By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
January 17, 2019

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Amazon would like to talk to you about artificial intelligence.

The company plans to host its second major conference for businesspeople, re: MARS, an expansion for the hoi polloi of the exclusive annual MARS event it holds for technology big shots. MARS stands for “machine learning, automation, robotics, and space.” In other words, it’s all Jeff Bezos’s favorite topics. The event will take place in Las Vegas in June, and promises to be a festival of business-minded geekery certain to spread good will for Amazon.

The subject matter is a curious one for Amazon, at least from a money-making perspective. I attended the very first MARS, held in Palm Springs, Calif., in March, 2016. This was back when Alexa was a novelty, and Bezos personally curated an agenda of mind-blowing scientists talking about far-out topics. There was nary a commercial pitch. Amazon’s other conference, re: Invent, is the epitome of commercialism. It exists to help preach the virtues of Amazon Web Services to entrepreneurs.

Then again, when you’re as big as Amazon, you don’t need to justify everything you do on an ROI basis. “Attendees will learn how A.I. can improve the customer experience, drive business efficiency, streamline operations, improve automation, reach customers through new services and interfaces, and more,” the company explains in announcing the event. If teaching the world about future technology is fun, adds a sheen to Amazon, and attracts good ideas and committed followers to the company, that’s probably reason enough to do it.

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On Monday I asked Microsoft President Brad Smith when his company was going to do something about the lack of affordable housing he identified as a critical problem facing the communities in which Microsoft operates. “Thursday,” he replied. This morning the software company is announcing a $500 million commitment to loans and grants to build low- and middle-income housing and also to alleviate homelessness in the Puget Sound, Washington, area. “Ultimately, a healthy business needs to be part of a healthy community,” Smith writes in a post explaining the initiative. “And a healthy community must have housing that is within the economic reach of every part of the community, including the many dedicated people that provide the vital services on which we all rely.”

This is a big deal because it’s a creative program that involves real money. It represents doing something about a grievous problem rather than just talking about it. It echoes a significantly smaller commitment three Silicon Valley companies—Pure Storage, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft-owned LinkedIn—announced late last year.

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You’ll hear and read a lot today about the great Jack Bogle, whose singular contribution to the investment industry—the honest, humble index fund—changed the lives of countless regular people. In an industry dominated by charlatans, who see it as their roles to separate hard-working savers from their money, Bogle tirelessly explained to ordinary investors that there was a better way. For most of my adult life I’ve been a proud Bogleian, which among other things made my life easier when I covered the capital markets. (Bogleians don’t worry about stock picking, so I could approach my task dispassionately.) If you want to read one short homage to Bogle, dive into this 2012 feature by the great Andy Serwer.

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My University of Illinois classmate and Daily Illini colleague Ann Dwyer has been named editor of Crain’s Chicago Business, one of the finest regional business publications in the country. A journalist to her bones, Ann is a great example of an up-from-the-ranks promotion that is exceedingly well deserved. May her editorship be long and filled with scoops.

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