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Tech Executives Aren’t Fortune Tellers

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This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

People who work in technology are often incredibly smart. But that doesn’t necessarily make them accurate forecasters of human and social behavior.

This week, Airbnb’s chief executive said that he thought more people would hop between multiple homes when the pandemic ends. Mark Zuckerberg talked about his vision of people using goggles that read their minds. A co-founder of Stripe, the digital finance start-up, spoke about a range of things, including worker productivity metrics and the need for improved medical technology.

These were thought-provoking ideas, and successful tech executives have been right an awful lot.

But I am asking for a little more humility from technologists and a little more skepticism from the rest of us. Being really smart and overseeing products used by millions of people doesn’t make tech executives oracles. (That’s true even for the tech company named Oracle.)

As tech has become more enmeshed in our lives and the economy — and as tech founders have become red-carpet-worthy celebrities — people want to know what technologists think about … everything: the future of cities, education, health care, jobs and the environment. It makes sense. I want to hear what they think, too.

Seeing the activity of millions or billions of people and businesses gives technology companies insights that few others have. We want powerful corporate leaders to be thoughtful about the world. And technologists can turn their beliefs into our reality.

But like all of us, technologists have blind spots and biases. They can misjudge or opine on topics that they don’t really understand. And humans are not always good at understanding humans.

The problem, I fear, is that we too often associate running an innovative company with an ability to predict the future. And that can have real consequences if we build policy and our lives around what they say.

One of the most glaring examples was Uber’s proclamations that it would help alleviate traffic and pollution in major metropolitan areas and reduce the number of cars in the United States. In 2015, Uber’s co-founder Travis Kalanick described the future of his company: “Fewer cars, less congestion, more parking, less pollution and creating thousands of jobs.”

Research now shows that Uber and other on-demand ride services largely did the opposite. They made traffic in many cities worse, contributed to an increase in miles driven in the United States and pulled people from shared transit to solo cars.

Perhaps Kalanick and others who backed Uber’s vision of a less car-reliant country didn’t mean it. Maybe they just wanted to make Uber sound virtuous.

But more likely, the lesson here is that technologists often don’t foresee how people will respond to what they create. Zuckerberg now says that he didn’t anticipate that Facebook would empower authoritarians and create incentives for the most radical voices.

Some of the same promises that Uber was making a few years ago are now coming from companies working on computer-driven cars, fast trains and other transportation innovations. I’m excited about these ideas, but also mindful what happened to the original hope of the ride services.

That track record calls not for cynicism but for healthy doubt and self-criticism. We need more questions asked, both by the technology companies and the rest of us. We could start with: What makes you think that? What if you’re wrong? What might you be missing?

It might also help if technologists answered, “I don’t know,” when someone asks them to weigh in on China’s gross domestic product.

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I wrote in Wednesday’s newsletter about the blurry line between countries’ desire for technology self reliance and protectionism. Now I want to make the connection to undersea cables. (As regular On Tech readers know, I love boring technology.)

Most of us will never see the cables that run under oceans and seas, but a few hundred of these pipelines move nearly all international internet and telephone traffic around the world.

That makes the people and companies that control the undersea cables the masters of the internet. They wield choke points that could be abused to spy on what’s happening online or cut a country off from large swaths of the internet.

With that kind of power, these dull clusters of glass fibers are of great concern to governments.

You can see that in the tussle over a new undersea internet cable called Peace that is snaking from China to Pakistan and then underwater around Africa to France.

This cable is being built by Chinese companies, and U.S. security officials worry that Peace could be used by China’s government for sabotage or surveillance. France says the undersea link will help its economy, and it’s stuck in the middle between its American allies and China.

The Wall Street Journal also reported on Wednesday that a group led by Facebook dropped its plans to build a new internet cable between California and Hong Kong after months of pressure from U.S. national security officials. Again, the officials’ concern is that a physical link to Hong Kong — and China’s greater assertion of control over the island — could be a security risk.

The fights over undersea cables raise a messy question about technology in a fractured world: Is there a way to connect people without laying the foundation for security threats? Shared internet infrastructure has been essential to link the world, but it doesn’t work if countries doesn’t trust one another.


  • Two new technology stars: The video game beloved by tweens, Roblox, went public on Wednesday, my colleague Kellen Browning reported. (Fun aside: Reese Witherspoon doesn’t get Roblox.) My colleague Choe Sang-Hun also detailed how the newly public e-commerce giant Coupang has transformed South Korea’s always-connected, delivery-obsessed economy. Its couriers are now called “Coupang Friends.”

  • WANT TO FEEL FREAKED OUT? The Wall Street Journal reported on license plate scanners on tow trucks, garbage trucks, telephone poles, police cars, parking garages and more that routinely record billions of records of Americans’ travel. The license plate data has helped solve crimes, but there is little oversight over how the information is used.

  • I don’t understand any of this: A digital file by the artist Beeple sold for $69.3 million in a Christie’s auction. This is one of those “NFTs” that … yeah, just read the article. (Related: Erin Griffith wrote last month about the new mania for digital ephemera.)

Sidney the harbor seal was orphaned in California and now lives at a Brooklyn aquarium. Sidney loves playing fetch!


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

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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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