April 30, 2020
Good morning! This Thursday, the big tech exposure-notification plan continues, Facebook has a brand-new chatbot, and TikTok had the best quarter for any app ever.
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People Are Talking
From Protocol: On Tesla's earnings call, Elon Musk went on an epic rant against shelter-in-place rules:
- "If somebody wants to stay in their house, that's great, they should be allowed to stay in their house, and they should not be compelled to leave. But to say they cannot leave their house, and they'll be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic, this is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom."
- (You can hear the full audio of his quotes in today's Source Code Podcast.)
Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg warned against reopening public spaces too quickly:
- "While there are massive societal costs from the current shelter-in-place restrictions, I worry that reopening certain places too quickly before inaction rates have been reduced to very minimal levels will almost guarantee future outbreaks and worsen longer-term health and economic outcomes."
In scary economic times, smart startups can get almost anything they want from the government, Bradley Tusk believes:
- "Issues like privacy, worker classification reform and fears of AI are all about to take a back seat to pocketbook issues like jobs, crime and access to health care. Startups who can promise to retain jobs can now drive meaningful changes on policy, regulation, permitting, zoning, licensing and everything else they need to operate."
Spotify data shows every day looks like the weekend now, and CEO Daniel Ek said people are listening to new things as well:
- "We've seen some massive shifts in user behavior. People are listening more to classical and chill music."
The Big Story
Contact tracing's big test is almost here
Only a few weeks after they started working on it, Apple and Google released a beta version of their "exposure notification" software yesterday. These aren't apps — they're just the first versions of the APIs that health authorities and developers can use to build their apps.
- The APIs are baked into the latest beta versions of iOS and Xcode 11.5 for Apple devs, and Google Play Services and Android Developer Studio for Google.
- On iOS, there's a new line in Settings that says "COVID-19 Exposure Notifications." That's where users can opt in or out of the system. But it's buried three levels deep in the menu.
- Apple and Google also said they'll release "sample code" tomorrow, designed as a sort of blueprint for apps using their systems.
It looks like the two companies are on track for a broader rollout in mid-May. There's a big catch with all this, though: None of the tech works unless a huge portion of people opt in. And a new study found that most people won't.
- There's a laundry list of roadblocks, according to a poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland. Millions of people don't have smartphones; millions more have one that's too old for this tech; and only about half of smartphone users said they're even willing to use an app like the ones Google and Apple are helping build.
- Sadly, it's the populations most affected by coronavirus — elderly and impoverished people in particular — that tend to also be the ones least likely to be able to participate.
At the same time, critics are pointing to security risks in the system. Even if hackers couldn't get access to personal data, the tech as it's conceived could be easily undermined, according to the EFF. "Anyone who builds an app on top of the interface will have to do a lot of things right to make sure it's private and secure," the EFF's Gennie Gebhart and Bennett Cyphers said.
- The dilemma here is brutal: Apple, Google and their partners have to move fast to help contain this pandemic. But the faster they move, the more they risk making a mistake, and the harder it could be to create the trust required to actually pull this off.
A nationwide fundraiser, run on a bunch of WFH apps
An entrepreneur, a VC and a UCSF nurse throw a pizza party. This isn't the beginning of a joke — it's the beginning of a nationwide effort to feed hundreds of thousands of frontline workers with fresh meals from local restaurants. Since mid-March, Frontline Foods has raised $4.4M and delivered 275,000 meals in 54 cities. All thanks to a bunch of volunteers and a bunch of remote-work tools.
- First it was just a Google Doc, where people signed on to sponsor meals. Then, Frank Barbieri, Ryan Sarver and Sydney Gessel realized there were many groups across the country with an idea like theirs.
- Barbieri told Protocol's Sofie Kodner that their thinking was pretty simple: "Let's just open-source the idea, let's publish all the tools we have." Their guidelines led to an open-invite Zoom call that evolved into a 700-person Slack team. They've got Slack channels for software engineers, creatives, PR folks, and more.
- "It's almost as if the channel operates as a marketplace, where local chapters can come in and make requests" and other volunteers respond, Barbieri said. They've also built out a delivery tracking mechanism using Airtable.
The concept could stick around around much longer than the pandemic, Barbieri thinks. He sees it more generally as a blueprint for how to organize grassroots efforts like this one digitally.
- "That's something a lot of traditional nonprofits have always wanted to implement, but it's very hard to do from a sort of top-down point-of-view," Barbieri told Sofie. "I think those are a new standard for the way that grassroots movements can partner with national nonprofits to address any crisis."
- From a management perspective, Barbieri said that through the experiment he's been "awakened to the power of trust." It's a key way, he's found, to get a distributed workforce running.
Frontline Foods continues to get creative, too. Just this week, it hosted a virtual fundraising dinner that raised $20,000, and Phish threw it a virtual benefit concert.
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Fancy talking with Facebook's latest chatbot?
Chatbots were supposed to be The Next Big Thing. Then it turned out they didn't work very well, were easy to manipulate in horrible ways, and ultimately were about as helpful as a "press 1 for sales" phone tree. But Facebook, one of the earliest and loudest proponents of chatbots, kept working — and now it says it has something:
- The company built a bot called Blender, which it calls "the largest-ever open-domain chatbot." It's quite the chatterbox, Facebook says, "including the ability to assume a persona, discuss nearly any topic, and show empathy — in natural, 14-turn conversation flows."
Before we get too excited, though, let's toss a little salt on this one. In 2016, while Mark Zuckerberg was building a Jarvis-like system to run his house, Facebook was proselytizing the power of chatbots to book flights, buy flowers, and lots more. I bet I can count the number of such bots you're using now on … zero fingers.
Still, Facebook did shift gears quickly, and even many months ago was moving from task-based bots to more conversational ones.
- It has now open-sourced the tech and models behind Blender, in the hopes of working with the whole AI community to push it forward.
- On the to-do list, Blender still needs to get better at longer conversations, filter out problematic ideas and dialog, and learn to stop "hallucinating" certain information. Which, don't we all.
Lime is laying off up to 190 people in the U.S. and Europe. It had originally planned a much smaller cut, but believes the pandemic is going to last longer than it originally hoped.
Boeing is cutting about 10% of its staff, approximately 1,600 people. Reuters reported that CEO Dave Calhoun told staff that the cuts will happen "through a combination of voluntary layoffs, natural turnover and involuntary layoffs as necessary."
Deliveroo laid off 367 people — 15% of its staff — and furloughed about 50 more. The company, like so many others, called it a long-term planning decision.
Lyft is planning to lay off 982 people, which is 17% of its team. It furloughed another 288 employees as well, and remaining employees are taking significant pay cuts.
Luc Donckerwolke, the head of design at Hyundai Motor and a big part of the company's recent reinvention, is leaving the company for "personal reasons."
In Other News
- Today in coronavirus: A coordinated group of workers from Instacart, Walmart, Whole Foods, Target, Amazon and FedEx is planning to strike starting tomorrow to protest the companies' health and safety practices. Amazon is cracking down on internal email lists that workers used to organize. And Salesforce canceled Dreamforce, and all its other conferences for 2020.
- Google opened its latest Cloud Platform region in Las Vegas, giving it seven U.S. regions and 23 around the world. In its announcement, Google touted online game-platform Aristocrat, which seems like something a Vegas casino might be interested in at the moment.
- Amazon extended its deal with the NFL, and will get to stream one exclusive game per season starting next year. Granted, it's a Saturday game, but still — even a toe in the direction of streaming-exclusive football is a big deal.
- From Protocol: After "Trolls World Tour" debuted digitally and made almost $100 million, AMC Theatres said it won't show Universal Studios movies anymore. Basically, the entire entertainment business is at war with itself.
- Salesforce built an AI economist that it hopes can "simulate millions of years of economies" to figure out which tax policies will have the most positive effect. The researchers say it's also already able to find and close tax loopholes.
- Twitter launched a different kind of COVID-19 tool, which could help researchers study the way people talk about the disease. The "COVID-19 stream endpoint" includes millions of tweets a day, and the company hopes it could provide insight on the spread of both the virus and the conversation about it.
- The U.S. trade representative's office studied Amazon's foreign websites and added five of them to a "notorious markets" list, implying they're used to sell counterfeit and illegal products. Amazon called it a "purely political act," while the administration said it's looking even deeper into the company.
- TikTok just had the best quarter for any app ever. According to Sensor Tower's data the app was downloaded more than 315 million times in the last three months. I was one of them, so I guess it's nice to know I was onto something.
One More Thing
How to make a TV special from your home
Is this just an excuse to be really excited that there's a "Parks & Recreation" reunion special fundraiser today? Yes. But you should also read Variety's story about how it came together — from the actors filming themselves on iPhones while Mike Schur directed over Zoom, to the graphics team that had to make it all look like a TV show instead of a conference call.
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