The case for a virtual commute when working from home
This is the web version of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the top tech news. To get it delivered daily to your in-box, sign up here.
Years after the introduction of the iPhone, Apple started to add safety features that did things such as making it difficult to drive and text. I discussed this with Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, in 2017, as the iPhone was beginning its second decade. “I think that all companies should do that, to really think through how their products are used,” Cook said, of some of Apple’s new features. “Using a product is somewhat like eating healthy food. It’s really great. But you can eat too much of healthy food. And you can use something too much.”
We’re all finding out right now just how much is too much when it comes to technology. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, for example, has acknowledged that the creators of the free-for-all messaging system simply didn’t envision all the ways its service would be used—and misused. My deep research into the history of the seat belt suggests that it took decades for car manufacturers to figure out they could add a feature to their vehicles to mitigate the danger of motoring.
I thought about all this while reading about Microsoft’s intention to add a “virtual commute” feature to its Teams communications product. At first blush, the idea of scheduling a commute into a work-from-home day seems silly. Think about it for a tick more, and it makes total sense. Using technology to ameliorate the burden of technology surrounding our new remote-working lives is a great example of a grafting on a solution after the fact.
Sure, commuting sucks sometimes. But the ability to pause and focus, or call loved ones, or listen to the radio, or daydream—anything, really, other than endure another Zoom (or Teams) call—helps the remote worker reset their brain.
In old Microsoft fashion, the software maker revealed the feature before launching it. In another era that was called vaporware. At least Microsoft has started a conversation.
Some things, on the other hand, are obvious right from the outset. Reading this week in The New York Times about how fees from The Apprentice, a TV show about fake business situations, kept Donald Trump afloat for years after his actual business enterprises had failed, I recalled an article I wrote in Fortune in 2004. I asked why audiences would want to learn business secrets from someone whose publicly traded business was publicly failing. “It’s clear that taking your business cues from The Donald is far more likely to lead to fame than to fortune,” I wrote.
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.
Get yer ya-ya's out. The Googleplex offered a tight and succinct 30-minute debut of new products on Wednesday. Google offered an updated $50 Chromecast that works in 4K and has nifty software for sorting through all your streaming services (except Apple TV+ it appears). The new Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 phones provide Google's usual great camera software and 5G connectivity at prices of $500 and $700, respectively. And the Nest Audio speaker is, you know, a new connected speaker. On Thursday morning, Microsoft unveiled two new Surface devices. The $550 Surface Laptop Go lowers the entry price considerably while a revised Surface X tablet saw few significant upgrades beyond a new processor option.
Pay to play. Speaking of Google, the company is moving to ease criticism from publishers with its latest news program, dubbed Google News Showcase. Google says it will pay $1 billion to news creators over three years to license stories for the service.
Denethor despairs in Minas Tirith. Silicon Valley stars Asana and Palantir listed their shares and started trading on Wednesday and all was well in the third age of stocks—well, pretty well. Workplace collaboration software maker Asana traded up 7% during the day and finished with a market valuation of $5.5 billion. Intel data analyzer Palantir traded down 5%, however, and ended with a value of $21 billion.
The unraveling. Troubled emission-free truck maker Nikola Motor has been on a rollercoaster this week. First it postponed the debut of its electric pickup truck, the Badger, and CNBC said two women had come forward accusing founder Trevor Milton of sexual assault. Nikola stock dropped 7% on Tuesday. Then General Motors, which is supposed to manufacture the EV pickup in return for a stake in the company, was rumored to be investing more money and Nikola said Bosch and others had already invested. Nikola shares jumped 15% on Wednesday and another 7% in pre-market trading on Thursday.
A certain relish for confusion. Scientists at MIT say they've got a promising design for a fusion reactor (the kind of nuclear reactor that produces power but no nasty radioactive waste) called Sparc and they just need three or four years to build it. Such a breakthrough could help solve global climate change—if it works out.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
If you were worried that the A.I. writing app known as GPT-3 might take your job, Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, a research fellow at Columbia's Knight First Amendment Institute, has another reason for you to freak out. In an essay for Slate, Rajendra-Nicolucci explains how the A.I. tool could be used for online harassment.
For example, a sophisticated language model could target harassment to specific speakers, making it more threatening and convincing. There have already been examples of GPT-3 creating mock obituaries that include accurate references to people’s past employers and current family members, which suggests it could be used to generate harassment that’s just as personal. Activists and journalists targeted by harassment often say they can tell the difference between “real” harassment and bot harassment, citing differentiators such as the frequency of posts and the coherence of the content. Models like GPT-3 could make it more difficult to tell the difference, making automated harassment more believable and thus more chilling.
In addition to targeted harassment, those looking to control public debate use a technique called “flooding” to drown out speech they object to and distort the information environment. Flooding involves producing a significant amount of content to distract, confuse, and discredit.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
What Silicon Valley needs from the 2020 election By Danielle Abril
As Palantir goes public, consider its troubling human rights record By Denise Bell and Michael Kleinman
(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)
BEFORE YOU GO
You may have missed the innovative turn in Marvel Comics' character Ms. Marvel a few years ago when the publisher decided to reboot the superhero as a Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City. Worth a read. Now Marvel and Disney are planning a TV series and announced they've cast 18-year-old actress Iman Vellani in the lead role. Vellani will also likely take the role into future Marvel movies. That should embiggen the fun, as Ms. Marvel might say.