AI Startup Boom Raises Questions of Exaggerated Tech Savvy

engineerai

That’s the headline on my most recent story, which I wrote with my colleague Parmy Olson. It went online yesterday and is in today’s print WSJ.

It begins:

Startup Engineer.ai says it uses artificial-intelligence technology to largely automate the development of mobile apps, but several current and former employees say the company exaggerates its AI capabilities to attract customers and investors.

The competing claims reflect a growing challenge in the tech world of assessing a company’s proficiency in artificial intelligence, which refers to technologies that can allow computers to learn or perform tasks typically requiring human decision makers—in many cases helping companies save money or better target consumers.

Because AI technology is complex and loosely defined, nonexperts can find it hard to discern when it is being deployed. Still, money is flowing into the sector, and many startups can say they use AI as a way to lure investments or corporate clients even when such claims are difficult to vet.

Click through to read the rest.

The story was picked up by popular tech news outlets The Information, The Verge, and The Next Web, and on news forums such as Slashdot and Hacker News

Parmy and I were also on the WSJ Tech News podcast, in which we discussed the story with host
Kim Gittleson. You can listen online here, or in your favorite podcast app.

Newley’s Notes 186: RIP Toni M. and David B.; Skype Snooping; Vegetarian Butchers; Adorable Bomb Dogs

2019-08-13landscape

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Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes.

Here are ten items worth your time this week:

😢 1) Two remarkable artists passed away this week. The first: Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Dies at 88 [WSJ]

“Toni Morrison, a literary lion whose narrative voice soared from deep tenderness to searing power in ‘Beloved,’ ‘Song of Solomon’ and other novels, died Monday night in New York, her publisher Alfred A. Knopf said. She was 88 years old.”

✒️ Bonus link: An Appreciation: Toni Morrison and the Need for Tomorrows [WSJ]

“Toni Morrison liked to note, when importunate interviewers wondered when she was going to write about something other than the African-American experience, that Tolstoy didn’t intend his books to be read by black girls from Ohio. Her point was that notion of universalism is fraudulent. To be a writer of any worth one must be a regionalist.”

😔 2) And the second: David Berman, Silver Jews Leader and Indie-Rock Poet, Dies at 52 [New York Times]

“With wry songs full of black humor, his band became an underground favorite in the 1990s, and a new group, Purple Mountains, was set to tour.”

🎵 Bonus link: “By sharing his stories of characters at the margins who laugh into the void,” The WSJ’s Mark Richardson wrote in a review of Berman’s newest album, released just last month, “he makes life’s absurdities seem less menacing, and existential loneliness becomes a setup for a punchline.”

🖥️ 3) The Techlash Has Come to Stanford [Slate]

“Even in the famed computer science program, students are no longer sure they’d go to work for Facebook or Google (and definitely not Palantir).”

👂 4) Revealed: Microsoft Contractors Are Listening to Some Skype Calls [Vice/Motherboard]

“Contractors working for Microsoft are listening to personal conversations of Skype users conducted through the app’s translation service, according to a cache of internal documents, screenshots, and audio recordings obtained by Motherboard. ”

⌨️ 5) The Lonely Work of Moderating Hacker News [New Yorker]

“Can a human touch make Silicon Valley’s biggest discussion forum a more thoughtful place?”

🏠 6) This startup wants to put a free tiny house in your backyard [Fast Company]

“Rent the Backyard will get a tiny house into your backyard in a matter of weeks – and hopes it can add some cheaper apartments in cities to help alleviate the housing crisis. ”

🥩 7) The Vegetarians Who Turned Into Butchers [New York Times]

“Referring to themselves as ethical butchers, they have opened shops that offer meat from animals bred on grassland and pasture, with animal well-being, environmental conservation and less wasteful whole-animal butchery as their primary goals.”"

🎉 8) Dazzling Color Photos of the Legendary Romanov Costume Ball of 1903 [The Vintage News]

“Outside the Winter Palace, the social pressures that would hurl the country into revolution were intensifying, but 14 years before the forced abdication of Czar Nicolas II, the society of St. Petersburg put on quite a show, dubbed by many Europe’s ‘last great royal ball’.”

🛎️ 9) You Can Actually Stay In These Giant Animal-Themed Hotels [The Dodo]

“While many animal lovers will try to find activities that are centered around animals, there’s actually a way to take your obsession to the next level…”

🐶 10) “Oh this is precious.. bomb squad dog got a break from work for a min.” [Twitter: @TheSolutionBaba]

💡 Quote of the week:

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” – Toni Morrison.

👊 Fist bump from New Delhi,

Newley

Newley’s Notes 185: Facebook Branding; Alexa and Siri Concerns; Hungry Service Dogs

abstract

The latest edition of my email newsletter has gone out to subscribers. It’s pasted in below.

To get these weekly dispatches delivered to your inbox, sign up here. It’s free, it’s fun, it’s brief – and few people unsubscribe!

Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes.

🔌 Last week I shared my most recent story, about the rising popularity of inexpensive “smart feature phones” in big emerging markets like India. The headline: The Hottest Phones for the Next Billion Users Aren’t Smartphones.

📱 I’m happy to say the story struck a chord. In addition to being teased with a graphic on the WSJ front page the day it ran, it was the most popular article on WSJ.com for some time.

The story was also picked up by popular tech news sites Slashdot (here) and Hacker News (here). And it’s been mentioned in two of my favorite tech newsletters, Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View (here) and in Benedict Evans’s weekly email (here).

Onward!

Here are ten items worth your time this week:

™️ 1) Facebook Shows Who’s Boss by Adding Its Name to Instagram, WhatsApp [WSJ]

“The branding change is the latest move by Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to stitch together Facebook’s family of apps, even as regulators scrutinize whether the company has acquired startups including Instagram and WhatsApp to stymie competitive threats, the Journal reported this week.”

🗣️ 2) The Man Who Built The Retweet: “We Handed A Loaded Weapon To 4-Year-Olds” [Buzzfeed News]

“’Only two or three times did someone ask a broader and more interesting social question, which was, ”What is getting shared?” Wetherell said. ‘That almost never came up.’"

🍎 Shot: 3) Apple halts practice of contractors listening in to users on Siri [The Guardian]

“Apple has suspended its practice of having human contractors listen to users’ Siri recordings to ‘grade’ them, following a Guardian report revealing the practice.”

🔉 Chaser: 4) Amazon Gives Option to Disable Human Review of Alexa Recordings [Bloomberg]

“Amazon.com Inc. will let Alexa users opt out of human review of their voice recordings, a move that follows criticism that the program violated customers’ privacy.”

🤳 5) Where Everyone’s an Influencer [The Atlantic]

“In recent years, more people have appended ‘influencer’ to their credentials, she said: model/DJs are now model/DJ/influencers. ‘[Social-media following is] sort of a default method of currency that at this point has been ingrained in our societal structures,’ she added.”

🤑 6) Economics-related story of the week: Families Go Deep in Debt to Stay in the Middle Class [WSJ]

“The American middle class is falling deeper into debt to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Cars, college, houses and medical care have become steadily more costly, but incomes have been largely stagnant for two decades, despite a recent uptick. Filling the gap between earning and spending is an explosion of finance into nearly every corner of the consumer economy.”

🎚️ 7) Inside Tokyo’s audiophile venues [Resident Advisor]

“With a rich network of sound-obsessed cafés, bars and small clubs, Aaron Coultate explains why Tokyo might be the best place in the world to listen to music.”

🆒 8) Every Noise at Once [EveryNoise.com]

“Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 3,295 genres by Spotify…”

⚾ 9) Fan Who Hit 96 on Stadium Radar Gun Signs MLB Contract [Sports Illustrated]

“A 23-year-old who hasn’t played competitive baseball since high school just landed a contract with the A’s, thanks mostly to the internet.”

🐶 10) Service dog needs Service [Reddit]

💡 Quote of the week:

“The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth…The perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth…” – Elizabeth Peabody

👊 Fist bump from New Delhi,

Newley

Newley’s Notes 184: Smart-Enough Phones; Millionaire Gamers; Wearable ACs; Eager Pooches

2019 07 31abstract

Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes.

🔌 My latest story, out last Tuesday and teased on the WSJ front page Wednesday: The Hottest Phones for the Next Billion Users Aren’t Smartphones. It begins:

NEW DELHI–The hottest phones for the world’s next billion users aren’t made by smartphone leaders Samsung Electronics Co. or Apple Inc. In fact, they aren’t even smartphones.

Millions of first-time internet consumers from the Ivory Coast to India and Indonesia are connecting to the web on a new breed of device that only costs about $25. The gadgets look like the inexpensive Nokia Corp. phones that were big about two decades ago. But these hybrid phones, fueled by inexpensive mobile data, provide some basic apps and internet access in addition to calling and texting.

As I mention in the story, as part of our reporting we spoke with a fruit vendor here in New Delhi who makes about $80 per month. He couldn’t afford even the cheapest smartphones, but is now online – streaming Bollywood music and watching movies with his family night – thanks to a “smart feature phone” that cost only about $20.

📱 Click through to read the rest.

Here are ten items worth your time this week:

🍎 1) Apple contractors ‘regularly hear confidential details’ on Siri recordings [The Guardian]

“Although Apple does not explicitly disclose it in its consumer-facing privacy documentation, a small proportion of Siri recordings are passed on to contractors working for the company around the world.”

😳 2) The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge [New York/The Cut]

“A Harvard Law professor who teaches a class on judgment wouldn’t seem like an obvious mark, would he?

🤖 3) Tech-related longread of the week: The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking [The New Yorker]

“In the past, intellectual debt has been confined to a few areas amenable to trial-and-error discovery, such as medicine. But that may be changing, as new techniques in artificial intelligence – specifically, machine learning – increase our collective intellectual credit line.”

🇭🇰 4) In Hong Kong Protests, Faces Become Weapons [New York Times]

“Hong Kong is at the bleeding edge of a significant change in the authorities’ ability to track dangerous criminals and legitimate political protesters alike – and in their targets’ ability to fight back.”

🏆 5) U.S. teen wins $3 million at video game tournament Fortnite World Cup [Reuters]

“Geirsdorf, 16, from Pennsylvania, was one of at least 100 players competing for $30 million in total prize money, as the booming popularity of video and online games has drawn top-dollar investments and fueled the emerging professional sport. ”

🌡️ 6) Sony’s Wearable Air Conditioner Should Be Ready for Next Year’s Heat Wave [Gizmodo]

“…Sony is crowdfunding a portable wearable air conditioner/heater so you can flip the bird to mother nature and live your best, climate-controlled life.”

💰 7) How Legal Marijuana Is Helping the Black Market [Politico]

“Expensive regulation and high demand across the country have made the illicit trade more profitable than going legit.”

⚒️ 8) Notre Dame Fire Revives Demand For Skilled Stone Carvers In France [NPR]

“In the workshops of the Hector Guimard high school, less than three miles from the cathedral, young stone carvers are training for that task.”

🍴 9) A Global Feast in an Unlikely Spot: Lancaster, Pa. [New York Times]

“This small city, best-known for its Amish and Mennonite communities, is a welcoming home for immigrants, refugees and their cooking.”

(Thanks, Jess!)

🎾 10) Hi! Can i interest you in a ball?!?! [Reddit]

💡 Quote of the week:

“Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day." – Charlie Munger

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👊 Fist bump from New Delhi,

Newley

The Hottest Phones for the Next Billion Users Aren’t Smartphones

smart feature phones

That’s the headline on my most recent story, which came out Tuesday.

It begins:

NEW DELHI—The hottest phones for the world’s next billion users aren’t made by smartphone leaders Samsung Electronics Co. or Apple Inc. In fact, they aren’t even smartphones.

Millions of first-time internet consumers from the Ivory Coast to India and Indonesia are connecting to the web on a new breed of device that only costs about $25. The gadgets look like the inexpensive Nokia Corp. phones that were big about two decades ago. But these hybrid phones, fueled by inexpensive mobile data, provide some basic apps and internet access in addition to calling and texting.

Smart feature phones, as they are known, are one of the mobile-phone industry’s fastest-growing and least-known segments, providing a simple way for some of the world’s poorest people to enter the internet economy.

While global smartphone sales began sliding last year as markets became saturated, smart feature phone shipments tripled to around 75 million from 2017, according to research firm Counterpoint. Some 84 million are likely to be shipped this year.

Click through to read the rest.

Newley’s Notes 183: Apollo 11 Anniversary; FaceApp Fears; Siberian Selfies; Sweater-Wearing Shibas Strutting in Snow

moon

Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes.

🇮🇹 Anasuya and I are back in Delhi after an exceptional ten-day-long family holiday in Italy.

I’ve been posting some photos on my Instagram feed (@Newley), with more to come. We were in Rome for a few days, then spent a week in Cernobbio, next to Lake Como.

The food.
The mountains.
The water.
The colors.
The people.
The history.
The art.

💯 One word: wow.

On to this week’s NN…

Here are ten items worth your time this week:

🚀 1) The Nation Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 [WSJ]

“In a hundred different ways this week, people nationwide celebrated the moon voyage that climaxed on July 20, 1969, when Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed and walked on another world.”

🌕 Bonus explanatory video: Apollo 11: The Complete Descent.

📉 2) Netflix stock sinks after U.S. subscriber loss [Axios]

“Analysts weren’t expecting the streaming giant to lose subscribers, especially since rival streaming services, like HBO Max, Disney + and NBCUniversal’s new service, aren’t expected to launch for another year or so. ”

🥵 3) As FaceApp Goes Viral, So Do Concerns About Privacy, Russia Ties [WSJ]

“FaceApp is raising alarms in particular because it is encouraging people to share information that companies or individuals typically find difficult to obtain quickly on a large scale, said Micah Hoffman, principal investigator at Spotlight Infosec LLC, a cybersecurity and open-source intelligence firm in Rockville, Md.”

🗣 4) Have We Hit Peak Podcast? [NY Times]

“There are now upward of 700,000 podcasts, according to the podcast production and hosting service Blubrry, with between 2,000 and 3,000 new shows launching each month.”

📡 5) Disneyland Makes Surveillance Palatable – and Profitable [Bloomberg]

“At a time when Facebook Inc., Google and myriad other technology companies are getting hammered over consumer privacy issues, Disney is running the happiest police state on earth.”

🎤 6) Fired Over Too Much Tupac? A Rap-Loving Bureaucrat From Iowa Says He Hopes Not [NPR]

“I’m a 66-year-old white guy from the Midwest who likes rap music, who likes Tupac!” he says.

☢️ 7) Toxic lake in Russia’s Siberia becomes selfie sensation [AP]

“The lake is blue…due to a chemical reaction between toxic waste elements from a local power station. Environmentalists are warning people against coming into contact with the water.”

👏 8) Apple Teases 230 New Emoji in Celebration of World Emoji Day [TIME]

“This upcoming collection will have a large focus on inclusion and accessibility. Some of the upcoming emoji will include people who use hearing aids, wheelchairs, guide dogs and people with prosthetic limbs.”

🐦 9) The 2019 Audubon Photography Awards: Winners [Audubon]

Birds make fascinating subjects, as the winners and honorable mentions of this year’s contest, our 10th, make clear.”

❄️ 10) Ladies and gents, I present to you a Shiba Inu wearing a sweater tracking through snow [Reddit]

💡 Quote of the week:

"Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.” – Joan Didion

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👊 Fist bump from New Delhi – and happy summer!

Newley

Newley’s Notes 182: So Long, Jony; Sikh Truck Drivers; Rooney Golazo; Frolicking Beach Dogs

2019 06 30abstract

Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes.

⚠️ Editor’s note: NN will be on summer holiday for the following few weeks. Expect the next edition July 21.

Here are ten items worth your time this week:

🍎 1) Apple Design Chief Jony Ive to Depart, Ushering in New Era [WSJ]

“Apple Inc. said design chief Jony Ive will leave the company later this year to form his own independent design company, marking the end of an era at the iPhone maker as it shifts from an emphasis on product development to services.”

🎨 2) And, from 2015, a profile of Ive: The Shape of Things to Come [New Yorker]

“How an industrial designer became Apple’s greatest product.”

👂 3) Aggression Detectors: The Unproven, Invasive Surveillance Technology Schools Are Using to Monitor Students [ProPublica]

“‘It’s not clear it’s solving the right problem. And it’s not clear it’s solving it with the right tools,’ said Suresh Venkatasubramanian, a University of Utah computer science professor who studies how replacing humans with artificial intelligence affects decision-making in society.”

🦄 4) A Unicorn Lost in the Valley, Evernote Blows Up the ‘Fail Fast’ Gospel [NY Times]

“In a season of multibillion-dollar I.P.O.s for Slack, Pinterest, Zoom, Uber, Lyft and others, Evernote is nowhere close.”

🚚 5) Sikh drivers are transforming U.S. trucking. Take a ride along the Punjabi American highway [LA Times]

"‘You used to see a guy with a turban and you would get excited,’ says Pal, who is in his 15th year of trucking. ‘Today, you go to some stops and can convince yourself you are in India.’’

📚 6) San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History [NY Times]

“All are fair game for censorship in a worldview that insists that words and images are to be judged based on how ‘safe’ they make people feel.”

⌨️ 7) 20+ Mac Productivity Hacks from CEOs, Artists, Developers, Youtubers and More [Boxy Suite]

“I’m always surprised by how many Mac hacks, tricks and workflows I keep finding out that boost my productivity and make my life easier.”

🗣️ 8) This map shows the most commonly spoken language in every US state, excluding English and Spanish [Business Insider]

German is the most commonly spoken non-English, non-Spanish language in nine states, with French most common in six states and D.C. Vietnamese was the most common language in six states.”

⚽ 9) Wayne Rooney GOAL from Beyond Midfield! [YouTube]

“Wayne Rooney scores from beyond the midfield stripe.”

😂 10) Water, water, OMG water! [Reddit]

💡 Quote of the week:

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training." – Archilochus

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👊 Fist bump from New Delhi – and happy summer!

Newley

Newley’s Notes 181: Google Maps Trouble; Slack’s IPO; MH370 Mystery; Dogs Practicing Yoga

2019 06 30HK

Hi, friends. Welcome to the latest edition of Newley’s Notes.

🇭🇰 I spent much of last week in Hong Kong, where we held our annual WSJ D.Live tech conference. It’s a gathering of tech executives, venture capital investors, startup founders, WSJ journalists, and more. (And yes, the event happened during the city’s massive protests, injecting an added element of excitement.)

In one on-stage event, I interviewed Guarav Gupta, chief operating officer of India’s Zomato. You may well have heard of it. It’s a popular platform for food delivery, food ratings, and more. We talked about the company’s push into smaller Indian cities, their expansion abroad, and even the potential for an IPO. You can watch the video here.

🆕 Separately, I had a scoop last week about a new private equity firm targeting Southeast Asia startups. The lede:

A new Southeast Asia-focused private-equity firm launched by a group of seasoned technology executives has hit the first close of its debut fund, the latest sign of investors’ growing enthusiasm for startups in the populous region.

Among the co-founders are Nick Nash, formerly group president of Singapore-based Sea, and Oliver Rippel, who was previously head of business-to-consumer e-commerce at Naspers.

On to this week’s NN.

Here are ten items worth your time this week:

📍 1) Millions of Business Listings on Google Maps Are Fake—and Google Profits [WSJ]

“…Google still can’t seem to stop the proliferation of fictional business listings and aggressive con artists on its search engine. The scams are profitable for nearly everyone involved, Google included. Consumers and legitimate businesses end up the losers.”

📈 2) Slack Shares Jump in Trading Debut [WSJ]

“Slack Technologies Inc. surged in its trading debut on the New York Stock Exchange, the latest technology firm to jump into a hot initial-public-offering market.”

🖥️ 3) Bodies in Seats [The Verge]

“At Facebook’s worst-performing content moderation site in North America, one contractor has died, and others say they fear for their lives.”

🛩️ 4) The Drone Iran Shot Down Was a $220M Surveillance Monster [Wired]

“Global Hawks are massive surveillance platforms, in operation since 2001, with a wingspan of more than 130 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of more than 16 tons…”

📺 5) Samsung’s security reminder makes the case for not owning a Samsung smart TV [The Verge]

“‘Prevent malicious software attacks on your TV by scanning for viruses on your TV every few weeks,’ a (now deleted) tweet from the company’s US support account read alongside a video attachment that demonstrated the laborious process.”

❓ 6) A gripping longread: What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane [The Atlantic]

“In truth, a lot can now be known with certainty about the fate of MH370. First, the disappearance was an intentional act.”

🇨🇳 7) Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds [New Yorker]

“A leading sci-fi writer takes stock of China’s global rise.”

🍜 8) A local’s guide to Bangkok [Washington Post]

“It’s the center of industry, finance, government, retail and education for all of Thailand, so everything comes together in fascinating, and often creative, ways.”

🐱 9) Cat filter accidentally used in Pakistani minister’s live press conference [BBC News – Thanks, PB!]

“Facebook users watching the video live commented on the gaffe, but Mr Yousafzai carried on unaware of his feline features.”

🧘 10) Army Dog Unit practices Yoga for #YogaDay2019 [India Ministry of Defense on Twitter]

💡 Quote of the week:

“Living is not thinking. Thought is formed and guided by objective reality outside us. Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.” – Thomas Merton

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👊 Fist bump from New Delhi,
Newley