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What Google isn't telling us about its AI demo

Google made headlines by demonstrating an AI-powered voice assistant that made haircut and restaurant reservations, without betraying that it isn't human. But we have questions about the demos, which purported to be recordings of calls with real businesses.

Why it matters: Google told both developers and investors that it has created something remarkable, thus increasing its profile and value. When questioned further, however, it will not provide basic evidence to back up its boasts.

Here's the demo, as presented at Google's developer conference by CEO Sundar Pichai:


"What you're going to hear is the Google assistant actually calling a real salon to schedule an appointment for you. Let's listen."

What's suspicious?

When you call a business, the person picking up the phone almost always identifies the business itself (and sometimes gives their own name as well). But that didn't happen when the Google assistant called these "real" businesses:

  • When the hair salon picks up, a woman says: "Hello, how can I help you?"
  • When the restaurant picks up, a woman says: "Hi, may I help you?"

Axios called over two dozen hair salons and restaurants — including some in Google's hometown of Mountain View — and every one immediately gave the business name.

There also does not seem to be ambient noise in either recording, such as hair dryers or plates clattering. We heard that in most of the businesses we called, but not in all.

Finally, neither the hair salon nor the restaurant ask for the customer's phone number or any other contact information.

Google's reply

Axios asked Google for the name of the hair salon or restaurant, in order to verify both that the businesses exist and that the calls were not pre-planned. We also said that we'd guarantee, in writing, not to publicly identify either establishment (so as to prevent them from receiving unwanted attention).

A longtime Google spokeswoman declined to provide either name.

We also asked if either call was edited, even perhaps just cutting the second or two when the business identifies itself. And, if so, were there other edits? The spokeswoman declined comment, but said she'd check and get back to us. She didn't.

So we sent a new message, this time also copying another member of Google's communications team. The spokeswoman replied by saying she'd get right back to us.

That was more than a day ago.

Bottom line: Google may well have created a lifelike voice assistant that we'll all eventually use to complete mundane tasks like appointment scheduling. It also might be close to creating such a thing, but not quite there yet. Or it was partially staged. Or something else entirely. We just don't know, because Google won't answer the questions.

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Apple is building a new campus for 20,000 employees — and we just got big hints where it could end up

Apple may be closing in on a location for a new campus it announced earlier this year — and it could end up being located close to Duke University, where CEO Tim Cook and several other top Apple executives went to school.

North Carolina's Research Triangle region is being considered by Apple for a new campus, Triangle Business Journal reported on Wednesday.

The process is said to be in an advanced enough stage that North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and state Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland met with Apple CEO Tim Cook on May 11, according to the report. 

Cook was in the region to give a commencement speech at Duke University on May 13. 

Cooper's office neither confirmed nor denied the report to Business Insider. "We do not share information about economic development projects before they are final, but I will be happy to share more information if or when a decision is made," spokesman Jamal Little said in an email. 

Apple's search for a new campus location is being conducted in secret. That's in contrast to Amazon's search for a second headquarters, which issued an open request for proposals. 

"We’re not doing a beauty contest kind of thing," Cook said in a recent interview. Apple previously announced that it planned to spend $30 billion and hire 20,000 employees in the United States over the next five years. Part of that investment will go towards a new campus, located away from the company's headquarters in Cupertino, California. The new campus will hold call center workers at first. 

Apple didn't immediately return a request for comment. 

Northern Virginia may also be a candidate, according to the Washington Post. Officials from the state reportedly pitched locations in Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties to Apple people. 

Although tax incentives will most likely be part of the package that lures Apple to a new region, Cook has said that he does not want an "auction kind of process." 

"We're narrowing the site selection for a new U.S. campus, and we look forward to sharing more information on that later this year," Cook said on April 29. 

Apple's new "spaceship" headquarters in Cupertino, named Apple Park, has been called an architectural landmark. 

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Amazon will adopt a ‘Rooney Rule’ to increase board diversity after its initial opposition sparked employee outrage

Amazon said on Monday that it would adopt a policy whereby women and people of color are included in the pool of candidates for all board openings, essentially agreeing to a hotly debated shareholder proposal it had initially opposed.

“The Amazon Board of Directors has adopted a policy that the Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee include a slate of diverse candidates, including women and minorities, for all director openings,” the company said in an SEC filing on Monday. “This policy formalizes a practice already in place.”

Recode reported last week that the Amazon board’s initial opposition to such a policy had stirred up anger among some employees. Amazon’s 10 board members are all white; three of the 10 are women.

It is not clear why the company initially opposed formalizing the practice if it was one that was “already in place,” but in a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus, Amazon’s VP of public policy Brian Huseman wrote:

“We reached this decision after listening to your feedback as well as that from Amazon employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders about the Board diversity proposal. These conversations led us to reconsider both our decision on the shareholder proposal and how we explained our initial recommendation.”

The Hill reported last week that several members of the CBC planned to send a letter to Amazon on Monday saying that its opposition to the proposal was “astounding.”

“Our astonishment is compounded when you consider the fact that your ‘customer-centric’ company — with over 300 million active users — has zero people of color on your 10-person Board of Directors,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Rooney Rule was first adopted In the National Football League, where it requires all teams to interview at least one person of color each time a head coaching or general manager role comes open.

The initial shareholder proposal, jointly submitted by the Master Trust of the Service Employees International Union and CtW Investment Group, said that “Shareholders have long believed that embracing diversity will benefit companies by providing greater access to talent, harnessing existing talent more effectively, and improving decision making by reducing groupthink and similar psychological biases.”

The proposal noted that Amazon was the only company among a group of 18 it had identified as peers that did not have a person of color on its board of directors. Outside of the board, Amazon’s executive ranks are also occupied predominately by white men. Of the company’s top 18 executives, 17 are men and all are white.

In its initial opposition to the shareholder proposal, Amazon had said that it already seeks out candidates with diversity in mind, but that the “Board believes that adoption of the policy requested by the proposal would not be an effective and prudent use of the Company’s time and resources.”

“Our processes for nominating directors involve complex considerations that are designed to advance the long-term interests of shareholders,” the company added in the initial proxy statement.

Inside Amazon, employees peppered the company’s communications department with questions about the current board selection process and how it could be deemed successful if all 10 directors were white, emails viewed by Recode showed. One Amazon employee ended a long email to coworkers and management with this plea:

We have a chance to be the FIRST to tackle this amongst top tech companies, but whenever diversity issues come up, we run from data and sprint towards overelaboration and buzzwords. No one in a position of real authority here at Amazon is willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time on diversity. Matter fact, we choose to misunderstand rather than be misunderstood.

I know there are many people internally working really hard on these issues (both FT D&I staff and all the unpaid diversity laborers in our affinity group leadership teams!) who I know are reading stuff like this and feeling like their efforts are being detracted. You are who I am saying this for:

We don’t need more effort, we need COURAGE.

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Uber has hired an Amazon executive as its new northern Europe chief — one month before a big battle to regain its London licence

Uber has appointed former Amazon executive Jamie Heywood as regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, as it tries to put out the multiple fires which threaten its business.

Heywood was formerly a director of electronics for Amazon in the UK, and a director at Virgin Mobile before that. According to his LinkedIn profile, he speaks fluent Mandarin.

His appointment comes six months after his predecessor Jo Bertram stepped down. His role covers 12 countries in Europe, including the UK, and Uber says it has more than 110,000 drivers and 8 million active riders in the region.

Heywood will endure a baptism of fire, since Uber is currently fighting to maintain its presence in the UK.

The company lost its licence to operate in London — its biggest European market — in September 2017 after the capital's regulator Transport for London said the company wasn't "fit and proper" to hold a licence.

Uber is challenging TfL's decision in court but, if it loses that legal battle, it will have to quit the capital. Uber's appeal is scheduled for June, according to Reuters.

Uber also lost its licence to operate in Brighton in May this year.

Uber's critics point to the firm's mixed record on safety, its treatment of drivers, its failure to disclose a major data breach, and its history of evading US regulators.

Since appointing a new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, the firm has been fighting to prove it has changed, introducing limits on the number of hours drivers can work, and proactively reporting serious incidents in London to the Metropolitan police. Khosrowshahi also met with London's regulators twice in an effort to smooth over relations.

Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, Uber's vice president and regional general manager in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said Heywood will play an important role in the changes.

"Jamie’s leadership will also be crucial as we implement major changes across Europe including more safety features, improvements for drivers, and a new approach to partnering with cities," Gore-Coty said.

Uber does have better UK governance since its Khosrowshahi executive stepped in last August. The company appointed businesswoman Laurel Powers-Freeling as its new independent non-executive chair last October, and former travel head of Acromas Susan Hooper and media entrepreneur Roger Parry as non-executive directors this year.

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