Technology

This has been the year of Uber. “Everyone is starting to worry about being Ubered,” Maurice Lévy, chief executive of advertising group Publicis, told the Financial Times this week. The sharing economy in which online platforms co-ordinate hundreds of thousands of freelancers to drive cabs, rent rooms (Airbnb), clean laundry (Washio) and perform other services has arrived.

Any good consultant can produce a report giving the answer the client prefers, and Kevin Mandia, the man hired by Sony’s film studio to investigate its embarrassing hacking attack, did so this week. Michael Lynton, Sony Pictures’ chief executive, emailed his staff Mr Mandia’s assessment that it was “an unparalleled and well-planned crime” involving “undetectable” malware.

Watson, the IBM supercomputer named after the company’s visionary founder, is probably best known for pummelling formidable human contestants on the US quiz show Jeopardy! Watson’s spectacular performance showed off its ability to master natural language, one of the thorniest challenges in computing.

But that was nearly four years ago and IBM’s showcase cognitive computing system is no longer playing games. The supercomputer, now sleeker and faster, is being put to myriad clever uses, from treating cancer to providing sophisticated advisory services for banks.

One obvious question that arises from this is, will systems like Watson put a lot of people out of work?

This was posed to Brad Becker, chief design officer for IBM, in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, the journal of the business school of the same name. Read more

Lucy Kellaway

Twitter's Anthony Noto (Getty)

On Monday, Anthony Noto, the CFO of Twitter got into a shocking muddle and sent what was meant to be a direct message as a tweet to all his followers.

It said “I think we should buy them. He is on your schedule for Dec 15 or 16 — we will need to sell him. i have a plan.” Chaos ensued. The tweet was swiftly removed – but not before everyone got terrifically excited about it. Lots of people are now trying to work out which company it is that Twitter is so keen to buy. Other pieces are saying that the balls-up by the CFO is proof that Twitter’s technology is too clunky, and that explains why it isn’t growing as fast as it might.

Maybe; what interests me about the blunder is something else. Something far more cheering. Read more

If you have ever attended an innovation conference, you will be familiar with consultants’ graphs that show how, say, the second half of the 21st century will belong to African millennials relentlessly networking via wearable mobile devices. But what has struck me recently is not so much the extraordinary potential of the future, but the extent to which innovators draw on ingredients from the present and the past.

Some years ago, I was feeling anxious and went to talk to a psychiatrist. After I had explained my worries and how I felt like responding, he paused for thought and asked: “Have you considered doing nothing?

Andrew Hill

Joanna Shields, chair of Tech City UK  © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

When the first dotcom bubble burst, one theory that did the rounds in New York, where I was working, was that such a scarring experience would deter a whole generation of 20-somethings from ever becoming entrepreneurs.

But Joanna Shields, the UK’s ambassador for digital industries, puts a different spin on the aftermath of the dotcom bust. The US – and specifically Silicon Valley – profited from the experience of failure, she says, while innovation and entrepreneurialism in the UK took a hit from which the country is only now recovering. Read more

Emma Jacobs

Image: Dreamstime

The next Machine Age will not just augur job losses and the transformation of some professions. The future could be a lot worse. It may also let loose an army of needy robots.

This week, the MIT Technology Review described a new generation of Cobots – collaborative robots – made by a team under Manuela Veloso, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. These are autonomous intelligent mobile robots capable of performing service tasks and interacting with humans.

The robot is as polite as Star Wars’ C-3PO but there the similarities end. It has no arms and no legs. In fact, the article describes it as “a laptop and a cluster of sensors sitting atop a wheeled bar-stool”.

Unfailingly civil; it also turns out to be demanding of its human co-workers’ attention. Prof Veloso maintains that it is hard to program a robot to decode conversation but it can understand simple instructions. Therefore, when it has run out of tasks it will nag the nearest human. If that does not work, it will send out an office-wide email asking for assistance. Read more

Taylor Swift, the singer-songwriter, has removed her entire catalogue from Spotify, the music streaming service founded in Sweden. Ms Swift’s new album 1989 sold nearly 1.3m copies in the US this week, and she has written that: “Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.”

John Gapper

Traditionally, one thing upon which the British could rely was that they never heard anything about, or from, the security services, apart from in James Bond films. That has changed. First, Sir John Sawers, the new head of MI6, has Lunch with the FT and now Robert Hannigan, left, the new head of GCHQ, has written an op-ed for the paper.

Apart from indicating that the FT has become the communications channel of choice for British spies, it shows that the security services have decided that it is no longer enough to fight in the shadows. They have to get their message across loudly, in parliament and in public. Read more

Emma Jacobs

The worst-kept secret is out: Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, is gay.

“For years, I’ve been open with many people about my sexual orientation,” he wrote in an article for Bloomberg Businessweek. “Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I’m gay, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the way they treat me. Of course, I’ve had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences. Not everyone is so lucky. Read more

John Gapper

There is something peculiarly impressive about the video below of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, talking in Mandarin to students at Tsinghua University in Beijing. If nothing else, it shows a dedication to the country’s customs that very few foreign business leaders can match.

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If you are wondering where your transformational merger is going wrong, you may want to look in the toilets. After Lenovo bought IBM’s personal computer business in 2005, the Chinese company replaced traditional squat toilets in its Beijing headquarters with western-style sit-down bowls to put non-Chinese colleagues and customers at ease.

Technology has its eyes on banking. Apple is expected this week to launch Apple Pay, its touchless payment system for iPhones; venture capital funds are pouring money into “fintech” start-ups; and Marc Andreessen, the technology entrepreneur, talks of “a chance to rebuild the system. Financial transactions are just numbers; it’s just information.”

Andrew Hill

Drones are a useful tool for delivering flags to football pitches, as Albania’s supporters demonstrated on Tuesday night during their national team’s match against Serbia, but they remain an extreme option for same-day parcel delivery. Click-and-collect is the mundane but potentially disruptive approach favoured in the UK – an approach that Amazon, predictably, is about to take to the next level.

 Read more