Google Plans to Build its Own City

As part of its reorganisation last year, Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. converted its private city planning outfit Sidewalk Labs – tasked with modernising US cities to help integrate new technologies – into its own subdivision. The mission statement of this new subsidiary, though, appears to be more than just guiding existing cities into the future, with plans revealed that it is seeking to create its own “digital districts”; in effect, new, Google-built cities.

“The idea under consideration is for Sidewalk to create an area in the U.S. that serves as a testbed for new technologies from superfast Internet to autonomous cars, according to several people involved in the effort,” reports The Information (paywalled, via re/code). “Some 100 city planning experts, researchers and technologists have been involved with the project, including Stuart Miller, the CEO of home builder Lennar, Anthony Townsend, research director of Institute of the Future, Stanford professor Balaji Prabhakar and Harvard economist Ed Glaeser. The consulting firm McKinsey has also been advising.”

When approached for comment, a representative of Sidewalk Labs called the plan “speculation,” while Alphabet refused to comment.

Sidewalk Labs’ major contribution to US city modernisation thus far is the LinkNYC free WiFi network established in New York last Summer.

Google Allows Developers to Use Its Machine Learning Platform

Google’s Cloud Machine Learning platform, which is utilized by a number of applications including Google Photos, Translate and Inbox has been made available for use by developers today. The announcement was made by Alphabet’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt at NEXT 2016, where he explained that machine learning was “what’s next”.

This move will give developers the chance to leverage the power that Google currently makes use of every day in their own apps.  These powerful machine learning tools will be available to use through a number of easy-to-use REST APIs according to Fausto Ibarra, Google’s director of product management. He went on to state that “Cloud Machine Learning will take machine learning mainstream, giving data scientists and developers a way to build a new class of intelligent applications.”

The Cloud Machine Learning platform APIs initially on offer by Google include translation, photo, and speech recognition tools which power Google Now, Google Photos, voice recognition in Google Search and many other systems.

This release by Google makes them the third major company to roll out a machine learning platform for developers, with Microsoft’s Azure platform releasing in 2015 and Amazon Web Services including machine learning since 2015. With Google declaring that machine learning is set to be the next big thing in computing, it may not be too long before we see our everyday apps getting even smarter, as developers benefit from Google’s platform and Google in turn benefit from its usage allowing furthering development. It may only be in developer preview for now, but I am sure that many app developers, both old and new, will be jumping at the chance to put these cutting edge tools to use.

Alphabet to Sell Boston Dynamics

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, are working on ventures in a great number of fields, however, the rumours that their robotics division was in trouble could be worse than expected. In a report published by the Bloomberg News, Alphabet is looking to sell off Boston Dynamics, their most prominent robotics company, who developed robots such as Spot the dog.

In 2013, Google picked up 8 robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics to form their new robotics division named Replicant. Even this early on it was reported that the numerous firms that made up Replicant had very little in common and were scattered about the globe, causing difficulties in many collaborative efforts. When the head of Replicant, Android founder Andy Rubin, left Google, those who had joined the tech giant in robotics research and development were left confused and disorganised.

After reorganizing into Alphabet, the situation got worse, with the new parent company focused on seeking investors for its sub-companies. While Boston Dynamics constantly put out publicity videos showing off their developments growing fear amongst workers that robots could eventually take away their jobs and the lack of faith that they would have a marketable product in the next few years made Boston Dynamics a liability. While many of the startups that made up Replicant have been moved to the Alphabet X division, the future seems bleak for robotics development at Alphabet.

Where Boston Dynamics will end up remains to be seen, however, the best guesses seem to currently be that Toyota or Amazon will be looking to pick up the firm, with the former recently putting a lot of funding into robotics development. Neither company has come out with a statement regarding the possible acquisition, so it really could be up for grabs. We can only hope that no matter who their next owner ends up being, that Boston Dynamics keep pushing the field of robotics forward with their work.

Tech Giants Plot to Stop Trump

The CEOs of Apple, Tesla Motors, and Alphabet joined a group of tech industry leaders and politicians at a secretive event where the key agenda was to stop Donald Trump from becoming the Republican Presidential candidate.

Tim Cook, Elon Musk, and Larry Page rubbed shoulders with the likes of Napster founder and Facebook investor Sean Parker, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), political guru Karl Rove, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican Senators Tom Cotton (Ark.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio), and Ben Sasse (Neb.) at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum, which was held on a private island of the coast of the US state of Georgia, according to the Huffington Post.

“A specter was haunting the World Forum–the specter of Donald Trump,” wrote Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, in an emailed report from the conference. “There was much unhappiness about his emergence, a good deal of talk, some of it insightful and thoughtful, about why he’s done so well, and many expressions of hope that he would be defeated.”

“The key task now, to once again paraphrase Karl Marx, is less to understand Trump than to stop him,” Kristol added. “In general, there’s a little too much hand-wringing, brow-furrowing, and fatalism out there and not quite enough resolving to save the party from nominating or the country electing someone who simply shouldn’t be president.”

According to a presentation at the event by Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush, Trump’s weakness is the perception of him by the general public that he does not appear “presidential”, is not a strong role model for children, and should not be trusted with his “finger on the nuclear button”.

Image courtesy of Vanity Fair.

Eric Schmidt to Chair US Defense Department Advisory Board

In a statement from the US Department of Defense today, it has been announced that Alphabet’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt will chair a new advisory board. Named the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, it will consist of 12 expert individuals from the private sector who will put their effort together in order to find “quick solutions to DoD problems.”

The Defense Innovation Advisory Board takes after the existing Defense Business Board, just as the Business Board advises the department on the best business practices from the private sector, the Innovation Advisory Board will provide advice and information on the latest and greatest practices in innovation that the department can adopt and emulate. The mandate of the board is to supply DoD leader with independent advice on “innovative and adaptive means to address future organizational and cultural challenges” such as the use of technological alternatives and streamlining management, not including any discussion of military operations or strategy.

The remaining members of the 12-person board are yet to be revealed, however, the DoD stated that those selected will be individuals “who have successfully led large private and public organizations, and excelled at identifying and adopting new technology concepts.” These members will be selected personally by both Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Dr. Schmidt himself, from both those in Silicon Valley and across the US.

While the board still seems far from assembled, it seems wise for the US DoD to make use of the private sector’s technological expertise, so as not to be left behind in a world of growing technology. Many countries around the world may be under threat from attacks both in cyberspace and the real world, and hopefully, this collaboration will develop more informed defenses against cyber-attacks for the US and more.

Alphabet is Now the World’s Most Valuable Company

Up until recently, Apple was considered to be the world’s most valuable company, as it featured a market cap of no less than $538 billion. However, recent developments have put Google’s parent company, Alphabet, at the top of the list thanks to a sudden surge in share prices. Alphabet now has a market cap of around $550 billion, which officially makes it the most valuable company in the world. However, it’s worth pointing out that we are talking about after hours trading, which means that these figures might not remain the same for too long. Getting into specifics, Alphabet has recently revealed its Q4 2015 financial results, which recorded $21.3 billion in revenue as well as $4.9 billion in profits.

This means that Alphabet’s revenue and profits went up 18 and 5 percent respectively on a year-on-year basis, which is why its share prices also went up by six percent in after-hours trading. This is not the first time that Google has surpassed Apple like this, but the last time this happened was all the way back in 2010. The Cupertino-based company still boasts an all-time market cap record of $774 billion, which will be very difficult to surpass even by Alphabet. Even though its profits are undeniably impressive, the company is still losing money on investments such as Nest, Google Fiber, X, GV and Verily, all of which have drained $3.56 billion in 2015.

Google Plans Self-Driving Taxis for 2016

Google will launch its self-driving car initiative as a separate business, offering rides for hire in direct competition with firms such as Uber, under parent company Alphabet Inc next year, according to Bloomberg Business.

An anonymous source briefed on Google’s self-driving car strategy claims that, initially, the vehicles will not be sold, but instead will be available for hire to customers during the day, returning to Google depots for service and maintenance at night.

“These potential ride-for-hire services could allow consumers to experience the technology and embrace it in a bigger way,” said Thilo Koslowski, vice president and automotive practice leader at Gartner Inc.. “That would help not just Google but the entire industry.”

Self-driving cars that don’t require a human driver are not yet legal on public roads in the US, so unless Google has inside information regarding an imminent change to the law, its vehicles will only be permitted for use on private property, such as university and business campuses, military bases, or airports.

While Google waits for the law to catch up with new automotive technologies, Uber has invested over $10 billion it has raised in private markets to develop its own fleet of self-driving cars, as well as recruiting a number of autonomous vehicle engineers from Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics program.

Image courtesy of Google.

Google Play Store Set to Hit China in 2016

It has been reported that Google is working tirelessly to re-establish its products in China, with the Google Play Store set to spearhead the effort by as soon as February 2016.

It has been a number of years since the internet giant has had a presence in China, since issues over censorship caused them to pull out of the nation. This has done little to hinder Androids great popularity in China thanks to companies like Xiaomi and Huawei repeatedly delivering high-quality and affordable devices that have even gained popularity in the West. Despite this, domestic Chinese Android devices continually ship without many of the Google apps that most would consider a staple on modern Android devices such as Gmail, Chrome and Maps. Instead, other companies have picked up the slack left by Google’s departure, with smartphone developers delivering their own custom Android versions built upon the Android Open Source Project and the search and app distribution platforms covered by Chinese startups such as Baidu and Wandoujia.

In order to now comply with the requirements of the Chinese government, the Chinese version of the Google Play Store will be “set up specifically for China, and not connected to overseas versions of Google Play” according to reports. This will allow for the implementation of content filtering and storage rules that are in place. Furthermore, implementation for Chinese payment platforms like Alipay and WeChat Payment will be replacing Google’s own payment systems which currently does not exist in China. All of this is in an effort to reach out to the currently untapped Chinese market, a location at which Apple are currently turning profits of over $58 billion, all the while complying with the relevant regulations, perhaps in part to their lack of opposition.

From here on, it will be a fight for Google to make their decision to reach back into China a worthwhile one, where their presence is nothing compared to their ubiquity in the West. Will we see Google once again pull out of China, or continue to become a greater worldwide presence? Only time will tell.

Alphabet Ditches Google’s “Don’t be Evil” Mantra

While some may question whether the company ever really adhered to it, Google’s corporate motto since 2004 has been “don’t be evil”. The bold statement was described by Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail and suggester of said slogan, as “something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out”. Well, that’s exactly what Alphabet, the name the recently rebranded Google Inc. now operates under, has done.

Reading Alphabet’s new Code of Conduct, the emotive phrase “don’t be evil” seems to have been replaced with the more generic and vague “do the right thing”. The preface reads:

“Employees of Alphabet and its subsidiaries and controlled affiliates (“Alphabet”) should do the right thing – follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.

We expect all of our employees and Board members to know and follow this Code of Conduct. Failure to do so can result in disciplinary action, including termination of employment. Any waivers of this Code for directors or executive officers must be approved by our Board.”

The difference between “don’t be evil” and “do the right thing” might be pure semantics, but the change from an identifiable mission statement to bland cliché could point to the homogenisation of a once unique brand. Let’s hope that’s all it is, and the revision of the company’s ethics isn’t a sign of a shift into more egregious user exploitation on the part of Alphabet.

New Android Vulnerability Affects Everything on the Device

Following Stagefright, another worrying Android vulnerability has been uncovered by researchers. The security flaw can be exploited by taking advantage of the operating system’s multitasking functionality, giving hackers access to every part of the device. “The enabled attacks can affect all latest Android versions and all apps (including the most privileged system apps) installed on the system,” Chuangang Ren, security researcher from Penn State University, warned.

The researchers from Penn State who discovered the Android Vulnerability presented a paper on it at the USENIX Security 15 conference in Washington DC last week. It explained:

Android multitasking provides rich features to enhance user experience and offers great flexibility for app developers to promote app personalization. However, the security implications of Android multitasking remain under-investigated.

With a systematic study of the complex task dynamics, we find design flaws of Android multitasking which make all recent versions of Android vulnerable to task hijacking attacks. We demonstrate proof-of-concept examples utilising the task hijacking attack surface to implement UI spoofing, denial-of-service and user-monitoring attacks. Attackers may steal login credentials, implement ransomware and spy on user’s activities.

We have collected and analyzed over 6.8 million apps from various Android markets. Our analysis shows that the task hijacking risk is prevalent. Since many apps depend on the current multitasking design, defeating task hijacking is not easy.

The research team has notified Android about the vulnerability. Neither them nor Google – or Alphabet, as the parent company is now known – has commented on the findings of the paper.

UPDATE – 24th September, 2015:

Matt Penny from Google’s press office has issued the following statement:

“We appreciate this theoretical research as it makes Android’s security stronger. Android users are protected from attempts at phishing or hijacking like this (including manipulation of the user interface) with Verify Apps and Safety Net security features. Based on our research, fewer than 1% of Android devices had a Potentially Harmful App (PHA) installed in 2014, and fewer than 0.15% of devices that only install from Google Play had a PHA installed.”

Thank you The Register for providing us with this information.

Image courtesy of Hacoder.

Google’s Namechange to Alphabet Might Fail

It looks a lot like Google didn’t do their research properly on their name change before announcing it a few days ago and now it might fail altogether. As it turns out, someone already trademarked the very normal word Alphabet and that company is the German car manufacturer BMW.

BMW has been using the Alphabet name for quite some time on their in-house leasing service as well as other places and it has been trademarked the entire time, so a spokesperson for BMW told Reuters. Google hasn’t contacted BMW to acquire that name either and BMW also assures that they don’t have any interest to sell the name to the electronic search giant. BMW’s Alphabet site is currently offline based on traffic generated by Google’s news on the new name.

Google can now either take the whole issue to court and fight for the right to use the name, but that will most likely be a pointless endeavor. Two companies using the same name isn’t a problem unless they operate in the same field, and Google operates a car business, just as BMW does. What the outcome will be is something that only time can tell us, but I’m sure that these aren’t easy days for Larry Page and his team at Google HQ.

Thank You Reuters for providing us with this information

Google Announces ‘Alphabet’ Restructuring Programme and new CEO

Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has unveiled a number of dramatic changes to Google’s management in a blog post today. The statement announces his departure as Google’s CEO and the formation of a huge holding company entitled ‘Alphabet’. Page will spearhead this new company alongside Sergey Brin and manage a wide range of outfits. Their new role within Google is to oversee the initial-stage investments, dubbed Capital and Ventures. Each department will have a planned style of leadership and individual CEO. This should create better results through a more focused and specific business strategy.

Sundar Pichai has been promoted and is now the new CEO of Google. His main responsibility lies in Google search, AdSense, Maps, YouTube, Android and the Google Play Store. Larry Page spoke rather fondly of Sundar Pichai and said,

“It is clear to us and our board that it is time for Sundar to be CEO of Google,”

 “I feel very fortunate to have someone as talented as he is to run the slightly slimmed down Google and this frees up time for me to continue to scale our aspirations.”

Google has also undergone a financial transformation and its shares will now contribute to the total number in the Alphabet holding company. Page explained the reasoning behind this and why Google is changing its organizational structure:

“We’ve long believed that over time companies tend to get comfortable doing the same thing, just making incremental changes,”

“But in the technology industry, where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant.”

This is a fairly surprising revelation and a massive restructuring process. Although, Page and Brin have expressed interest in technologies which are still in a theoretical stage. They now feel comfortable enough to offset Google’s main management to another division and work on inventions that could be mainstream in 5-10 years time.

Image courtesy of Business Insider.