Welcome to This Week in Modern Software, or TWiMS, our weekly analysis of the most interesting and important news, stories, and events in the world of modern software and analytics.
This week, as the United States preps for the long Independence Day weekend, we focus on long-term trends and engrossing deep reads. Our lead item, for example, ponders the continued emergence of chatbots, and how software designers are creating systems that are already performing useful tasks and taking over human roles.
TWiMS Top Story:
Chatbot Lawyer Overturns 160,000 Parking Tickets in London and New York—The Guardian
What it’s about: An AI chatbot created by a 19-year-old Stanford University student has successfully gotten 160,000 parking tickets dismissed in London and New York City. The Guardian’s Samuel Gibbs put it best: “Chatbots can actually be useful.” Stanford sophomore Joshua Browder calls his DoNotPay app “the world’s first robot lawyer,” and says that it has overturned 160,000 tickets, out of 250,000 contested to date. Browder’s not stopping there; he’s now working on a chatbot to assist refugees with asylum applications. “So many services and information could be automated using AI, and bots are a perfect way to do that, and it’s disappointing at the moment that it’s mainly used for commerce transactions by ordering flowers and pizzas,” he tells VentureBeat. Elsewhere in AI, CNET’s Jon Skillings reports on the rise of “social intelligence” in chatbots, such as “Sara,” a socially aware virtual assistant created at Carnegie Mellon University that greeted attendees at the Annual Meeting of New Champions at the World Economic Forum. Jonathan Gratch, director of virtual human research at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, defines artificial social intelligence for Skillings as the ability “to understand people, how they think, how to communicate with them, what their emotional state is”—in a manner similar to, say, a marriage counselor or psychologist.
Why you should care: Turns out chatbots can be useful—in fact, they are already taking over roles and tasks we’ve long assumed required a human being. Moreover, bots like DoNotPay and Sara go far beyond the idea of AI threatening unskilled jobs such as fast-food service to the potential replacement of roles that require advanced degrees and specialized skills, such as attorneys and therapists. (They could even replace spouses, apparently, as man recently married his smartphone in Las Vegas.) Scoff if you will, but while it’s still early days for AI, DoNotPay’s results are far from theoretical: Those 160,000 overturned tickets were worth some $4 million, according to Browder.
- The World’s First Robot Lawyer—DoNotPay
- The DoNotPay Bot Has Beaten 160,000 Tickets—and Counting—VentureBeat
- AI and the Advent of the Virtual Human—CNET
- Speaking About Parking Tickets, Donald Trump, HIV/AIDS and Career Politicians in a TechCrunch Interview With Andrew Keen—Medium
- Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem—The New York Times
- Till Death Do Us Part: Man Marries His Phone in Vegas—CNET
The Latest News on Brexit: The Fallout Continues—Fast Company
What it’s about: You didn’t really think Brexit would blow over in a week, did you? While the U.S. stock markets have already started to recover from their initial plummet, there’s plenty of continuing fallout and ongoing predictions of its tech effects—Fast Company has a good recap.
Why you should care: We won’t know how Brexit will impact technology and innovation for quite a while—the effects will take shape over a span of years, not days or weeks. In the meantime, we’re left with educated guesses and one certainty: There will be tech impacts. A sampling of the latest perspectives:
- Matt Collins argues that Brexit could be a good thing, at least for the U.K. tech scene: “With its ‘Brexit’ of the European Union, the United Kingdom has the opportunity to pursue a new direction: embracing all four inputs [for technology industry success] and putting itself in a position to grow a more meaningful, more globally relevant, home-grown technology industry that the EU has deprived itself for decades.”
- An op-ed piece in Barron’s from MKM Partners suggests Brexit will be beneficial for SaaS firms.
- ZDNet’s Larry Dignan, on the other hand, describes six post-Brexit scenarios that could pose challenges for cloud computing.
- Chris Nolter writes in the financial site The Street that Brexit’s end-of-quarter timing could be problematic for some tech companies.
- The AP’s Brandon Bailey predicts post-Brexit regulatory changes might make Europe less-friendly terrain for some U.S. tech companies.
Again, that’s just a sampling and no one really has a clue what will happen next.
- Brexit Damage Assessment—Monday Note
- A Brexit Beneficiary: UK’s Tech Industry—Matt Collins’ Blog
- Brexit a Boon to SaaS Software—Barron’s (Paywall)
- Brexit Spells Turbulence for Cloud Computing: 6 Stormy Scenarios—ZDNet
- Brexit Comes at a Particularly Bad Time for Software Companies—The Street
- Britain’s Exit Could Make EU Less Friendly to US Tech—AP, via SFGate
- Researchers Reeling as UK Votes to Leave EU—Nature
- What Brexit Means for Tech—Business Insider
- Brexit Is Tragic, But the UK’s Tech Ecosystem Is Open for Business—TechCrunch
What it’s about: The 2016 presidential election campaign gains steam every day, and this week the momentum was fueled by tech. Among the highlights:
- Hillary Clinton released a pro-entrepreneur, pro-internet policy announcement that, as Recode’s headline puts it, reads like “a love letter to Silicon Valley.”
- And the news outlet followed up with a “he said/she said” comparison: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Are Worlds Apart on Tech Policy Issues.
- CNBC reported that Donald Trump’s campaign has signed on AdTech firm Rocket Fuel to help track and target supporters online, which in turn generated a spike in the company’s stock price.
- Data analytics guru Nate Silver went on Good Morning America to predict that Clinton has a 79% chance to win the general election. Silver’s successful track record in predicting presidential election results is a big part of his data-driven fame, but don’t forget that he also had to walk back multiple statements claiming that Donald Trump had no chance of becoming the Republican nominee.
Why you should care: Software and data are playing ever-increasing roles in politics and government, from open data initiatives to campaign analytics. So it’s not a particularly bold call to say this will be the most software-driven election in U.S. history. This quick read from Fast Company on NGP VAN, a software provider for the Democratic Party, gives a clear glimpse at how pervasive software and data have become in the political realm. As Neal Ungerleider writes, “The next time a volunteer for Hillary Clinton or another Democratic candidate shows up at your door, they may know more about you than you ever imagined.”
- Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation—HillaryClinton.com
- Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Are Worlds Apart on Tech Policy Issues—Recode
- Trump Starts Tracking, Targeting Fans With Web Software—NBC News
- How the Democrats’ Leading Software Provider Plans to Win You Over—Fast Company
- This Adtech Firm Favored by Donald Trump Just Saw a ‘Yuge’ Stock Gain—Fortune
- Clinton’s Tech Policy Backs Entrepreneurs and More Internet Access—CNET
- FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver Predicts Hillary Clinton Wins Election Against Donald Trump—ABC News
Relax this holiday weekend with more fascinating and significant stories from the world of modern software:
In the aftermath of Brexit, the very name “United Kingdom” is, to quote John Oliver, “beginning to sound a bit sarcastic.” But when it comes to mobile internet speeds, the U.K. leads the world by a wide margin, according to Akamai’s latest State of Internet Report. The whole thing’s worth a read, but much of it is damning for the United States. Here’s The Verge’s Rich McCormick with the bad news: “The U.S. had an average connection speed of 5.1 Mbps for the first quarter of 2016, lower than Turkey, Kenya, and Paraguay, and on a par with Thailand. Many European countries, in particular, more than doubled the average U.S. speed, including Slovakia with 13.3 Mbps, France with 11.5 Mbps, and Germany with 15.7 Mbps. Algeria, with the lowest average speed of countries included in the report, was only 2.9 Mbps behind the United States’ average with 2.2 Mbps.” O-u-c-h!
- State of the Internet—Akamai
- Dear Landlord: Don’t Rip Me Off When It Comes to Internet Access—Backchannel
I, Snowbot—New York Magazine
It’s not powered by AI, and it probably won’t get you out of parking tickets, but it’s still a bot of sorts. New York magazine’s latest cover story profiles Edward Snowden’s jet-setting life in exile, thanks to “a wheeled contraption called a BeamPro, a flat-screen monitor that stands atop a pair of legs, five-foot-two in all, with a camera that acts as a swiveling Cyclops eye.” (Yep, people call it the “Snowbot.”) New York’s Andrew Rice notes that the “robot” itself has all the characteristics of a publicity stunt—and yet it signifies something much greater to Snowden and the federal government. “The technology is of real symbolic and practical use to Snowden, who hopes to prove that the internet can overcome the power of governments, the strictures of exile, and isolation,” Rice writes. Interestingly, Snowdon is using other technologies for other kinds of appearances: He’s starring in a play with Daniel Radcliffe at New York’s Public Theater via video link.
Ars Technica this week published a translated excerpt of an interview, first published in the Estonia weekly Eesti Ekspress, with developer Andrus Nõmm, one of seven people arrested and charged in connection with the U.S. government shutdown of filesharing site Megaupload, which at its peak accounted for about 4% of daily global internet traffic. Nõmm, who was recently released after serving the bulk of a one-year prison sentence for felony copyright infringement, answers a wide range of questions about his journey from self-taught developer to federal prison inmate, and his subsequent freedom. “I had to be made an example of as a warning to all IT people who were intending to work in similar companies,” Nõmm says of his conviction and Megaupload tenure.
We Found the One Engineer Who Has Worked for 5 of the World’s Top Employers. Here’s His Secret to Picking Right—LinkedIn Pulse
Want to know what it’s like to work for five of the biggest companies in tech? Ask the guy who’s worked for them all. Software engineer Edward Kandrot, who says he specializes in improving code performance, counts Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Adobe, and Google among his former employers. He shares his experiences in an interview with LinkedIn’s Caroline Fairchild, including the questions he likes to ask of prospective employers.
“Top talent”—software companies are willing to pay big bucks for it, but what does the term really mean? What are the attributes of a “top” software developer? Reddit users chimed in with their definitions in /r/cscareerquestions, and Dzone’s Dave Fecak—who’s also a moderator on that Reddit forum—recaps some of the best and most interesting responses. It seems clear, though, why “top talent” is so hard to pin down: it’s very dependent on context, need, interpersonal dynamics, and other subjective variables.
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