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Our Automated Future

The New Yorker

There are many accounts of the genesis of Watson. The most popular, which is not necessarily the most accurate--and this is the sort of problem that Watson himself often stumbled on--begins in 2004, at a steakhouse near Poughkeepsie. One evening, an I.B.M. executive named Charles Lickel was having dinner there when he noticed that the tables around him had suddenly emptied out. Instead of finishing their sirloins, his fellow-diners had rushed to the bar to watch "Jeopardy!" This was deep into Ken Jennings's seventy-four-game winning streak, and the crowd around the TV was rapt.


Google's Software Sell for Hardware

The New Yorker

This is because the companies that make popular hardware, like Samsung and Apple, get to decide which software comes pre-loaded onto their devices. But there's little to keep hardware companies from creating their own competing software; Samsung, a major producer of phones that use Google's Android operating system, recently started embedding phones with its own Samsung Pay mobile-wallet software, a direct competitor to Google's similar Android Pay. That helps explain Pichai's opening move: to make the case that Google has any business designing devices, he started by trying to convince his audience that what makes hardware valuable is the software within it--which just happens to be Google's area of expertise. But the company's success in selling people on devices will depend at least as much on style as on substance.


Werner Herzog's Internet Visionaries

The New Yorker

Werner Herzog's films have a common theme: they're about visionaries and dreamers. Sometimes his dreamers accomplish the impossible: he's made two films, for example--"Little Dieter Needs to Fly" and "Rescue Dawn"--about the American pilot Dieter Dengler, who escaped from a Laotian P.O.W. camp and, for twenty-three days, hiked barefoot through the jungle until he reached freedom. But Herzog is also fascinated by delusional dreamers. At the end of his 1972 film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," the conquistador Aguirre stands on a raft in the Amazon. He's been searching, fruitlessly, for El Dorado; now all his men are dead, and he's speaking only to their corpses and some monkeys.


LinkedIn's Complicated Bet on the Future of Work

The New Yorker

LinkedIn, the business-oriented social-networking company that Microsoft acquired, this week, for 26.2 billion, was founded on two premises. The first was that, even in the winner-take-all world of Internet businesses, there would still be room for a niche company (meaning, in this case, only four hundred million registered users, and a hundred million users per month). The second was that what it means to work in a business is now profoundly different from what it was in the Organization Man era. White-collar employees are highly unlikely to spend a lifetime with a single employer, and more and more are not employees at all in the traditional sense. They self-manage their careers, in part by maintaining online personal networks, rather than have them managed by a corporate human-relations department.


Why Microsoft Wanted LinkedIn

The New Yorker

Microsoft's announcement, on Monday, that it would purchase LinkedIn--its biggest acquisition ever, at more than twenty-six billion dollars--brought to mind an earlier takeover attempt, almost a decade ago. Back in the mid-aughts, Microsoft's C.E.O. at the time, Steve Ballmer, flew to Palo Alto to try to convince Mark Zuckerberg, the young C.E.O. of Facebook, to let Microsoft buy his company. During Facebook's first couple of years, bigger companies had dismissed it, and social networking in general, as a fad for college kids; Zuckerberg had even admitted that he didn't care how Facebook would eventually make money. But Ballmer, who wanted to catch up to Google in the online-advertising business, was beginning to see Facebook's power. People were signing up for accounts in extraordinary numbers.


Google's Relationship with Payday Loans: It's Complicated

The New Yorker

"Don't be evil," Google's two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, famously proclaimed in the manifesto they published just before their company went public, in 2004. Avoiding evil suggested a pretty low bar, but the vow itself--along with the founders' boast that "our business practices are beyond reproach"--was an invitation to find contrary examples. There have been plenty of nominations, including the announcement, in 2012, that Google would track its customers' Gmail missives, Web searches, and YouTube usage, which had the effect of helping advertisers target potential customers. Google still scans e-mail and tracks Web searches. This is, in fact, its business model--your Gmail account and search cost no money; you pay for it by letting people advertise to you based on keywords used in searches and e-mails.


The Life Biz

The New Yorker

"Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business" (Random House) is Charles Duhigg's follow-up to his best-selling "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," which was published in 2012. The new book, like its predecessor, has a format that's familiar in contemporary nonfiction: exemplary tales interpolated with a little social and cognitive science. The purpose of the tales is to create entertaining human-interest narratives; the purpose of the science is to help the author pick out a replicable feature of those narratives for readers to emulate. What enabled the pilot to land the badly damaged plane? How did the academic dropout with anxiety disorder become a champion poker player?