Cash in, cash out: Google could face billion-dollar fines in two court cases

UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Cash in, cash out Main image:  20160528_wbd002.jpg Rubric:  Other online giants will be watching closely, too THIS spring may go down as the most expensive season in Google’s history. On May 24th French prosecutors raided the firm’s Paris office to collect evidence as part of an investigation in pursuit of an estimated €1.6 billion ($1.8 billion) in back taxes. (The firm says it is co-operating fully.) The tech giant also faces two other, more costly legal imbroglios. As The Economist went to press, a jury in California was deliberating whether Google had used copyrighted material in Android, its mobile operating system, without a licence from the owner, Oracle. If guilty, Google may have to pay the software-maker up to $8 billion in compensation. And the European Commission will shortly announce its decision on whether the firm harms consumers by using its dominance in online search to steer them away from rival shopping-comparison services and towards its own. The commission may hit Google with a record fine of €3 ...

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Office communication: The Slack generation

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The war within Fly Title:  Office communication Location:  SAN FRANCISCO Main image:  20160514_WBD001_0.jpg Rubric:  How workplace messaging could replace other missives STEWART BUTTERFIELD, the boss of Slack, a messaging company, has been wonderfully unlucky in certain ventures. In 2002 he and a band of colleagues created an online-video game called “Game Neverending”. It never took off, but the tools they used to design it turned into Flickr, the web’s first popular photo-sharing website. Yahoo bought it in 2005 for a reported $35m. Four years later Mr Butterfield tried to create another online game, called Glitch. It flopped as well. But Mr Butterfield and his team developed an internal messaging system to collaborate on it, which became the basis for Slack. In Silicon Valley, such a change in strategy is called a “pivot”; anywhere else it is called good fortune. Today Slack is one of ...

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Quantum computing: Now try this

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Trump’s triumph Fly Title:  Quantum computing Main image:  A handful of qubits Rubric:  IBM is making a quantum computer available for anyone to play with A handful of qubits USING the rules of quantum mechanics to carry out computations far faster than any conventional machine can manage is an idea that goes back decades. It was proposed in the early 1980s, but was confined to the blackboards of theoreticians until the late 1990s, when experimentalists gave it life by building simple machines which proved that the equations on those blackboards worked in practice. Now it has bloomed into a corporate project. Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and IBM each have dedicated quantum-computing research groups. What quantum computing has not done, though, is make much impact on the outside world. And in some part that is because those quantum computers which do exist are still confined to laboratories. Only researchers have been able to tinker with them. Until ...

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Babbage: Will your surgeon be a robot?

UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Babbage Byline:  Economist.com Main image:  20160507_mma902_107.jpg Rubric:  Surgical operations become more akin to driverless cars. And users try out IBM's quantum computer Published:  20160504 Source:  Online extra Enabled

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Difference engine: The great computer stick-up

UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Difference engine Location:  LOS ANGELES Rubric:  Why ransomware is now the biggest online threat of all BE WARNED. Cybercrooks are changing their modus operandi and widening their nets for snagging the unwary. Now that banks, retailers and online services generally have started taking extra precautions to protect their customers’ data, online thieves have been focusing less on breaking into computer networks to pilfer credit-card details and the like. The most pernicious malware today immobilises an infected computer, encrypts its files and then demands a ransom to release them. If not paid within 12 hours or so, the computer’s content gets obliterated. To make sure the hapless victim gets the message, a bright red clock begins the count down. In America, the demand often appears to come from the Department of Justice (DoJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or some other official body, claiming the computer has been used for an illicit activity, and a “fine” has to be paid to avoid prosecution. Such ...

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Car emissions: Exhaustive analysis

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  How to measure prosperity Fly Title:  Car emissions Main image:  20160430_wbp504.jpg Rubric:  The gulf between test results and the real world widens CARMAKERS have two methods for dealing with the gases that belch from exhaust pipes. One is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide (NOx) and other nasties by spending heavily to develop cleaner engines. Another is to devise methods to game emissions-testing systems but keep polluting the atmosphere on the road. Volkswagen and Mitsubishi opted for the second method, using means illegal in some countries. But many other carmarkers bend the rules: after VW’s deception came to light, for instance, independent tests showed that across the board, official NOx figures in Europe were a far cry from expectations. This persistent gap between test results and what can be achieved in practice undercuts limits imposed by governments to curtail greenhouse gases and air pollution. Enforcement regimes are in ...

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The case against Google: Tie breaker

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Can she fix it? Fly Title:  The case against Google Rubric:  The EU’s case that Google has abused its dominance in mobile operating systems has merit TECH moguls look upon the European Commission with as much enthusiasm as does the average Tory MP from the English shires. Europe has no successful technology companies of its own, they whisper, which is why Eurocrats spend their time hassling American tech giants instead. Not for the first time Google finds itself in the commission’s crosshairs. This week, the head of the EU’s trustbusting division, Margrethe Vestager, issued charges against the internet-search firm (see article). Its “preliminary view” is that Google is guilty of unfairly using its control of Android, the operating system that powers over 80% of the world’s smartphones, as a means to get its apps and services preferred over those offered by rivals. Europe trying to protect its own? Perhaps. Nevertheless, Google has a case to answer. The commission’s claim has echoes of antitrust battles against Microsoft, ...

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Europe v Google: Android attack

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Can she fix it? Fly Title:  Europe v Google Main image:  20160423_wbd001.jpg Rubric:  The European Commission is going after Google again—this time with a better chance of success IN 2001—aeons ago in internet time—the European Commission sent a sternly worded missive to Microsoft. It accused the software maker of having illegally extended its dominance in operating systems for personal computers (PCs) into adjacent markets, for instance by tying Windows to programs that play music and videos. The legal action lasted more than a decade and took many turns, but Microsoft eventually had to unbundle its Windows monopoly from other software, in particular by giving consumers the choice of which web browser they want to use. On April 20th the commission presented Google, one of the brightest stars in the modern tech firmament, with a similar “statement of objections”, as the charge sheet in European Union (EU) antitrust cases is called. Google, it argues, ...

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The Economist explains: The difference between virtual and augmented reality

IF COMPUTING companies have their way, then 2016 will be the year in which virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)—two closely-related but very different technologies—become widely popular. Firms such as Facebook, Sony and Microsoft are getting ready to launch a raft of high-tech headsets designed either to layer computerised information on top of the real world, or to replace it entirely with a simulated, computer-generated alternative. What is the difference?Start with a film analogy. If virtual reality is "The Matrix", then augmented reality is "The Terminator". As the name suggests, the point of VR is to persuade users that they have entered an entirely new reality. The headsets—such as Sony's Morpheus, or Facebook's Oculus Rift—block out the surrounding world and, making use of an old trick called stereoscopy, show slightly different images of each to a user's eyes. That fools his brain into creating an illusion of depth, transforming the pair of images into a single experience of a fully three-dimensional world. Motion trackers, either mounted on the headset or externally, keep track of the users head, updating the view as he moves it around; optional hand controllers allow him to interact with virtual objects. The result is a reasonably convincing illusion of being somewhere else entirely. Augmented reality, by contrast, does not dispense with the real ...

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The Economist explains: Why firms are piling into artificial intelligence

SOMETIMES it is perceived as a figment of the far future. But artificial intelligence (AI) is today’s great obsession in Silicon Valley. Last year technology companies spent $8.5 billion on deals and investments in artificial intelligence, four times more than in 2010. Nearly all of the world’s technology giants, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Baidu, are competing fiercely to hire the best AI experts, snap up start-ups and pour money into research. What accounts for the tech elite’s sudden AI-phoria?The technology has not always been so popular. The field was largely ignored and underfunded during the “AI winter” of the 1980s and 1990s. At that time AI research conducted at universities proved to be disappointingly slow and irrelevant to companies’ bottom lines. Now, however, the chill is gone. Progress in AI is accelerating. Recently Google generated lots of headlines when DeepMind, a start-up it acquired in 2014, helped train a computer to repeatedly beat the world champion at Go, a board game. This has sparked both fear and hope for the future of AI: hope for fat profits and improving people’s lives through technology; fear about how society will cope with the dislocation AI could bring.  AI is already starting to generate big financial gains for companies, which helps explain firms’ growing investment in developing AI capabilities. ...

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Artificial intelligence : Million-dollar babies 

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Beware the cult of Xi Fly Title:  Artificial intelligence  Location:  SAN FRANCISCO Main image:  20160402_WBD001_0.jpg Rubric:  As Silicon Valley fights for talent, universities struggle to hold on to their stars THAT a computer program can repeatedly beat the world champion at Go, a complex board game, is a coup for the fast-moving field of artificial intelligence (AI). Another high-stakes game, however, is taking place behind the scenes, as firms compete to hire the smartest AI experts. Technology giants, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Baidu, are racing to expand their AI activities. Last year they spent some $8.5 billion on deals, says Quid, a data firm. That was four times more than in 2010.  In the past universities employed the world’s best AI experts. Now tech firms are plundering departments ...

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Software engineering: Of more than academic interest

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The new normal Fly Title:  Software engineering Location:  Oxford Main image:  20160326_std501.jpg Rubric:  Professors’ unprofessional programs have created a new profession SOME programmers call it “spaghetti code”. Though error-strewn, it works—most of the time. It is likely to have been written in an out-of-date language, possibly more than one of them. It has grown by accretion, as different graduate students and postdocs, many long since departed to other institutions, have tweaked it, fixed it and patched it. And it is, of course, unannotated, so nobody really knows what is going on inside it. In the rarefied atmosphere of academia, where enthusiasm is all and budgets are tight, that is generally good enough. For commercial applications, though, it is intolerable. Yet academic spaghetti code frequently contains commercially useful ideas that might be sold to outside companies or ...

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Quantum computing: Harnessing weirdness

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Double, double, toil and trouble Fly Title:  Quantum computing Main image:  20160312_TQD005_0.jpg Rubric:  Quantum computers could offer a giant leap in speed—but only for certain applications THE D-Wave 2X is a black box, 3.3 metres to a side, that looks a bit like a shorter, squatter version of the enigmatic monoliths from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Its insides, too, are intriguing. Most of the space, says Colin Williams, D-Wave’s director of business development, is given over to a liquid-helium refrigeration system designed to cool it to 0.015 Kelvin, only a shade above the lowest temperature that is physically possible. Magnetic shielding protects the chip at the machine’s heart from ripples and fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. Such high-tech coddling is necessary because the D-Wave 2X is no ordinary machine; it is one of the world’s first commercially available quantum computers. In fact, it is not a full-blown computer in the ...

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New designs: Taking it to another dimension

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Double, double, toil and trouble Fly Title:  New designs Main image:  20160312_TQD003_0.jpg Rubric:  How to get more out of existing transistors STRICTLY speaking, Moore’s law is about the ever greater number of electronic components that can be crammed onto a given device. More generally, though, it is used as shorthand for saying that computers are always getting better. As transistors become harder and harder to shrink, computing firms are starting to look at making better use of the transistors they already have. “Managers in the past wouldn’t want to invest a lot in intensive design,” says Greg Yeric at ARM. “I think that’s going to start shifting.” One way is to make the existing chips work harder. Computer chips have a master clock; every time it ticks, the transistors within switch on or off. The faster the clock, the faster the chip can carry out instructions. Increasing clock rates has been the main way of making chips faster over the past 40 ...

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Health care: Things are looking app

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The future of computing Fly Title:  Health care Main image:  20160312_WBD001_0.jpg Rubric:  Mobile health apps are becoming more capable and potentially rather useful SAVILE ROW in London is best known for producing some of the world’s finest bespoke suits. But tucked away in a quiet corner of the same street is a firm that gives tailored health advice through a smartphone app. Your.MD uses artificial intelligence to understand natural-language statements such as “I have a headache” and ask pertinent follow-up questions. The app typifies a new approach to mobile health (also known as m-health): it is intelligent, personalised and gets cleverer as it gleans data from its users. There are now around 165,000 health-related apps which run on one or other of the two main smartphone operating systems, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. PwC, a consulting firm, forecasts that by 2017 such apps will have been downloaded 1.7 billion times. However, the app economy is ...

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Artificial intelligence and Go: Showdown

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The future of computing Fly Title:  Artificial intelligence and Go Location:  Seoul Main image:  20160312_std001_0.jpg Rubric:  Win or lose, a computer program’s contest against a professional Go player is another milestone in AI UPDATE Mar 12th 2016: AlphaGo has won the third game against Lee Sedol, and has thus won the five-game match. TWO : NIL to the computer. That was the score, as The Economist went to press, in the latest round of the battle between artificial intelligence (AI) and the naturally evolved sort. The field of honour is a Go board in Seoul, South Korea—a country that cedes to no one, least of all its neighbour Japan, the title of most Go-crazy place on the planet. To the chagrin of many Japanese, who think of Go as theirs in the same way that the English think of cricket, the game’s best player is generally reckoned to be Lee Sedol, a South Korean. But not, perhaps, for ...

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Babbage: The future of computing

UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Babbage Byline:  Economist.com Main image:  20160312_mma904_107.jpg Rubric:  In a milestone for artificial intelligence, a program designed to play the ancient Asian game of Go has won the first of its five games against a human champion. It's an example of how smarter software, not just more powerful hardware, will drive progress in the computer industry in the future Published:  20160309 Source:  Online extra Enabled

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Privacy and security: Code to ruin?

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The real danger of Brexit Fly Title:  Privacy and security Main image:  20160227_LDD003_0.jpg Rubric:  The rights and wrongs of Apple’s fight with the FBI CITIZENS have a right to both security and privacy. The difficulties arise when these two rights are in conflict, as they now are in the battle between the world’s most valuable company and its most famous law-enforcement agency. Apple has refused to comply with a court order to help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the terrorists involved in the San Bernardino shootings in December. The company says the government’s request fundamentally compromises the privacy of its users; the feds say that Apple’s defiance jeopardises the safety of Americans (see article). Some frame the stand-off in terms of the rule of law: Apple cannot pick and choose which rules it will obey, they say. That is both true and beside the point. The firm has the right to appeal against a court order; if it ...

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Obituary: Marvin Minsky: Mind and machine

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The right way to do drugs Fly Title:  Obituary: Marvin Minsky Main image:  20160213_OBP002_0.jpg Rubric:  Marvin Minsky, pioneer of artificial intelligence, died on January 24th, aged 88 WHEN he was doing something—simulating on paper how a computer might solve one of Euclid’s theorems, say—Marvin Minsky often found himself improvising a nice little tune. He could only do that, though, if his hands were open. Why was that? Sometimes he could just sit down at the piano and play, out of his head, an original fugue. How? If he merely wanted to rearrange the imposing row of stuffed cows, dinosaurs and Ninja Turtles behind his sofa, his brain would whirr through millions of anecdotes, analogies, histories, possibilities and smidgens of common sense before settling on the line-up he perceived as “best”. Nothing was so fascinating as human intelligence. Physics, which he excelled at, was quite profound, but intelligence struck him as “hopelessly” so, an immense ...

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Artificial intelligence: Computer says Go

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  The brawl begins Fly Title:  Artificial intelligence Main image:  Did you learn that from AlphaGo? Rubric:  Beating a Go champion with machine learning Did you learn that from AlphaGo? IN 1996 IBM challenged Garry Kasparov to a game of chess against one of its computers, Deep Blue. Mr Kasparov, regarded as one of the best-ever players, won—but Deep Blue won the rematch. Two decades on, computers are much better than humans at chess but remain amateurs when it comes to the much tougher, ancient game of Go. Or at least, they did. Now a computer has managed to thrash a top-drawer human player. The computer used a program, called AlphaGo, developed by DeepMind, a London-based artificial intelligence (AI) company bought by Google in 2014 for $400m. It took on Fan Hui, European Go champion, beating him 5-0, according to a report in Nature. Beating a champion at Go has long been considered a “grand challenge” in AI research, for the game is far harder for ...

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Counter-terrorism: Shrinking the haystack

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Migrant men and European women Fly Title:  Counter-terrorism Main image:  20160116_STP004_0.jpg Rubric:  Software is helping the search for guerrillas’ and terrorists’ safe houses and weapons caches WHEN selecting a base for preparing attacks, jihadists should choose flats that are on the ground floor, hard to peer into, not near government buildings and unsecluded in a newly built neighbourhood. So advises “Declaration of Jihad Against the Country’s Tyrants”, an al-Qaeda manual found in Manchester in 2000. Flats conforming to these specifications make it easier to dig secret storage areas under the floor, to melt away into the city and to avoid attention from neighbours who, were they longtime residents, might take a greater interest in newcomers. Thanks to the clever use of software, tips from this and other manuals obtained by intelligence agencies are proving increasingly valuable to counter-terrorist forces deployed both in the West and abroad. ...

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Digital crystal balls: Tech pundits’ tenuous but intriguing prognostications about 2016 and beyond

UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Digital crystal balls Main image:  20160102_wbp515.jpg Rubric:  The advent of robo-adviser and robo-boss PREDICTIONS are hard, especially about the future, goes the adage. They may be hardest in digital technology, where the next big thing can come out of nowhere. Even so, market-research firms, big and small, stick their necks out at the end of each year on where the technology industry is headed. Inevitably, there is a great deal of inscrutable geekspeak in their reports. But with a bit of translation they add up to a useful picture of the prospects for the IT industry, and the businesses that buy its products and services. IDC, one of the biggest such research firms, was early in identifying the shift to what it calls the “third platform”. The first platform for IT was the mainframe computer—a big, centralised processor with lots of dumb terminals connected to it. The second platform, which became dominant in the early 1990s, was the client-server model, in which processing power was divided between more slimline ...

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Companies’ investment plans: From diggers to data centres

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Brazil’s fall Fly Title:  Companies’ investment plans Rubric:  Computers, research and software will be the big-ticket items in 2016 THERE have been three great waves of corporate investment in the past two decades. First came the dotcom splurge of 1997-2001, when cash was poured into building mobile-phone networks and the internet’s backbone. Then there was the emerging-market frenzy of 2003-10. Western firms threw about $2 trillion into factories and other facilities in places like China and India. In 2005-13 there was a craze for commodities, partly driven by insatiable Chinese demand. Global energy and metals firms spent $6 trillion digging in the Australian outback and drilling for oil in North Dakota and deep beneath Brazil’s coastal waters. The dotcom boom turned to bust, emerging markets are now in poor shape and commodity prices have slumped in the past year (costing some firms’ bosses their jobs—see article). So where are companies looking to invest now? A new study by Hugo Scott-Gall, of Goldman Sachs, a bank, ...

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Internet security: When back doors backfire

UK Only Article:  standard article Issue:  Brazil’s fall Fly Title:  Internet security Main image:  20160102_LDD002_0.jpg Rubric:  Some spy agencies favour “back doors” in encryption software, but who will use them? WITHOUT encryption, internet traffic might as well be written on postcards. So governments, bankers and retailers encipher their messages, as do terrorists and criminals. For spy agencies, cracking methods of encryption is therefore a priority. Using computational brute force is costly and slow, because making codes is far easier than breaking them. One alternative is to force companies to help the authorities crack their customers’ encryption, the thrust of a new law just passed in China and a power that Western spy agencies also covet. Another option is to open “back doors”: flaws in software or hardware which make it possible to guess or steal the encryption keys. Such back doors can be the result of programming mistakes, built by design (with the co-operation of the encryption ...

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Faith’s archivists: Hand-written to hard disk

UK Only Article:  standard article Fly Title:  Faith’s archivists Byline:  The Economist.com Main image:  20151219_mmv90_107.jpg Rubric:  The Benedictine monks in Minnesota began backing up the world’s ancient Christian texts during the Cold War. Today, they are preserving the Islamic manuscripts of Timbuktu Published:  20151216 Source:  Online extra Enabled

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