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Bits: Farhad and Mike’s Week in Tech: Regulation Is Looming

Farhad and Mike’s Week in Tech: Regulation Is Looming

Bits

By
FARHAD MANJOO and

MIKE ISAAC

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Each Friday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Mike: Hello, Farhad! How was your week? Right now, I’m still mulling my second viewing of “Blade Runner 2049,” which offers a dim view of the future provided by the best of what technology has to offer.

Just imagine: One day, I might be doing this newsletter with a cyber-Farhad instead of the real thing. Hmm, maybe that means the future is actually good?

Farhad: There’s no way a cyber-Farhad could be as handsome and charismatic as the real thing. Artificial intelligence will never be that good.

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Mike: Um, OK. Let’s move to tech news!

Tech Remaking Cities

Mike: The week actually started off with a very “Blade Runner”-esque bit of tech news, now that I think about it. Sidewalk Labs, a start-up spun out of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced a smart-city initiative in Toronto, in cooperation with the local government. The premise is essentially something like using one city to test all sorts of futuristic ways of interacting with the world, from self-driving cars to modular buildings that convert from retail to housing to carbon-neutral thermal energy grids — oh, my!

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I guess that’s cool, but also sort of freaks me out? I do wonder if Torontans — Torontonians? Toronti? — are O.K. with the whole thing.

Farhad: No surprise, I’m going to disagree with you. We worry about techies for the way they stick in their West Coast bubbles and send their software out into the world, often not pausing to think of its real-world effect.

From what I can tell, Sidewalk is doing just the opposite here. Alphabet is interested in a lot of tech that will change the physical world around us, from self-driving cars to robots. This is a way to see how all that stuff will play out in the real world and, even better, to get city officials involved in the planning. That’s better than moving fast and breaking things.

Mike: Mmm, yes. Well, I’d still like to know where they stand on creating a cybernetic version of you.

Lyft Hauls In Funding

Mike: Moving on, Thursday morning we saw CapitalG, an investment arm of Alphabet, lead a $1 billion venture round into Lyft, the ride-hailing start-up.

The move ratchets up the stakes in the cutthroat world of ride hailing. Uber is working on its own $1 billion deal — this one with SoftBank — while automakers and other start-ups look on warily at the state of play.

Isn’t it funny that just one year ago Lyft was all but dead in the court of public opinion? Now they’ve got this encouraging second wind, after Uber spent the entire past year in complete disarray.

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Farhad: Right — and I really think they’ve got a chance. The big problem for Uber in North America is that Lyft is functionally the same. I’ve been using it as my go-to ride app for several months now, and in most cases I couldn’t find a significant difference from Uber. Prices, wait times, car quality — they’re all pretty much the same.

This is unusual in tech. Usually bigger companies have advantages that lead to better products. Amazon, for instance, has greater selection and faster shipping times than any other online retailer, while Facebook has all your friends and family. The ride-hailing business doesn’t seem to have those dynamics — Uber is far bigger than Lyft, but that size is not evident to customers in any way. Which seems bad for Uber, in the long run.

The Specter of Regulation

Mike: Finally, let’s turn back to Facebook, Google and Twitter, the three tech companies that are in the doghouse with Congress right now.

After the 2016 election, these giants are taking tons of flak for their advertising products and whatever kind of influence they may have had in shaping the outcome of the vote. Now, as we slowly head toward a future where digital advertising regulation may occur, we’re seeing the extent to which Facebook and others have avoided being regulated for years.

This burns me up. As Facebook continues to say, over and over, that it wants to be as transparent as possible, it neglects the fact that it has fought against external oversight of how its platform worked for years. And on Nov. 1, when Facebook and others are called to testify in the Senate and House, it’s likely that the C.E.O.s or C.O.O.s of these companies won’t even show up to explain what happened.

That’s an enormous cop-out in my book. But maybe I’ve just been drinking too much coffee today.

Farhad: It’s looking like it will be pretty hard for them to avoid at least some limited regulation. Now the battle will shift to how they can limit the fallout. And if they can shape a bill that isn’t too onerous, they might be O.K. with it. They’d have to add disclosures and perhaps keep greater records of political ads, but it might not greatly limit their overall ad business.

Then everyone would be able to claim they’ve fixed the problem and tech companies are wonderful now. See, easy!

O.K., have fun at “Blade Runner”! See you in 2049 — er, alas, next week.

Mike: Bye!

Farhad Manjoo writes a weekly technology column called State of the Art. Mike Isaac covers Facebook, Uber and Twitter. You can follow them on Twitter here: @fmanjoo and @MikeIsaac

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