Is Google’s Waymo Way Better?


Facebook also announced that it would begin experimenting with several features to limit the spread of fake news on its service. You’ll remember that many criticized the social network for its role in spreading misinformation during the election. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief, had seemed to play down the effects of fake news on the race, but the company says it wants to make sure that people find “authentic” content on Facebook.

Dai: Isn’t Facebook where we go to be inauthentic? It’s the home of undeserved compliments or meaningless platitudes. Facebook message: Happy birthday! (Subtext: I don’t like you enough to actually remember your birthday. So settle for these digital good wishes because I’m not calling, sending you a card, buying you a present or even typing out an email.)

That said, I guess it would be nice if we could curb some of the craziest, blatantly untrue stories that populate the news feed.

Farhad: To that end, Facebook’s going to be partnering with fact-checking sites to assess some of the stories that get passed around the network. The company is also making a few changes to its recommendation algorithm to reduce the spread of stories that people find misleading. But it is flagging all of these things as experiments — they’re conservative efforts aimed at the most egregious content, and done in a way that Facebook hopes won’t raise any questions of partisanship.

Dai: It’s commendable Facebook is trying to do something. It also seems as if this system is structured so Facebook can stay out of the fray. Other companies are doing the fact-checking, so Facebook is not in the uncomfortable position of refereeing what is true and what isn’t true. It also doesn’t have to pay for its own fact checkers. A penny saved is a penny earned.

Farhad: You don’t become a billionaire by writing a lot of checks, as a wise man once said.

And, oh my goodness, Yahoo is still in the news! The company revealed that more than a billion of its users’ accounts were hacked in 2013. Just a few months ago, Yahoo said that about 500 million accounts were hacked in 2014. The surprising thing to me is that Yahoo had that many users.

Now Verizon, which earlier this year agreed to purchase Yahoo for nearly $5 billion, is reportedly looking to cut its payment or even cancel the deal entirely. The only analog I have for that kind of buyer’s remorse is when I order the Filet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonald’s.

Dai: That analogy only works if you bought the Filet-O-Fish and there was a cluster of fingernail trimmings inside. Can you imagine if the deal with Verizon gets nixed and we have to start over with the who-buys-Yahoo game? I personally think Microsoft should buy it as a constant reminder of how lucky it got when Yahoo fought so vigorously to stay independent, saving Microsoft from a $45 billion mistake.

Farhad: There was lots of car news this week. Uber announced it would begin testing its self-driving cars in San Francisco. Just afterward, it ran into trouble when the California Department of Motor Vehicles said that Uber lacked the permits necessary to start such a test.

To top it off, someone filmed a self-driving Uber running a red light. The company blamed the indiscretion on the car’s human driver. It actually said the red-light incident proved the need for self-driving cars.

Dai: Uber played the semantics game, claiming it didn’t need those permissions because its cars weren’t truly autonomous. By choosing to ignore regulators, Uber is taking a chapter from the playbook that Otto — the autonomous trucking company it acquired — used in Nevada, where it defied the D.M.V. to shoot a promotional video without a driver in the cab. Seriously, read this story and tell me if you can’t spot the parallels. I guess the difference is that they’re doing this on the crowded streets of San Francisco, not the open highways of Nevada.

Farhad: Finally, there was big news from the company you cover, Alphabet, which is better known as the parent company of Google. It announced that it was spinning out its self-driving car program from its research lab, X, into a new company within Alphabet. The company is called Waymo.

O.K., so what does this mean? When will I finally be able to let Google’s robot drive me around?

Dai: No puns? Come on Farhad, we can do waymo than make jokes at Mike’s expense.

The spinoff from mother Google was a long time coming. Google has been working on driverless cars for seven years. I think the consensus is that it has the best technology, but no obvious business model. Do they build their own cars? It says it doesn’t want to. Do they start a ride-sharing network with robot cars? That makes some sense, but it probably doesn’t have enough robot cars yet to populate a ride-sharing network, which means you probably need to tap into an existing service with human drivers. Call it a hunch but I think the logical move is for Waymo to buy Lyft. Unfortunately for you — and the other drivers on the road — I think you’re going to have to drive yourself for another year or two.

Farhad: Argh, that’s waymo time than I can handle. O.K., thanks for being here! Bye, Dai.

Dai: I knew you couldn’t resist one Waymo pun.Bye.

Farhad and Mike (and Dai) will be off at the end of the year, so the Saturday newsletter will resume on Jan. 7.

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