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China Turns to Elon Musk as Technology Dreams Sour

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China is having its techlash moment.

The country’s internet giants, once celebrated as engines of economic vitality, are now scorned for exploiting user data, abusing workers and squelching innovation. Jack Ma, co-founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba, is a fallen idol, with his companies under government scrutiny for the ways they have secured their grip over the world’s second-largest economy.

But there is one tech figure who has managed to keep the Chinese public in his thrall, whose mix of impish bomb-throwing and captain-of-industry bravado seems tailor-made for this time of dashed dreams and disillusionment: Elon Musk.

“He can fight the establishment and become the richest man on earth — and avoid getting beaten down in the process,” said Jane Zhang, the founder and chief executive of ShellPay, a blockchain company in Shanghai. “He’s everybody’s hope.”

Whether out of hope, envy or morbid curiosity — like spectators hoping to see one of his rockets go down in a fiery blast — China cannot get enough of Mr. Musk. Tesla’s electric cars are big sellers in the country, and the government’s growing space ambitions have spawned a community of fans who track SpaceX’s every launch.

Social platforms brim with videos and articles pondering whether the South African-born billionaire is a trailblazer or a fraud, and examining everything from his upbringing to his taste in Beijing hot pot joints. Start-up founders swear by his belief in “first-principles thinking,” which looks for solutions by examining problems at their most fundamental level. A stack of books by Chinese authors promises to reveal the secrets of the “Silicon Valley Iron Man,” which is the nickname that seems to have stuck in China, not King of Mars or Rocket Man.

In a long thread about Mr. Musk on the question-and-answer site Zhihu, a user named Moonshake writes that most people start out full of hope but gradually accept the “mediocrity” that is their fate.

“Only a superman like Musk can move past the endless mediocrity and toward the infinite, to see the magnificence of the universe,” Moonshake writes.

Another user in the same thread says he named his son Elon to express his admiration. The user did not reply to a message seeking further comment.

Tesla’s giant factory near Shanghai started production in 2019 and helped ramp up the company’s manufacturing capacity. When Tesla’s share price hit a new high in January, making Mr. Musk the planet’s wealthiest man, Chinese fans claimed credit. (Mr. Musk’s reaction to the news — “Well, back to work …” — was liked 22,000 times on the Chinese social platform Weibo.)

Later that month, as Mr. Musk endorsed the run-up in GameStop shares, many in China were riveted, drawn to the drama by the same distrust of big financial institutions.

“Occupy Wall Street could never be copied in China,” said Suji Yan, an entrepreneur and investor in Shanghai. To do that, “you’d have go on the streets,” he said. Buying protest stocks is safer.

The dispiritedness that many Chinese tech workers have for their industry is compounded by their feeling that it is no longer really inventing or innovating. While Mr. Musk is off building futuristic cars and colonizing the cosmos, they see the best minds of their generation designing cellphone games, figuring out how to put more ads on social media and speculating in real estate.

“China doesn’t have Silicon Valley madmen anymore,” Mr. Yan said. Tech bosses “have all become cardboard cutouts,” he said, and investors won’t touch ideas that seem remotely “crazy.”

Mr. Musk’s acolytes are a passionate bunch everywhere. But in China, his popularity is helped by the authoritarian government’s embrace of Tesla — and vice versa — when the United States and China have never trusted each other’s high-tech companies less.

People in China marveled at the way Mr. Musk handled the country’s hard-nosed authorities. They have been more critical of the ways he has sometimes treated his own workers. He lashed out last year at California health officials who demanded that a Tesla factory there remain closed out of coronavirus concerns. The company has also come under scrutiny for workplace injuries and racial discrimination.

“He is a real dreamer and creator, yet he is also a coldblooded, self-absorbed megalomaniac,” Hong Bo, a longtime tech commentator in China who writes under the name Keso, said of Mr. Musk. “I admire his courage in breaking with outdated conventions, and yet I intensely dislike his trampling on the bottom lines of humanity.”

Mr. Musk and Tesla did not respond to emails requesting comment.

The frustration with Big Tech is part of a wider malaise in China. For many young people, decades of breakneck economic growth seem to have resulted in only fiercer competition for opportunities, less stability and less say over the direction of their lives.

On the Chinese internet, the term that has captured the mood is “involution,” previously used by anthropologists to describe agrarian societies that grew in size or complexity without becoming more advanced or productive.

The feeling among young Chinese people that they are fighting harder for a slimmer chance at material gain is leading them to hope to “reorganize life in a different way,” said Biao Xiang, who studies social change in China and is director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.

Beyond criticizing the tech industry’s high-pressure work culture and the gig economy’s labor abuses, young Chinese people are more skeptical of the vast influence that internet platforms like Alibaba’s wield over commerce and finance. Still, Professor Xiang believes people in China have not turned against businesses that deliver technological advancements of a more tangible nature, which is why Mr. Musk’s industrial optimism still has appeal.

“They’re not really against tech,” Professor Xiang said. “They’re more against this kind of platform-style manipulation of social relations.”

China does not lack for outspoken tech tycoons. It’s just that their careers never seem to go very far without running into trouble.

There is Justin Sun, the cryptocurrency whiz who paid $4.6 million to dine with Warren E. Buffett but later apologized for “excessive self-promotion.” Or Jia Yueting, who set out to best Apple in smartphones and became buried in debt. Even Mr. Ma of Alibaba appears to have helped catalyze the government’s crackdown against him by speaking a little too frankly at an event about his annoyance with regulators.

Still, Mr. Musk’s devil-may-care style would probably attract little notice in China were he not seen as trying to tackle big problems for civilization like sustainable energy. In a country where most people have seen new technology bring about mostly vast improvements to their lives, there is less cynicism about the far future than in the West.

Young Chinese people see Jack Ma and Pony Ma, head of the social media giant Tencent, “more as rich men and successful businessmen” than as Musk-like visionaries, said Flex Yang, a co-founder of Babel Finance, a Hong Kong provider of financial services for cryptocurrencies.

The two Mas, who are not related, were merely “in the right place at the right time,” Mr. Yang said.

Jack Ma and Mr. Musk shared a stage at a Shanghai tech conference in 2019. There may never have been a more mismatched pair. Mr. Ma was earnest and engaged, at ease in the role of conference grandee. Mr. Musk was fidgety and jokey. The two did a great deal of talking right past each other. Mr. Ma said the answer to superintelligent machines was better education for humans. At this, Mr. Musk merely laughed.

In a compilation of awkward moments from the event posted on the video site Bilibili, the comments are brutal, mostly to Mr. Ma.

“This is the person who in China was once looked up to as a god,” one person wrote. “In the presence of a real master, he is like a performing monkey.”

Alibaba declined to comment.

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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries with palm scan

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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries using its parent company’s palm-scanning technology.

Amazon said Wednesday its palm-scanning system — currently used in about a dozen of its brick and mortar stores — will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the first of many planned rollouts at other locations.

The system uses Amazon One technology, which employs high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a “unique palm signature” based on the ridges, lines and veins in each person’s hand.

Its high-tech sensors don’t require users to touch the scanning surface, like Apple’s fingerprint technology does.

Instead, palm-reading tech uses computer vision and depth geometry to process and identify the shape and size of each hand they scan before charging a credit card on file.

Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The company said that the palm-scanning tech will be offered as just one of many payment options at participating Whole Foods Stores and that it won’t impact store employees’ job responsibilities.

“At Whole Foods Market, we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the shopping experience for our customers,” said Arun Rajan, senior vice president of technology and chief technology officer at Whole Foods Market.

Palm images used by Amazon One are encrypted and stored in a “highly secure” cloud, and customers can request to have their palm data deleted.

The company claims palm-scanning tech is more private than other biometric alternatives, such as facial recognition.

Amazon One builds on the “Just Walk Out” technology that Amazon uses in its Go stores, which detects the items shoppers pick up and charges them once they leave — without the need for a checkout line

Amazon is also planning to expand the cashier-less technology to Whole Foods, as reported by The Post.

Meanwhile, the tech could be good for its bottom line. The online behemoth aims to sell its palm-scanning tech to other companies like retailers, stadiums and office buildings.

Amazon One scanner
The scanner uses high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a unique palm signature which is then encrypted and stored in a secured cloud.
Amazon

Last September, it said it was in “active discussions with several potential customers.” But it is unclear if it has progressed on any of those fronts.

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Apple’s new iPad Pros and TV remote don’t have U1 locators to help find them in your couch

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Apple has been quietly sticking special locator beacon chips into some of its new iPhones that’ll let you unlock your car and find lost items through walls — the latter thanks to the $29 AirTags announced today — but sadly, you won’t find that chip in the new M1-based iPad Pros or the long-awaited new Siri remote for the Apple TV.

Apple confirmed to us that the U1 locator chip, which uses pulses of ultra-wideband (UWB) radio to broadcast its precise location, won’t appear in the Siri remote. We’re waiting on final bulletproof confirmation about the iPad Pros, but it also doesn’t appear in their product page, spec sheet, or press release. Last year’s iP ad Pros didn’t include a U1 chip, either.

Is Apple expecting us to stick AirTags to our iPads and TV remotes to escape the jaws of the ever-ravenous couch? Unlikely, but the company has been pretty choosey about which devices get the chip so far. You can find it in the iPhone 11 and newer (but not the iPhone SE) and the Apple Watch Series 6 (but not the Apple Watch SE), but we’re pretty sure it hasn’t made its way to any iPads or MacBooks that have been announced since the chip’s introduction in September 2019.

Theoretically, Apple could build an ecosystem where any Apple device can easily find any other Apple device (not to mention UWB devices from Samsung, which is also deeply invested in the tech and has its own AirTag-like device as well). But for now, you’ll primarily just be using your phone to find AirTags, not other gadgets, except perhaps your future car.

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Your iPhone has a completely hidden app. Here’s how to find and use it

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Apple’s iPhone is full of hidden features and tricks we’re constantly discovering. For instance, did you know the Notes app has a hidden document scanner? Yeah, pretty cool. The latest hidden feature that’s been popping up on Twitter and blogs is another type of scanner, dedicated to QR codes, and it’s better than the one built into the camera app.

Indeed, you would already be able to filter QR codes utilizing the easy route in Control Center, or simply open the camera application and it will check a QR code. Also, you’re correct. Both of those strategies turn out great. However, the committed Code Scanner application accepts the position above and beyond by introducing a greater amount of the data I need to see about an examined code.

For instance, the camera application utilizes a little notice at the highest point of the screen to open a connection or show you data, though the devoted Code Scanner application makes it exceptionally clear what’s inside the QR code you just checked. Yet, here’s the rub: The Code Scanner application isn’t found on your home screen, nor is it found in iOS 14’s new App Library.

As should be obvious, the best way to discover the Code Scanner application is to utilize the iPhone’s Spotlight search include. Go to your iPhone’s home screen and swipe down in the center of the screen. An inquiry bar will show up at the highest point of your screen, alongside application and alternate route ideas underneath. Type either code or scanner. As you type, you’ll see the Code Scanner application symbol appear as an application idea. Tap to open it.

The flashlight icon at the bottom of the screen acts as a flash to illuminate a code if your phone is struggling to read it.

If you don’t have the QR scanner shortcut added to Control Center yet, here’s a post showing you how to customize Control Center to your liking. For more hidden features, check out our list for iOS 14. We also cover more general, but useful features in iOS 14.

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