The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories
A good organization complements its leaders’ weaknesses; a bad one magnifies their flaws. Under President Trump, the entire executive branch of the U.S. government has turned into a feedback loop for the man’s moods and outbursts, as an extraordinary account in The Washington Post makes clear.
The White House team is on a bipolar roller-coaster that rises and falls with Trump’s state of mind — and we’re all along for the ride. If you’ve ever worked for someone with Angry Boss Syndrome, you know how dysfunctional this can get. The organizational focus narrows down to assessments of the boss’s psyche and efforts to influence it, while everyone scurries to buffer themselves from executive whim and rage.
Of course, this is no way to run a business, let alone a country. Today the Trump team rolled out its Travel Ban 2.0 — the latest close-the-borders effort piling to the build-the-wall campaign, the ICE crackdown on “dreamers,” and the H1B-visa limits. A few of the rough edges of the original order have been smoothed out, and Iraq has been removed from the list (CNN). But the essential outline stands: keep out visitors from a handful of mostly-Muslim countries — even though they’re not where any terrorist attacks on the U.S. have originated.
So it looks like it’s time to prepare for another round of legal combat, airport protests, and presidential reaction. Brows will darken; tweets will fly. Meanwhile, anger builds, and the real business of the nation languishes.
Palantir and the Ethical Quandaries Software Developers Face
Keeping would-be immigrants out of the U.S. is at heart a data problem, and so as the Trump administration pursues its anti-immigration policies, it has looked to the tech industry for help, tools, and know-how. Many companies and individuals have vowed not to cooperate. But one in particular has enthusiastically taken up the challenge: Palantir, the national-security data-mining outfit founded by billionaire Trump backer Peter Thiel.
Palantir is readying a case-management platform for the immigration authorities that provides “access to intelligence platforms maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and an array of other federal and private law enforcement entities” (The Intercept). The system “can provide ICE agents access to information on a subject’s schooling, family relationships, employment information, phone records, immigration history, foreign exchange program status, personal connections, biometric traits, criminal records, and home and work addresses.”
In other words, if the Trump administration wants to conduct mass deportations, it may not need anything as crude as the much-feared “Muslim registry.” Which means this might be a good time for every engineer at Palantir, and across the wider industry, to think about the issues raised by Quincy Larson (FreeCodeCamp): “Coding is a superpower. With it, you can bend reality to your will. You can make the world a better place. Or you can destroy it.” Recent revelations about ethical lapses in software design at Zenefits, Volkswagen, and Uber show just how high a price companies can pay when they ignore the red flags.
IBM Brings Blockchain Tech to Mundane Tasks
In the blockchain field, the distributed ledger tech that underlies Bitcoin, most of the action to date has been with big financial institutions that don’t want to be blindsided by a potentially gigantic disruption. But now blockchain-based tools are beginning to spread to more real-world applications, most prominently in an IBM-Walmart project for inventory tracking (The New York Times). IBM’s program is also working with shipping giant Maersk to track the paperwork that accompanies container cargo.
A blockchain lets you create a shared public ledger of transactions that anyone can add to but no one can tamper with. The technology is still in the early phases, and it remains abstruse and often inefficient. But the size of the institutions exploring it suggests that it’s evolving fast.
In Virginia, Robots Will Roam Sidewalks, Crosswalks
Jeff Bezos is planning lunar package delivery. Closer to home, robots in Virginia will soon be taking over some of the work of getting packages to your door and parcels across town. The state just became the first to allow robots to use public sidewalks and crosswalks (Recode). The Estonian company that pushed for the law, Starship Technologies, plans to begin sending out its robots once the law goes into effect on July 1.
The rules say these machines can’t go faster than 10 miles per hour or weigh more than 50 pounds. So no, you’re not about to get chased by one of those nightmarish Boston Dynamics behemoths that you might have seen charging through some scary videos recently.
For now, there will be no autonomous-bot parkour. But Virginia’s move is a loud wake-up call: If you figure we’re still a long way off from robots that perform the everyday work formerly monopolized by humans, it’s probably time to recalibrate that assumption.