Data Sheet—Apple Seizes the High Ground in Fake News Debate
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Tim Cook blasphemed Monday night in San Francisco, at least from the perspective of his Silicon Valley brethren.
“We felt that the top stories should be selected by humans,” Cook said, discussing a new, curated section of Apple News devoted to the U.S. midterm elections in November. His reasoning: “To make sure that you’re not picking content simply to enrage people.”
The last thing Silicon Valley’s news aggregators want is human selection, you see. Google and Facebook thrive by algorithm. Popularity counts most, even if the beauty contest is gamed by state-sponsored trolls and other criminals. And more is always better than better because there’s money to be made here.
Again, Cook took issue with his neighboring Goliaths. “I’m not being critical of people who do something different,” Cook allowed, a sure sign he was about to be critical of two companies that profit mightily from re-purposing the news that others write while collecting data from readers, “but Apple has always stood for curation. We’ve always believed in quality, not quantity.”
Cook’s comments were self-serving—Apple sells gadgets and services that run on them, not ads or data sets—but that didn’t make them any less refreshing. Quality may not always be a better business model, but it’s infinitely more satisfying. Never perfect, Apple nevertheless has the high ground on this issue. Cook said Apple News will employ its own writers to supplement what it gets from other sources. He also said the company will turn to topics other than the midterm elections.
Cook was the opening speaker at the annual meeting of Fortune’s CEO Initiative, a community dedicated to exploring how business can improve the world through its profit-making activities. The Apple CEO, about to hit the seven-year-mark in the job, has been outspoken on issues like immigration, equality, privacy, human rights, and the environment. He carefully draws the distinction between commenting on policy (good) and politics (bad).
A beta tester or Apple’s announced-but-unreleased “Screen Time” feature to help users monitor their over-reliance on smartphones, Cook said he’s cut down on his use of notifications and also has begun picking up his phone less.
Because more isn’t always better. And quality tends to win out in the end.
Morality mash up. Another flashpoint in the debate over of tech companies providing AI applications for controversial uses was extinguished on Monday. The city of Orlando said it would allow a contract to expire between its police department and Amazon for a facial recognition app called Rekognition. Meanwhile the next hotspot flared up, as hundreds of employees at Salesforce signed a letter to CEO Marc Benioff asking him to cancel a contract to do work for the Customs and Border Protection service.
Going down. Technology stock prices dropped sharply on Monday for a couple of reasons. Heightened risk of a trade war with China could hurt chipmakers. Intel lost 3%, Advanced Micro Devices lost 4%, and Nvidia fell 5%. And more generally, investors moved from riskier sectors like tech to safer bets like bonds and consumer staples. For example, the famed "FANG" group of hot tech stocks all fell sharply. Facebook was off 3%, as was Amazon. Netflix dropped 6% and Google parent Alphabet lost 3%.
Prosecutorial discretion. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz on Monday announced a new $300 million fund that will focus on cryptoassets and projects that build on blockchains. Former federal prosecutor Kathryn Haun is joining the firm as a general partner to co-lead the new fund. The firm has already been one of the largest investors in digital currency-related startups, having put more than $100 million in companies such as online exchange Coinbase, hedge fund Polychain Capital, and blockchain-based social payment app Celo.
Flying high. With the FAA approving some drone companies for test commercial products in the United States, the niche is getting more attractive for investors. Boeing's VC unit along with several other funds invested $16 million in Matternet, a California startup that's building a drone service to make deliveries in urban areas.
Make it on your own. A federal judge on Monday ruled that two women suing Microsoft for gender discrimination cannot form a class action lawsuit covering thousands of other women that worked at the company in technical roles. District Court Judge James Robart issued the decision in a sealed order. The company said it remains "committed to increasing diversity" and that the "judge made the right decision."
Something in the air tonight. The security protocol for Wi-Fi hasn't been updated in almost 15 years, so it's long past time for an improvement. On Tuesday, the Wi-Fi Alliance starts certifying gear that uses a new protocol, dubbed WPA3, to better protect against modern hacking techniques. Adoption of compatible hardware should pick up next year, once the faster 802.11ax data transmission standard starts appearing in routers and other devices, prompting a wave of upgrade buying.
Why did I click that link. Speaking of improving security, the Firefox browser and the password manager app 1Password are integrating a database of stolen passwords called "Have I Been Pwned" to help users figure out whether their passwords to a particular site have been compromised.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Artificial intelligence-fueled assistants are spreading like kudzu. You can get Amazon's Alexa in your car, Google Assistant on your wrist and Siri is in the HomePod speaker. But some scientists are now concerned that apps created with the machine learning techniques behind AI may operate in a biased way due to unexamined biases in the data sets used to train them. Fortune's Jonathan Vanian has a feature story looking at the risk of hidden bias in AI. It's not a simple problem to solve, he reports:
As their builders are learning, the data used to train deep-learning systems isn’t neutral. It can easily reflect the biases—conscious and unconscious—of the people who assemble it. And sometimes data can be slanted by history, encoding trends and patterns that reflect centuries-old discrimination. A sophisticated algorithm can scan a historical database and conclude that white men are the most likely to succeed as CEOs; it can’t be programmed (yet) to recognize that, until very recently, people who weren’t white men seldom got the chance to be CEOs. Blindness to bias is a fundamental flaw in this technology, and while executives and engineers speak about it only in the most careful and diplomatic terms, there’s no doubt it’s high on their agenda.
The most powerful algorithms being used today “haven’t been optimized for any definition of fairness,” says Deirdre Mulligan, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies ethics in technology. “They have been optimized to do a task.” A.I. converts data into decisions with unprecedented speed—but what scientists and ethicists are learning, Mulligan says, is that in many cases “the data isn’t fair.”
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BEFORE YOU GO
By definition, a "beach read" is a fast-paced page-turner, a thriller, a hot romance novel, right? Not really. Some of the best written business books can be just as compelling and hard to put down. Fortune editor Rachel King has a list of eight great picks that should entertain and educate while you lean back in your beach chair and take another sip of your cold beverage. Enjoy.