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Meta and Twitter’s NFT Landgrab Could Backfire

Meta and Twitter’s NFT Landgrab Could Backfire

“Despite the positivity around NFT use cases, there’s a lot of distrust in the community—perhaps due to the anonymity of key artists and influencers, and almost certainly due to the scammers that circle like vultures and frequent rug pulls,” says PJ Cooper, founder of Pandimensional Trading Co., which is launching its own NFT collection later this year. Despite those reservations, Cooper is largely supportive of Twitter’s entry into the NFT space, and says he will display an NFT as his profile picture when functionality rolls out to the UK.

Cooper does, however, have worries about the fact that people can still right-click and save NFT profile pictures and mint their own version of them as NFTs.

A company spokesperson for NFT marketplace OpenSea, Allie Mack, confirmed that NFT profile pictures that appear on Twitter are verified through the company’s site. In fact, Twitter uses API, metadata, and collection information from OpenSea to authenticate an NFT displayed on a user’s profile and turns it into a “soft hexagon” on the site. Around the same time as Twitter launched NFTs, OpenSea crashed. At the time, security researcher Jane Manchun Wong tweeted that OpenSea’s platform had taken out Twitter’s NFT feature. OpenSea says that the outage had “absolutely zero impact on the public Twitter integration” and that the issue flagged by Jane happened in a closed beta. Since the Twitter integration launch, Mack says there has been zero interruption to the Twitter service.

Others are not convinced that relying on a third party site is the right decision. “OpenSea is pretty unreliable,” says Patrick McCorry, senior system engineer at blockchain startup Infura. This may be one thing Big Tech wants to fix before embracing NFTs full bore, he says.

The OpenSea platform itself has not been free of controversy. Artists have pointed out that the site is rife with rip-off NFT versions of their real-life art, or versions of their sculptures and paintings that could easily be purchased by unwitting social media users. The problem got so big that DeviantArt, an art hosting website from which works were repeatedly lifted, developed its own tool to scan the blockchain for works that also appear on its site, and inform the creators. The platform does have procedures for those whose art has been stolen to appeal for work to be taken down, but the problem persists. A recent investigation found profiles selling NFTs of trademarked logos from some of the world’s biggest brands, including Microsoft, Disney, Amazon, and Adidas, without permission.

Theft is a perennial problem for the NFT world, and one that seems unlikely to be easily fixed, but McCorry thinks that’s a non-issue for Meta and Twitter. “What matters really is custody and the ability to sell it on a secondary market,” he says. For now, it is clear that neither company would own or have custody of an NFT. “Custody is a liability for them,” he said.

For those deep in the NFT space, the adoption of official standards by Twitter in particular is welcomed. Plenty of Twitter users have NFT art as their profile picture, but find it difficult to prove ownership, particularly when faced by trolls who like nothing more than to right-click and steal their NFTs to show them the fallibility of their investments. “Right now, anyone can just put up a CryptoPunk picture and pretend to have one,” says McCorry. Twitter’s plans to prove ownership officially are “a nice way to demonstrate digital property rights.”

Google’s Alleged Scheme to Corner the Online Ad Market

Google’s Alleged Scheme to Corner the Online Ad Market

In 2010, a Google product manager named Scott Spencer gave an interview explaining Google’s use of “second-price” auctions to place ads across the web. In a second-price auction, the highest bidder wins, but only has to pay whatever the second highest bid was. Economists love this setup—the guy who theorized it won a Nobel Prize—because it encourages participants to bid whatever the item is truly worth to them without worrying about overpaying. As Spencer explained, “ it minimizes the need to ‘game’ the system.”

But what if Google was the one gaming the system?

That’s the accusation made in an antitrust lawsuit brought by a coalition of states led by Texas attorney general Ken Paxton. On Friday morning, a federal judge released an unredacted version of the most recent complaint in the case, which was first filed in 2020. The document provides unprecedented insight into how Google allegedly misled advertisers and publishers for years by manipulating auctions in its own favor using inside information. As one employee put it in a newly revealed internal document, Google’s public claim about second-price auctions were “untruthful.”

The Texas case, one of several the company is facing, takes aim at Google’s control of the auction-driven display advertising market. Google utterly dominates every link in the chain between advertiser and audience. It owns the biggest buyer platform, the biggest ad exchange, and the biggest publisher platform. So when you see an ad on a website, it’s a good bet that the advertiser used Google to place it, Google’s exchange submitted it to the site, and the site used Google to make the space available. Google, in other words, runs the auction while representing both the buyers and sellers in that auction.

This presents an obvious conflict of interest. As one employee put it, quoted in a previously unsealed version of the lawsuit, “The analogy would be if Goldman or Citibank owned the NYSE.” According to Texas, Google has failed to resist the temptation to use its control of the market to its own advantage. The lawsuit accuses it of deploying at least three programs secretly designed to distort the supposed second-price auctions. While the existence of those programs was already public, the newly unredacted complaint provides new detail into how they allegedly work.

The first program, launched in 2013, was the strangely named Project Bernanke, as in former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke. According to Texas’s description of internal Google documents, here’s how it worked. Suppose the highest bid placed through AdX, Google’s ad exchange, was $10, and the second highest was $8. In that case, the advertiser who bid $10 should win the auction and pay the publisher $8. Under Project Bernanke, however, Google would allegedly instead pay the publisher whatever the third-highest bid was—let’s say $5—while still charging the advertiser the full $8.

What happened to the $3 difference? According to the complaint, Google would siphon it into a “Bernanke pool” that it used to advantage its own ad-buying tool, Google Ads. The filing quotes an internal 2014 document in which a Google employee describes the need to reverse “a worrisome 2013 trend”: rival ad-buying platforms were winning too many auctions on AdX. According to the complaint, Google used the money in the pool to boost bids that otherwise would be lower than bids placed through those other platforms. (This could explain why the program is named after Bernanke, who promoted “quantitative easing”—pumping money into the economy—to combat the Great Recession. An internal Google slide uses the phrase quantitative easing.) At first, Google kept track of how much money it was withholding from publishers and eventually paying them back. But, according to the complaint, later versions of the program stopped even doing that.

Self-Driving Vehicles Are Here—If You Know Where to Look

Self-Driving Vehicles Are Here—If You Know Where to Look

The self-driving car has come to seem like an idea that’s always a few years away from reality. But perhaps we aren’t looking closely enough.

According to two women leading efforts to commercialize autonomous vehicles, the technology has well and truly arrived—and while it might be limited to certain niches for now, they believe it could become a lot more common in the next few years.

Jody Kelman oversees the autonomous driving division of the ride-sharing company Lyft, which has been testing self-driving taxis in Las Vegas since 2018.

Aubrey Donnellan is a cofounder and the chief operating officer at Bear Flag Robotics, which retrofits tractors to make them autonomous.

Kelman and Donnellan spoke to WIRED staff writer Aarian Marshall at WIRED HQ at CES, a virtual event exploring the standout gadgets, technologies, and ideas on show at the giant trade event.

“It’s here already—that’s the good news,” Donnellan says when asked when self-driving vehicles would finally arrive. “We’ve been out in the market for a couple years now.”

Open fields present fewer challenges for autonomous vehicles than busy roads, and so limited forms of autonomy have become a feature of tractors in recent years. Donnellan says she expects her company to make more tractors autonomous in the next few years.

Bear Flag was acquired by the farm equipment giant John Deere in August. At CES, Deere also announced its own fully autonomous tractor, which could prod more farmers to deploy robots in their fields.

Lyft, which offers self-driving rides in Vegas in collaboration with the autonomous vehicle company Motional, has shown that autonomy works in limited scenarios, Kelman says. Lyft users there can sometimes summon an autonomous car using the same app they use for other rides. Kelman says the company has completed more than 100,000 autonomous rides, and it plans to expand the offering with a dedicated self-driving taxi service in 2023, as well as further deployments in other locations.

“What we’re going to see is this really starting in earnest next year,” Kelman says. But autonomy won’t be available everywhere simultaneously. “This is going to happen in pockets over time, in certain cities, in certain weather conditions, at certain times of day.”

Lyft said in April that it would sell its self-driving subsidiary, Level 5, to Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet, but the company still has a product team dedicated to supporting autonomous driving and continues to work on the technology with other companies.

The development of self-driving cars has been bedevilled by technical challenges caused by weather and other factors, and some efforts to push the technology forward have resulted in deadly accidents.

Both Kelman and Donnellan say that understanding how humans interact with autonomy will be crucial to guaranteeing both safety and successful adoption. “The companies that are doing this, that are worth their salt, kind of ironically put the human at the center of their robotic innovation,” Donnellan says.

According to Kelman, companies that are working on self-driving cars can learn not only from successes in other industries, such as agriculture, but from one another. She points out that Motional shares data gathered from autonomous driving with other companies. She says that approach, which is gaining momentum in Europe, could accelerate development of the technology.

Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Is Convicted on 4 Counts

Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Is Convicted on 4 Counts

For three years, Elizabeth Holmes has faced the court of public opinion, as countless books, articles, documentaries, and TV shows have squeezed every last drop out of the saga of the blood-testing startup Theranos. Now, an actual court has delivered the final verdict. On Monday, after seven days of deliberations, a jury in San Jose, California, found her guilty on four counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on another four counts, and it could not agree on three.

The four guilty charges involve Theranos’ investors, who say they were misled about the company’s capabilities, and who lost millions of dollars after its demise. Holmes now faces up to 20 years in prison for each conviction. (The judge has not yet set a hearing for sentencing.)

Over the past three months, the prosecution made its case that Holmes knowingly “chose fraud over business failure,” convincing her investors to sink more money into the company despite its failings. Twenty-nine witnesses took the stand, including former employees who testified that when Theranos’ technology did not work as promised, Holmes encouraged them to cover it up. One former product manager said the company faked demos and removed abnormal results when sending reports to investors. Another revealed that Holmes exaggerated partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, made up nonexistent military contracts, and pasted pharmaceutical logos onto Theranos’ reports, confusing investors and potential partners about who was vouching for the blood-testing technology. A journalist from Fortune, who wrote a cover story about Theranos in 2014, said Holmes failed to correct numerous errors in the reporting because it benefited the company to appear more capable than it actually was.

Mountains of evidence—including text messages, emails, and company documents—showed that Theranos’ technology was in disrepair and failed to live up to its founder’s vision as the future of blood testing. But the case hinged on whether Holmes, as the company’s CEO, knowingly deceived investors and patients, or if she acted in good faith as a struggling entrepreneur. “The battle ground is Holmes’ mental state: whether or not she had the intent to commit fraud,” says James Melendres, a former federal prosecutor and a partner at business law firm Snell & Wilmer. “You have 12 jurors—12 people off the street—who sit in a room and decide what was in Holmes’ mind.” The jury found Holmes not guilty on the counts involving patients, two of whom received bogus test results from Theranos’ blood testing technology.

The defense called three witnesses, including Holmes herself, who spent seven days on the stand diffusing the blame across Theranos’ many scientific advisers and board members. Many of Theranos’ employees had years of experience working in biotechnology; Holmes, by comparison, dropped out of Stanford in her sophomore year.

She testified that Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her former business partner and former boyfriend, was responsible for preparing falsified financial reports and overseeing the company’s labs. Holmes also said that Balwani controlled and abused her, affecting her mental state during her later years at Theranos. Balwani faces his own criminal trial later this year.

Holmes’ case has been viewed as Silicon Valley’s trial of the decade, as well as an indictment on startup culture itself: When does a founder’s hubris become fraud? Melendres calls the decision a “bellwether,” noting that it could become a landmark case in the Department of Justice’s handling of startups.

For the rest of Silicon Valley, the case may be a reminder that there is a limit to how much startups can get away with—and that the government is watching. “The government usually wins these things,” says Jennifer Kennedy Park, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. She also notes the vast resources and subpoena powers that can give prosecutors an advantage. This case shows that founders are not off-limits.


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This New Tech Cuts Through Rock Without Grinding Into It

This New Tech Cuts Through Rock Without Grinding Into It

Bob Goodfellow has spent 30 years in underground construction and design projects and now works on the Los Angeles Metro system. His company Aldea is working with Petra on tests of its initial systems.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Goodfellow says. “There’s been talk about things like nuclear-powered tunnel-boring machines and contactless tunneling and stuff like that, but it’s just been talking prototypes. As far as I know, these are the first people that are trying to really, genuinely commercialize it.”

Petra has been operating in stealth mode since 2018. Initially, Abrams said, the founding team thought plasma could be an ideal way to cut through rock. But the approach ran into issues, including the size of the equipment, how to supply the plasma, and what to do with pools of magma created by the excavation.

“We just ended up melting a lot of the rock and creating lava, and when we created lava, it was effectively holding our system in its tracks,” she says.

Petra CTO and Tesla cofounder Ian Wright joined the company about a year ago to work on energy consumption for powering a plasma torch but started moving the team away from the plasma-torch approach. Wright says he regularly fields questions about the Boring Company, a tunneling company Elon Musk cofounded, but Wright says he played no role in the Boring Company.

Utilities employ a variety of methods to put power or cable lines underground. On city streets, it’s typically done using a saw with a giant blade to cut through asphalt or concrete. In less crowded places, dynamite or other explosives blast away rock, or excavators break rock into smaller pieces. Drilling can be done with a traditional drill head and a mix of chemicals, and boring machines can dig tunnels as big as a freeway or as small as a few inches wide.

John Fluharty is a contractor who installs pipelines for utility companies and a member of PDi2, a company that researches and supports ways to “underground” utility and power. He says burying power lines generally costs up to five times as much as running them above ground; hard-rock installations can cost up to 20 times more than overhead lines. But once they’re installed, maintenance costs are much lower than for above-ground lines.

Concerns about climate change have increased interest in burying power lines. For the US to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, Princeton University researchers concluded, the nation’s power grid will have to carry 60 percent more electricity, including a fourfold increase in wind and solar capacity. Technological advances that enable power lines to carry more electricity could also help address climate change and advance wind and solar farm projects.

Supporters say moving utilities underground makes more sense in a world where extreme weather can threaten people’s access to electricity, especially in places prone to fire or hurricanes. High-voltage lines have sparked numerous fires in recent years, including a 2018 fire in Northern California that killed 84 people. Pacific Gas & Electric, which pled guilty to manslaughter in connection with that fire, recently committed to placing 10,000 miles of power lines underground in central and northern California.