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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.
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.
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.
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.
Toothless. The 2019 regulatory battle to limit data collection by tech companies kicked off on Wednesday with a proposal from Senator Marco Rubio to ask the Federal Trade Commission to make suggestions to Congress. A survey by the Pew Research Center out this week found that most Facebook users were unaware the company tracked their personal traits and interests and listed them for advertisers on its website.
With some bite. After the mess of the 2016 elections, Facebook is launching new rules and tools for curbing interference in countries going to the polls soon. The social network is rolling out its political advertising tools to India, Nigeria, Ukraine, and the European Union.
Punch to the wallet. After Apple and Netflix, now it’s Google’s turn to raise prices. The company said starting in April its basic G Suite cloud office app collection will cost $6 per user, up from $5 now, and the business edition will cost $12, up from $10. About 4 million companies and organizations subscribe to G Suite.
Closing your wallet. Tired of those annoying automatic credit card charges for subscriptions you don’t remember signing up for? Mastercard is tightening its rules to require an additional approval before a merchant can start charging after a free trial period. Speaking of payments, two key players behind the scenes of the credit card market are combining as they face threats from upstarts like Square. Fiserv, which sells mainly to banks, is buying First Data, whose point-of-sale terminals are found at chains like Walmart, for $22 billion.
Plugged in. With automotive startups aiming for its most lucrative market, Ford Motor said it plans to offer hybrid and fully electric-powered versions of its popular F-series of pickup trucks. “These are the crown jewels for Ford Motor Co., the F-Series,” industry analyst John McElroy tells the Detroit Free Press. “Ford has got to react to competitive threats.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
While China works on growing cotton on the moon (maybe include a little heater next time, folks?) some astronomers are still transfixed by Oumuamua, the interstellar object that passed through our solar system in 2017. Avi Loeb, the head of Harvard’s astronomy department, is stirring the pot in a new interview with The New Yorker. “It is much more likely that it is being made by artificial means, by a technological civilization,” he says of the astroid-like object and its hard-to-explain maneuvers.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Google Is Paying Employees for 6 Months of Charity Work By Danielle Abril
Mobile App Store Spending Topped $100 Billion in 2018 By Jonathan Vanian
Pokemon Go Creator Captures $245 Million in Funding, Mulls IPO By Chris Morris
U.S. CEOs Are More Worried About Cybersecurity Than a Recession By Erik Sherman
BEFORE YOU GO
Have an old Lego set in the attic? Or are your kids playing with the ubiquitous plastic bricks right now? Maybe you should have kept that Hogwarts Castle set NIB (“new in box”), as they say on eBay. A study of re-sales of Lego sets found they increased in price more than stocks, bonds, or gold for the 30 years ending in 2015. Super heroes and Indiana Jones-themed boxes did best. The only group that lost value? Legos based on The Simpsons. D’oh!