The Week in Tech: Are You Ready for Facebook’s Future?
We got a glimpse of what the social network’s privacy-first focus might look like in practice. You may not love it.
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Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.
Hi, I’m Jamie Condliffe. Greetings from London. Here’s a look at the week’s tech news:
When Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s big privacy pivot, he was short on specifics. This past week, we got a glimpse at some of what he might be thinking.
Casey Newton of The Verge reported that Facebook was internally testing a new Instagram app called Threads. Instagram is increasingly Facebook’s main engine of growth, so it’s reasonable to assume that any product developed there is a reflection of Facebook’s broader intentions. (A caveat: This app may never enter public use. Instagram declined to comment.)
Beyond the usual privacy concerns, it’s interesting to consider why automated sharing might be interesting for Facebook, as well as the impact it could have on users.
A private Facebook means less data shared publicly, but the company will still need reams of it to power targeted ads. Reducing friction for users posting content, so apps just do it for them, is useful to the company.
“The benefit of frictionless design for Facebook could be a limitless stream of data to analyze and mine,” said Christopher Burr, who studies the philosophical and ethical issues surrounding the impact of technology on mental health at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Threads, if Facebook goes through with it, might not share much information automatically at first. But it could help normalize the practice for users who opt in, making it a more natural thing to do on other apps. Over time, people could start sharing more data automatically than they were originally comfortable with, d Dr. Burr said.
Automated data sharing could change us, too. Siân Brooke, another researcher from the Oxford Internet Institute, who studies online sociology, said constant visibility on a platform like Threads could cause people to act differently.
“You change your behavior if you’re constantly being looked at,” she said. “If you know people see where you are, what you’re consuming, you’ll change what you’re doing, change what is normal in a group.”
These kinds of worries aren’t new: They’ve been raised about features in Snapchat (a platform that Threads would clearly rival). But Snapchat has fewer than 200 million users; Instagram has one billion and Facebook over two billion. So if Mr. Zuckerberg sees this as the future of social networking, we may soon find it’s our future, too.
The limits of Chinese chips
Last Friday, the Chinese technology company Huawei unveiled its first high-end, artificial-intelligence processor, Ascend 910. It was widely viewed as another sign that China is doubling down on building its own chips. Per Dan Strumpf of the The Wall Street Journal:
The chip advances Huawei’s goal of curbing reliance on American technology — and China’s national ambition to have chip makers capable of making complex processors.
Actually, things are more complex than that. The Ascend 910 is a cutting-edge chip, and, tellingly, it’s being produced for Huawei by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, not a mainland Chinese chip manufacturer, according to ZDNet.
The reality for China: Its chip-making abilities lag the rest of the world. Badly. Research published this month by John VerWey, an international trade analyst at the United States International Trade Commission, puts the situation into perspective. Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, which he called “one of China’s designated national champions,” is “developing fabrication facilities that will produce chips that are five to six years behind the industry’s leading edge at 10 percent of the volume of the world’s leading firm.”
The lag, Mr. VerWey explained, is down to several factors, including a historic inability to allocate funds strategically and a chronic undersupply of expertise in China. Attempts to fix both issues have so far yielded few results. In other words: There’s a long road ahead for Chinese chips.
‘Theft is not innovation’
Superstar engineers are rarely spotted.
But if you were to imagine such a creature, you could do worse than Anthony Levandowski: a wunderkind of self-driving who built a riderless motorcycle as a graduate student, then worked as a key member of Google’s autonomous car project (later Waymo) before setting up his own autonomous-truck company, Otto, which Uber bought for nearly $700 million in 2016.
Well, maybe not the whole time. Federal prosecutors charged him on Tuesday with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from Google, accusing him of downloading more than 14,000 files containing autonomous-vehicle research before leaving the company in 2016. (This is off the back of a settled trade secrets case between Uber and Waymo last year, after which Mr. Levandowski was referred to federal prosecutors.)
Mr. Levandowski faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. But adding to the torment of this swaggering rock star engineer will surely be the remarks of David L. Anderson, a United States attorney, when announcing the indictment. “All of us have the right to change jobs,” he said. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”