Posts with «author_name|andrew tarantola» label

Hitting the Books: How Amazon's aggressive R&D push made it an e-commerce behemoth

Amazon is the Standard Oil of the 21st century. Its business operations and global reach dwarf those of virtually every other company on the planet — and exceed the GDP of more than a few countries — illustrating the vital importance innovation has on the modern economy. In his latest book, The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society, author Azeem Azhar examines how the ever-increasing pace of technological progress is impacting, influencing — and often rebuilding — our social, political and economic mores from the ground up.

Diversion Books

Excerpted from The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society by Azeem Azhar. Copyright © 2021 Azeem Azhar. Printed with permission of the publisher, Diversion Books. All rights reserved.


In 2020, Amazon turned twenty-six years old. Over the previous quarter of a century, the company had transformed shopping. With retail revenues in excess of $213 billion, it was larger than Germany’s Schwarz Gruppe, America’s Costco, and every British retailer. Only America’s Walmart, with more than half a trillion dollars of sales, was bigger. But Amazon was, by this time, far and away the world’s largest online retailer. Its online business was about eight times larger than Walmart’s. Amazon was more than just an online shop, however. Its huge operations in areas such as cloud computing, logistics, media, and hardware added a further $172 billion in sales.

At the heart of Amazon’s success is an annual research and development budget that reached a staggering $36 billion in 2019, and which is used to develop everything from robots to smart home assistants. This sum leaves other companies — and many governments — behind. It is not far off the UK government’s annual budget for research and development. The entire US government’s federal R&D budget for 2018 was only $134 billion. 

Amazon spent more on R&D in 2018 than the US National Institutes of Health. Roche, the global pharmaceutical company renowned for its investment in research, spent a mere $12 billion in R&D in 2018. Meanwhile Tesco, the largest retailer in Britain — with annual sales in excess of £50 billion (approximately $70 billion) — had a research lab whose budget was in the “six figures” in 2016.

Perhaps more remarkable is the rate at which Amazon grew this budget. Ten years earlier, Amazon’s research budget was $1.2 billion. Over the course of the next decade, the firm increased its annual R&D budget by about 44 percent every year. As the 2010s went on, Amazon doubled down on its investments in research. In the words of Werner Vogels, the firm’s chief technology officer, if they stopped innovating they “would be out of business in ten to fifteen years.”

In the process, Amazon created a chasm between the old world and the new. The approach of traditional business was to rely on models that succeeded yesterday. They were based on a strategy that tomorrow might be a little different, but not markedly so.

This kind of linear thinking, rooted in the assumption that change takes decades and not months, may have worked in the past—but not anymore. Amazon understood the nature of the Exponential Age. The pace of change was accelerating; the companies that could harness the technologies of the new era would take off. And those that couldn’t keep up would be undone at remarkable speed.

This divergence between the old and the new is one example of what I call the “exponential gap.” On the one hand, there are technologies that develop at an exponential pace—and the companies, institutions, and communities that adapt to or harness those developments. On the other, there are the ideas and norms of the old world. The companies, institutions, and communities that can only adapt at an incremental pace. These get left behind—and fast.

The emergence of this gap is a consequence of exponential technology. Until the early 2010s, most companies assumed the cost of their inputs would remain pretty similar from year to year, perhaps with a nudge for inflation. The raw materials might fluctuate based on commodity markets, but their planning processes, institutionalized in management orthodoxy, could manage such volatility. But in the Exponential Age, one primary input for a company is its ability to process information. One of the main costs to process that data is computation. And the cost of computation didn’t rise each year; it declined rapidly. The underlying dynamics of how companies operate had shifted.

In Chapter 1, we explored how Moore’s Law amounts to a halving of the underlying cost of computation every couple of years. It means that every ten years, the cost of the processing that can be done by a computer will decline by a factor of one hundred. But the implications of this process stretch far beyond our personal laptop use—and far beyond the interests of any one laptop manufacturer.

In general, if an organization needs to do something that uses computation, and that task is too expensive today, it probably won’t be too expensive in a couple of years. For companies, this realization has deep significance. Firms that figured out that the effective price of computation was declining, even if the notional price of what they were buying was staying the same (or even rising), could plan, practice, and experiment with the near future in mind. Even if those futuristic activities were expensive now, they would become affordable soon enough. Organizations that understood this deflation, and planned for it, became well-positioned to take advantage of the Exponential Age.

If Amazon’s early recognition of this trend helped transform it into one of the most valuable companies in history, they were not alone. Many of the new digital giants—from Uber to Alibaba, Spotify to TikTok—took a similar path. And following in their footsteps were firms who understand how these processes apply in other sectors. The bosses at Tesla understood that the prices of electric vehicles might decline on an exponential curve, and launched the electric vehicle revolution. The founders of Impossible Foods understood how the expensive process of precision fermentation (which involves genetically modified microorganisms) would get cheaper and cheaper. Executives at space companies like Spire and Planet Labs understood this process would drive down the cost of putting satellites in orbit. Companies that didn’t adapt to exponential technology shifts, like much of the newspaper publishing industry, didn’t stand a chance.

We can visualize the gap by returning to our now-familiar exponential curve. As we’ve seen, individual technologies develop according to an S-curve, which begins by roughly following an exponential trajectory. And as we’ve seen, it starts off looking a bit humdrum. In those early days, exponential change is distinctly boring, and most people and organizations ignore it. At this point in the curve, the industry producing an exponential technology looks exciting to those in it, but like a backwater to everyone else. But at some point, the line of exponential change crosses that of linear change. Soon it reaches an inflection point. That shift in gear, which is both sudden and subtle, is hard to fathom. 

Because, for all the visibility of exponential change, most of the institutions that make up our society follow a linear trajectory. Codified laws and unspoken social norms; legacy companies and NGOs; political systems and intergovernmental bodies—all have only ever known how to adapt incrementally. Stability is an important force within institutions. In fact, it’s built into them.

The gap between our institutions’ capacity to change and our new technologies’ accelerating speed is the defining consequence of our shift into the Exponential Age. On the one side, you have the new behaviors, relationships, and structures that are enabled by exponentially improving technologies, and the products and services built from them. On the other, you have the norms that have evolved or been designed to suit the needs of earlier configurations of technology. The gap leads to extreme tension. In the Exponential Age, this divergence is ongoing—and it is everywhere.

Infiniti will offer CarPlay as a free upgrade to 'most' 2020 and 2021 models

Apple CarPlay has become commonplace since its Ferrari FF debut back in 2014 and has finally arrived for the Infiniti brand. The Japanese automaker announced earlier this spring that the 2022 QX80, Q50, Q60 and Q60 SUV would be the first models to come equipped with the content streaming and navigation service. But what about the folks who already bought this year's model? Turns out they're getting it too. 

Infiniti announced on Thursday that it will offer CarPlay to 2020 and 2021 QX80, Q50, Q60 and Q60 SUV owners as a free upgrade. All Infiniti owners need to do is head on over to their local dealership and hang out for about an hour as technicians install and update the necessary software. But don't dawdle, the upgrade service is only available through March 31, 2022.

Ford's Mach-E GT is an American muscle car for the 21st century

Sunlight filters down through towering pines, dappling the “grabber blue” skin of my Ford Mach-E GT as it gallops along Highway 1, heedless trivialities like “defensive driving technique” and “speed limits.” Irma Thomas is crooning through the 9-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system, her rendition of Time is On My Side a stark contrast to the simulated auditory roar of the GT’s twin permanent-magnet motors as the accelerator pedal slaps against the floorboard. Pouring on speed, I finally see what all the Mach-E fuss was about.

Ok so here’s the part of the story where I eat a big plate of crow. When I reviewed the Mach-E base model back in February I found it to be a perfectly serviceable EV, but more akin to similarly-shaped electric SUVs like the Kia Niro or the Volkswagen ID.4 than the venerated muscle cars I hung posters of in my childhood bedroom. Sure, the pony I drove had plenty of get-up-and-go — EVs are torquey that way — but it never rumbled the depths of my bowels like a naturally aspirated 4-barrel V8 could. The Mach-E GT does. Switch over to the performance-forward Unbridled power management mode — or Unbridled Extend, which optimizes traction and stability control and is great for lapping ICE owners on track day — and the Mach-E GT will haul more ass than a secret lab overflowing with butt monsters. Stomp on the gas in the 480 horsepower, 600 ft-pound torque GT and this thing will loosen your fillings. Do so in the uber-torqued GT Performance edition and you’re liable to swallow a few teeth.

Engadget

It won’t be difficult to spot the GT and Performance editions on the street. I mean, if the prominent GT badge on the rear liftgate and illuminated Mustang icon on the front grille don’t give it away, both iterations sit about 10 mm lower than the base model and have added styling on the front facia. You’ll also be able to spot them via their wheels as both the GT and the Performance sport unique 20-inch rims (as opposed to the 18s and 19s offered on the base) rocking 245/45R20 Continental all-season tires and fire engine red Brembo brake calipers. On the interior, however, the GT is practically identical to the base model, save for the seats which offer added cushioning and lateral support as there is a better than not chance you’re going to get sideways within the first week of owning one.

As for driving performance, I’m a bit torn. Nostalgia, as I’ve explained previously, is a hell of a drug and my fondest automotive memories stem from tearing up San Francisco’s streets in a 65 outfitted with a drag racing suspension and a T-10 3-speed, which has deeply biased my understanding of what to expect from the Mach-E. It is, honestly, difficult to reconcile in my head that the Mustang is now an SUV and, despite its overwhelming power, still largely drives like one. Give me a straight shot like, say, that length of highway 101 running through Silva Island towards Larkspur and the GT can, will, and very much did beat the pants off of any Tesla on the freeway as well as one overly confident, tailgating Supra.

Engadget

The tight, twisting turns of Highway 1, especially the un-railed cliffside sections where a mistimed tap of the accelerator would fly you clear off a 100-plus foot drop, were a different matter entirely. You can feel the understeer, despite it being an AWD, as well as the GT’s 4,600 pounds of curb weight through hairpin turns. But again it’s an SUV, that’s to be expected — even from one with a sub-4 0-60. The GT’s MagneRide suspension — which leverages magneto-rheological fluid to stiffen the ride on demand — shined through during those slaloming sections. Even though the wide-bodied GT wallows like a pig in mud through sharp curves, not once did I have to fight the vehicle’s body roll when entering turns.

The GT starts at $59,900, boasts 480 peak horsepower, 600 lb.-ft. of torque with a 0-60 mph time of 3.8 seconds and an estimated 270 mile range. The GT Performance edition, on the other hand, starts at $64,900, with the same amount of horsepower but a full 634 lb.-ft. of torque and a 3.5 second 0-60 and 260 miles of range. Those figures put the Mach-E GT on par with the Chevy Bolt and VW ID.4 in terms of drivable distance, though the Mustang outclasses them both in terms of driving excitement.

Engadget

Range anxiety wasn’t much of a concern during my test drive thanks to the Mach-E’s connected navigation system which continually monitors the vehicle’s battery levels and points out available charging stations along the drive route. What’s more, Ford is offering two years of complimentary use of its Blue Oval Charge Network. For those drivers who wish to do their charging at home, Ford’s Connected Charging station can add 30 miles per charging hour on a 240V outlet while the included mobile charging cord can impart 20 miles of range per hour using a similar 240V outlet.

Deliveries for both the GT and the GT Performance edition have already begun.

Hitting the Books: How Los Angeles became a 'Freewaytopia'

Some 515 miles of freeway snake through greater Los Angeles, connecting its 10 million residents from Sylmar in the north all the way down to the shores of San Pedro. Since the opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, have proven vital to the region but their construction has not come without significant social costs — neighborhoods razed, residents displaced, entire communities cleaved in twain by the sprawling transportation infrastructure. In his latest book, Freewaytopia: How Freeways Shaped Los Angeles, author Paul Haddad takes readers on a whirlwind tour through the history and lore of Los Angeles' sprawling highway system. In the excerpt below, we take a look at the 110 Harbor Freeway where the first live traffic updates via helicopter took place.

Santa Monica Press

©2021 Santa Monica Press


Over the next four years, the Harbor Freeway began to coalesce. Press alerts went out with each new off-ramp as they came online: Olympic. Washington. Slauson. Almost all were accompanied by the kind of theatricality that defined the era. One of the dedications featured a shapely model named Ann Bradford, who wore a sash emblazoned with the words “Miss Freeway Link”—certainly one of the clunkier female honorifics dreamed up by a Chamber of Commerce. Even the freeway’s old nemesis, Kenneth Hahn, couldn’t resist attending the 124th Street opening. At the ribbon-cutting on September 25, 1958, Hahn boasted that the freeway—now stretching ten miles—was already L.A.’s second-busiest after the Hollywood Freeway. When it’s completed, he said, it will carry more traffic than “any street, highway, or freeway in the world.”

The Harbor Freeway’s immense popularity—even in unfinished form—did come with some growing pains for motorists. The Downtown section proved to be a confusing lattice of bridges and ramps that required quick lane changes and sudden start-stops. As anyone who has merged from the Hollywood Freeway onto the southbound Harbor Freeway can attest, the maneuver requires a “Frogger”-like thread of the needle through three lanes of traffic within a quarter of a mile, lest you find yourself involuntarily exiting one of the Downtown ramps. The nerve-racking exercise is compounded by incoming motorists from the Arroyo Seco crossing the same three lanes from the other direction—left to right—who are seeking the very exits you’re trying to avoid.

Pulling off either move is nothing less than a navigational baptism for newbie drivers. Some drivers can’t pull it off at all. Such was the case for Greg Morton, a thirty-four-year-old management consultant whose ordeal made him briefly famous. In March of 1958, just south of the Four Level, Morton attempted to weave to the right from the fast lane. Suddenly, a car veered into his lane and Morton panicked. He wedged the wheel leftward and found himself marooned on the center median, which, in those days, was simply a raised concrete strip with planters spaced every twenty feet. These planters posed a problem for Morton. He didn’t feel he could get a “running start” to rejoin the stream of whizzing cars. So, he waited for a break in traffic. And waited. And waited. As he was stranded, he tried to flag down eighteen passing police vehicles for help. Only one stopped. “You got yourself up there, didn’t you?” the officer chided. “Just start your engine and drive off.” Which is exactly what the cop did.

Things got so bad, Morton finally said to hell with it. He took a beach towel out of his trunk and started to sunbathe right there on the median. Perhaps this odd spectacle is what finally made a Good Samaritan assist this clearly delirious individual. The stranger was a civilian on a motorcycle who promised to make a call from a phone booth for help. Sure enough, a sympathetic officer arrived within minutes and stopped traffic long enough for Morton to escape the median. All told, the Highland Park resident had been stranded for an hour and fifteen minutes.

When asked about it later, Morton was shaken but took it all in stride. “I’d have given twenty bucks if, as there should be, there’d been a telephone out there I could’ve used to summon help,” he said.

Perhaps Kenneth Hahn was listening. Four years later, Hahn—by then a county supervisor—was the driving force behind the installation of roadside call boxes. Hahn posed for a photo at one, placing an emergency call. It was on the Harbor Freeway.

While call boxes would have to wait a few more years, 1958 did see the first routine traffic reports from helicopters. Prior to this, freeway conditions were conducted by roving cars or sporadic airplane flights. Radio station KABC was first out of the gate with Operation Airwatch. Every weekday morning and afternoon, traffic jockey Donn Reed delivered rush-hour updates from the cockpit of a Bell whirlybird. It was an instant hit with motorists, and Reed had proof. One morning, he asked any drivers who saw his copter to flash their headlights. Six out of ten cars did.

The fact that so many commuters tuned in may have saved the life of a three-year-old girl toddling through traffic on the Harbor Freeway. Reed got his studio to cut into programming so he could warn drivers about her presence. As cars slowed and paused, she wandered off the thoroughfare, no worse for the wear.

Not surprisingly, the Harbor Freeway saw the bulk of traffic updates. By 1958, more than 318,000 vehicles per day were passing through The Stack. That same year, the Dodgers kicked off their inaugural season in Los Angeles after relocating from Brooklyn. Home games were played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the team awaited their permanent field in Chavez Ravine. Built for the 1932 Olympics, the Coliseum’s football-length field was not designed for baseball, just as its dense Exposition Park neighborhood was not suited for battalions of cars jamming its streets from spring until fall. Parking lots around the Coliseum could accommodate only 3,400 vehicles, forcing most motorists to pay to park on people’s lawns or find street parking. One fan from Phoenix who flew in to catch the game had to walk twenty-four blocks afterward to find a taxi to his hotel—a longer journey than his plane ride.

Crushing traffic around the Coliseum backed up on the Harbor Freeway for a mile or more in each direction. The delays led to a Dodger fan stereotype that persists to this day: “Fans have been arriving as late as the third inning,” pointed out sportswriter Rob Shafer of the Pasadena Star-News. Mostly, though, Angelenos were so enamored by their Boys in Blue, any inconveniences were met with wry wit. “The one thing the Dodgers forgot to bring with them when they moved to Los Angeles was the New York subway,” quipped one newspaper. When Liberace had the gall to perform at the neighboring Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena during a Dodger game, Rob Shafer swore that traffic on the Harbor Freeway created “some kind of human record for collective blood pressure.”

GM unveils a hands-free driving system that works in nearly all of the US and Canada

GM and Cadillac drivers have spent traveled than 10 million miles with their hands in their laps since General Motors introduced its Super Cruise driver assist system back in 2017. On Wednesday, the company unveiled its next-generation hands-free system — one that GM claims will "ultimately enable hands-free driving in 95 percent of all driving scenarios" — dubbed, Ultra Cruise.

What sets Ultra Cruise apart from similar systems, such as Ford's BlueCruise, is that Ultra is designed to work virtually everywhere in the US and Canada. At launch, the system is expected to work on 2 million miles of North American roads — that includes highways, city and subdivision streets, and paved rural roads — and will eventually expand to encompass some 3.4 million miles of asphalt.

If you've just bought a Super Cruise-enabled vehicle (or are planning to buy one of the 22 models GM will have available by 2023), don't worry, it's not going anywhere. GM plans to continue offering Super Cruise for its more mainstream vehicles such as the Escalade, CT4/CT5, Silverado and Sierra while Ultra Cruise will be reserved for the company's premium offerings. GM hasn't specified which vehicle will be the first to get it, though the company did note that select 2023 Cadillacs will be at the head of the line. 

Built atop GM's recently announced Ultifi (again, rhymes with "multiply") computing system and leveraging myriad optical cameras, radar and LiDAR sensors, Ultra Cruise will support automatic and on-demand lane changes, left and right turns, obey traffic signals, avoid obstacles and even park itself in residential driveways. Further improvements and refinements to the system will be delivered to vehicles via OTA updates. To avoid Tesla-style wrecks, GM will port Super Cruise’s Driver Attention Camera system over to the new system.

Hitting the Books: Why that one uncle of yours continually refuses to believe in climate change

The holidays are fast approaching and you know what that means: pumpkin spice everything, seasonal cheer, and family gatherings — all while avoiding your QAnon adherent relatives like the plague. But when you do eventually get cornered by them, come prepared. 

In his latest book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, author Lee McIntyre examines the phenomenon of denialism, exploring the conspiracy theories that drive it, and explains how you can most effectively address your relatives' misplaced concerns over everything from mRNA vaccines to why the Earth isn't actually flat.

The MIT Press

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Other Who Defy Reason, by Lee McIntyre, published by The MIT Press.


Belief in conspiracy theories is one of the most toxic forms of human reasoning. This is not to say that real conspiracies do not exist. Watergate, the tobacco companies’ collusion to obfuscate the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, and the George W. Bush–era NSA program to secretly spy on civilian Internet users are all examples of real-life conspiracies, which were discovered through evidence and exposed after exhaustive investigation.

By contrast, what makes conspiracy theory reasoning so odious is that whether or not there is any evidence, the theory is asserted as true, which puts it beyond all reach of being tested or refuted by scientists and other debunkers. The distinction, therefore, should be between actual conspiracies (for which there should be some evidence) and conspiracy theories (which customarily have no credible evidence). We might define a conspiracy theory as an “explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.” Crucially, we need to add that these tend to be “highly speculative [and] based on no evidence. They are pure conjecture, without any basis in reality.”

When we talk about the danger of conspiracy theories for scientific reasoning, our focus should therefore be on their nonempirical nature, which means that they are not even capable of being tested in the first place. What is wrong with conspiracy theories is not normally that they have already been refuted (though many have), but that thousands of gullible people will continue to believe them even when they have been debunked.

If you scratch a science denier, chances are you’ll find a conspiracy theorist. Sadly, conspiracy theories seem to be quite common in the general population as well. In a recent study by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood they found that 50 percent of Americans believed in at least one conspiracy theory.

This included the 9/11 truther and Obama birther conspiracies, but also the idea that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is deliberately withholding a cure for cancer, and that the Federal Reserve intentionally orchestrated the 2008 recession. (Notably, the JFK assassination conspiracy was so widely held that it was excluded from the study.)

Other common conspiracy theories — which run the range of popularity and outlandishness — are that “chemtrails” left by planes are part of a secret government mind-control spraying program, that the school shootings at Sandy Hook and Parkland were “false flag” operations, that the government is covering up the truth about UFOs, and of course the more “science-related” ones that the Earth is flat, that global warming is a hoax, that some corporations are intentionally creating toxic GMOs, and that COVID-19 is caused by 5G cell phone towers.

In its most basic form, a conspiracy theory is a non-evidentially justified belief that some tremendously unlikely thing is nonetheless true, but we just don’t realize it because there is a coordinated campaign run by powerful people to cover it up. Some have contended that conspiracy theories are especially prevalent in times of great societal upheaval. And, of course, this explains why conspiracy theories are not unique to modern times. As far back as the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, we saw conspiracy theories at work, when the citizens of Rome became suspicious over a weeklong blaze that consumed almost the entire city — while the emperor Nero was conveniently out of town. Rumors began to spread that Nero had started it in order to rebuild the city in his own design. While there was no evidence that this was true (nor for the legend that Nero sang while the city burned), Nero was apparently so upset by the accusation that he started his own conspiracy theory that it was in fact the Christians who were responsible, which led to the prevalence of burning them alive.

Here one understands immediately why conspiracy theories are anathema to scientific reasoning. In science, we test our beliefs against reality by looking for disconfirming evidence. If we find only evidence that fits our theory, then it might be true. But if we find any evidence that disconfirms our theory, it must be ruled out. With conspiracy theories, however, they don’t change their views even in the face of disconfirming evidence (nor do they seem to require much evidence, beyond gut instinct, that their views are true in the first place). Instead, conspiracy theorists tend to use the conspiracy itself as a way to explain any lack of evidence (because the clever conspirators must be hiding it) or the presence of evidence that disconfirms it (because the shills must be faking it). Thus, lack of evidence in favor of a conspiracy theory is in part explained by the conspiracy itself, which means that its adherents can count both evidence and lack of evidence in their favor.

Virtually all conspiracy theorists are what I call “cafeteria skeptics.” Although they profess to uphold the highest standards of reasoning, they do so inconsistently. Conspiracy theorists are famous for their double standard of evidence: they insist on an absurd standard of proof when it concerns something they do not want to believe, while accepting with scant to nonexistent evidence whatever they do want to believe. We have already seen the weakness of this type of selective reasoning with cherry-picking evidence. Add to this a predilection for the kind of paranoid suspicion that underlies most conspiracy-minded thinking, and we face an almost impenetrable wall of doubt. When a conspiracy theorist indulges their suspicions about the alleged dangers of vaccines, chemtrails, or fluoride — but then takes any contrary or debunking information as itself proof of a cover-up — they lock themselves in a hermetically sealed box of doubt that no amount of facts could ever get them out of. For all of their protests of skepticism, most conspiracy theorists are in fact quite gullible.

Belief in the flatness of the Earth is a great example. Time and again at FEIC 2018, I heard presenters say that any scientific evidence in favor of the curvature of the Earth had been faked. “There was no Moon landing; it happened on a Hollywood set.” “All the airline pilots and astronauts are in on the hoax.” “Those pictures from space are Photoshopped.” Not only did disconfirming evidence of these claims not cause the Flat Earthers to give up their beliefs, it was used as more evidence for the conspiracy! And of course to claim that the devil is behind the whole cover-up about Flat Earth could there be a bigger conspiracy theory? Indeed, most Flat Earthers would admit that themselves. A similar chain of reasoning is often used in climate change denial. President Trump has long held that global warming is a “Chinese hoax” meant to undermine the competitiveness of American manufacturing.

Others have contended that climate scientists are fudging the data or that they are biased because they are profiting from the money and attention being paid to their work. Some would argue that the plot is even more nefarious — that climate change is being used as a ruse to justify more government regulation or takeover of the world economy. Whatever evidence is presented to debunk these claims is explained as part of a conspiracy: it was faked, biased, or at least incomplete, and the real truth is being covered up. No amount of evidence can ever convince a hardcore science denier because they distrust the people who are gathering the evidence. So what is the explanation? Why do some people (like science deniers) engage in conspiracy theory thinking while others do not?

Various psychological theories have been offered, involving factors such as inflated self-confidence, narcissism, or low self-esteem. A more popular consensus seems to be that conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism that some people use to deal with feelings of anxiety and loss of control in the face of large, upsetting events. The human brain does not like random events, because we cannot learn from and therefore cannot plan for them. When we feel helpless (due to lack of understanding, the scale of an event, its personal impact on us, or our social position), we may feel drawn to explanations that identify an enemy we can confront. This is not a rational process, and researchers who have studied conspiracy theories note that those who tend to “go with their gut” are the most likely to indulge in conspiracy-based thinking. This is why ignorance is highly correlated with belief in conspiracy theories. When we are less able to understand something on the basis of our analytical faculties, we may feel more threatened by it.

There is also the fact that many are attracted to the idea of “hidden knowledge,” because it serves their ego to think that they are one of the few people to understand something that others don’t know. In one of the most fascinating studies of conspiracy-based thinking, Roland Imhoff invented a fictitious conspiracy theory, then measured how many subjects would believe it, depending on the epistemological context within which it was presented. Imhoff’s conspiracy was a doozy: he claimed that there was a German manufacturer of smoke alarms that emitted high-pitched sounds that made people feel nauseous and depressed. He alleged that the manufacturer knew about the problem but refused to fix it. When subjects thought that this was secret knowledge, they were much more likely to believe it. When Imhoff presented it as common knowledge, people were less likely to think that it was true.

One can’t help here but think of the six hundred cognoscenti in that ballroom in Denver. Out of six billion people on the planet, they were the self-appointed elite of the elite: the few who knew the “truth” about the flatness of the Earth and were now called upon to wake the others.

What is the harm from conspiracy theories? Some may seem benign, but note that the most likely factor in predicting belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in another one. And not all of those will be harmless. What about the anti-vaxxer who thinks that there is a government cover-

up of the data on thimerosal, whose child gives another measles? Or the belief that anthropogenic (human- caused) climate change is just a hoax, so our leaders in government feel justified in delay? As the clock ticks on averting disaster, the human consequences of the latter may end up being incalculable.

Samsung's digital car keys will soon be available on the Genesis GV60 in Korea

First announced back in January at Samsung's Galaxy S21 event, Hyundai revealed on Thursday that its upcoming GV60 crossover will be the first to work with the phonemaker's newfangled Digital Key — at least for GV60 owners living in Korea.

The Digital Key utilizes NFC and ultra wideband (UWB) technologies to grant drivers passive access to their vehicles — that is, so long as your Galaxy phone is in your possession, the vehicle will open automatically as you approach. The key can also be shared with "family and friends" according to a Thursday media release from Hyundai, though they'll need to own a Galaxy S21+ or Ultra, Note20 Ultra, or a Z Fold 2 or 3 for it to work. The system is designed to run on Android 12 and later, assuming your phone has a UWB chip, though it will also operate via NFC if you don't. 

Hyundai touts Samsung's embedded Secure Element (eSE) in terms of data protection and notes that the UWB-based transmission system is highly resistant to interception, cloning or jamming. Whether that security scheme will stand up to a mugger bonking you on the head, then taking your phone and your car remains to be seen. The digital key feature is expected to launch in Korea by the end of this year.

Google announced back in May that it planned to begin offering its own digital key system — separate from what Samsung has developed — on "select Pixel and Galaxy phones" with UWB capabilities. We've now seen UWB in the Galaxy, does that mean the Pixel 6 could offer it as well?

Honda announces plans to build electric VTOLs and telepresence robots

Honda builds much more than cars and trucks — power equipment, solar cells, industrial robotics, alternative fuel engines and even aircraft are all part of the company's production capacity. On Thursday, Honda announced that it is working to further expand its manufacturing portfolio to include Avatar-style remote telepresence robots and electric VTOLs for inter- and intracity commutes before turning its ambitions to building a fuel-cell driven power generation system for the lunar surface. 

For its eVTOL, Honda plans to leverage not only the lithium battery technology it's developed for its EV and PHEV vehicles but also a gas turbine hybrid power unit to give the future aircraft enough range to handle regional inter-city flights as well. Honda foresees air taxis as a ubiquitous part of tomorrow's transportation landscape, seamlessly integrating with both autonomous ground vehicles and traditional airliners (though they could soon be flown by robots as well). Obviously, the program is still very much in the early research phase and will likely remain so until at least the second half of this decade. The company anticipates having prototype units available for testing and certification by the 2030s and a full commercial rollout sometime around 2040. 

Honda will have plenty of competition if and when it does get its eVTOLs off the ground. Cadillac showed off its single-seater aircar earlier this year, while Joby (in partnership with NASA) already has full-scale mockups flying. In June, Slovakian transportation startup, Klein Vision, flew from Nitra and to the Bratislava airport in its inaugural inter-city flight — and then drove home after the event. But building a fleet of flying taxis is no easy feat — just ask Bell helicopters — and we're sure to see more companies drop out of the sector before eVTOLs become commonplace.

Carlo Allegri / reuters

Honda reps also discussed the company's future robotics aspirations during a media briefing on Wednesday. The company envisions a future where people are unencumbered by space and time, where telepresence robots have visual and tactile acuity rivalling that of humans. Rather than hopping on a plane to inspect remote factory floors or attend product demonstrations in person, tomorrow's workers may simply don VR headsets and step into the body of an on-site humanoid robot. 

The company announced that it wants its Avatar Robot — a newly refined iteration of the Asimo (above) — put into practical use in the 2030s and will conduct technology demonstration testing by the end of Q1, 2024 in order to meet that goal. But before that happens Honda reps noted that the company has work to do downsizing the robot's hand hardware and improving its grasping dexterity.

JAXA/Honda

Honda also has big plans for its space ventures including working on ways to adapt its existing fuel cell and high differential pressure water electrolysis technologies to work on the lunar surface as part of a circulative renewable energy system.

This system would use electricity gathered from renewable energy sources (like solar) to break the molecular bonds of liquid water, resulting hydrogen and oxygen. Those two elements would then be run through Honda's fuel cell to generate both electricity and supply the lunar habitats with oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel. 

The company also hopes to utilize the more-nimble Avatar hands its developing as manipulators on a fleet of remote controlled lunar rovers which will perform tasks on the lunar surface rather than subject astronauts to the moon's many dangers. Honda has partnered with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and began joint research into both of these systems in June.

GM's new software hub will update your next EV like a smartphone

Compared to what we were driving just a decade ago, today's connected cars and trucks are practically computers on wheels. From content streaming infotainment systems to the background processes that interpret sensor data and power the advanced driver assist features, software has become a fundamental component in modern vehicles. To better manage those countless lines of code, GM announced on Wednesday that it has developed an end-to-end software platform, dubbed Ulfiti (rhymes with "multiply").

GM's latest vehicles already enjoy features like OTA software updates and on-board internet connectivity thanks to the company's Vehicle Intelligence Platform (VIP). the Linux-based Ulfiti is designed to sit on top of that existing architecture and serve as a central hub for select software systems, separating them from the vehicle's core operations. 

"In all of the embedded controllers, we refactored them and extracted the software from the hardware out of them, making them available to our SOA layer," Scott Miller, Vice President of Software Defined Vehicle. at General Motors, said during a recent teleconference. "Basically we're abstracting them and making them available for a powerful hub for all the vehicle's systems."

"Then we're adding this service oriented layer on our high performance computing that we have in the vehicle for infotainment and safety," he continued. "And we're going to organize those abstractions as services."

This will enable GM to more quickly develop and deploy updates, new features and apps to customers. In essence, Ultifi will serve a similar function as Android does on smartphones — an API layer sitting between the underlying hardware and the end user. GM did note that Ultifi will run in conjunction with existing automotive OSes, such as Android Automotive, which GM announced in 2019 it would begin supporting. 

"Android Automotive is a certain subset of functionality in the car," Darryl Harrison, GM's Director of Global Product Development, explained. "Ultifi is more of an umbrella overall strategy. Some vehicles will have Android Automotive and some will have other infotainment apps and services."

In essence, GM wants to treat your vehicle like a rolling smartphone, offering users continuous OTA updates, cloud-based personalization options that drivers can transfer between GM vehicles, and smart home connectivity. The company is also considering pushing out various safety and comfort upgrades through via OTA, such as using the vehicle's onboard cameras to automatically engage the child locks when they detect children in the back seat or remotely closing the vehicle's sunroof if you parked outdoors and the weather forecast calls for rain.  

GM is also considering using Ultifi to offer subscription services to users, such as on-demand Supercruise that drivers can enable on long road trips but cancel once they reach their destination. Ulfiti could also allow for improved V2V (vehicle to vehicle) and V2X (vehicle to everything) applications including near-real time traffic and road hazard updates. Expect to see Ulfiti in select GM vehicles — both internal combustion and EV — starting in 2023.            

Activision Blizzard settles its EEOC lawsuit with an $18 million payout

In order to settle a lawsuit brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Activision Blizzard has agreed to establish an $18 million fund for eligible claimants — meaning, employees who were harmed by the company's discriminatory hiring and management practices. The EEOC lawsuit was filed Monday, and that same afternoon, Activision Blizzard announced the $18 million conclusion.

Activision Blizzard is the company behind blockbuster video game franchises including Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Diablo and Overwatch. Activision Blizzard's revenue for the year 2020 was $8.1 billion, with a profit of more than $2 billion.

Today's $18 million agreement follows a three-year investigation into Activision Blizzard by the EEOC. The agreement is subject to court approval, and any leftover funds will be distributed among equality groups in the video game industry. The company is also upgrading its workplace policies and appointing a third-party equal opportunity consultant that will report to the Board of Directors and the EEOC.

This is just one of several lawsuits assailing Activision Blizzard at the moment. The first was filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing on July 20th, following a years-long investigation that concluded Activision Blizzard executives fostered a sexist, frat-boy style culture, and the company routinely violated equal-pay and labor laws. Since then, the SEC has opened its own investigation into the company, investors have filed a separate lawsuit, and the National Labor Relations Board is looking into complaints of coercion and interrogation at Activision Blizzard in response to the recent legal pressure. Several high-profile executives have left the company.