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Tech wrap: Twitter woes drag on; Uber targets flying cars (+ video); testing robot car rides; Google targets fake news

Bulldog Bulletin

Apr, 26 2017, 6:36 AM

In today's Bulldog wrapup of technology news:

The details:

You'd think Twitter would be able to milk its status as President Donald Trump's megaphone. But the company still faces stagnant user growth, has never made a profit and may even report a quarterly revenue decline Wednesday, a first since going public.

Trump's frequent tweets ricochet well beyond his 28 million Twitter followers. Anything he tweets can serve as fodder for social media, TV news shows and, often, late-night comedy. Analysts say Twitter's user engagement — how often people respond, retweet or "like," for instance — likely benefited from "political discourse" in the first quarter.

The problem: The people already on Twitter may well be using it more, but America's first true "Twitter President" hasn't inspired others to sign up for Twitter en masse.

Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, expects "minimal" user growth, consistent with recent quarters. Twitter is expected to release its quarterly financial report on Wednesday morning.

At the end of 2016, Twitter had just 319 million monthly users. By contrast, Facebook had 1.89 billion and Facebook-owned Instagram had 600 million. More users, of course, mean more advertising revenue for the companies, since businesses try to reach as many eyeballs as possible.

Twitter has never turned a profit, and for the first time since going public in 2013, it is expected to report a decline in revenue from the previous year. In the first three months of 2016, the San Francisco-based company posted revenue of nearly $595 billion.

Uber is taking to the skies with its next project — "flying cars" — even as all eyes are on its problems on the ground.

On Tuesday, the embattled ride-hailing company announced plans for an on-demand network of electric aircraft that can take off and land vertically, like a helicopter. It wants to test a network for such vehicles by 2020.

The company says its partners in this Elevate initiative include real estate companies, aircraft manufacturers, electric vehicle charger makers and the cities of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.

Uber's Jeff Holden says urban aviation "is a natural next step for Uber."

Uber has been reeling from executive departures and accusations of sexual harassment at its workplace. Results of an internal investigation are expected in May.

Fiat Chrysler and Google for the first time will offer rides to the public in the self-driving vehicles they are building under an expanding partnership.

Waymo, Google's self-driving car project, said Tuesday it's adding 500 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans to its self-driving vehicle fleet. It will allow hundreds of people in the Phoenix area to take rides in the vehicles so it can get feedback on the experience.

Phoenix-area residents could apply on Waymo's website starting Tuesday. The vehicles will also pick up riders in Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert, Waymo said. All of the vehicles will have Waymo backup drivers who can take over in an emergency.

Fiat Chrysler and Waymo have been partners since last spring, when they announced they would build 100 self-driving Pacifica hybrids minivans. Those vehicles were delivered to Waymo in December. The companies have been testing the vehicles in Arizona, California and Michigan.

Waymo began offering a small number of public rides in Arizona two months ago before deciding to expand the program, a spokesman said.

Waymo — created by Google in 2009 — has given rides to the public before in its hometown of Mountain View, California. In 2015, it let a blind man ride around Austin, Texas, in one of its completely self-driving pods. The Phoenix program will be much larger in scale, and it will be the first to use the Pacifica minivans.

Google has sprinkled some new ingredients into its search engine in an effort to prevent bogus information and offensive suggestions from souring its results.

The changes have been in the works for four months, but Google hadn't publicly discussed most of them until now. The announcement in a blog post Tuesday reflects Google's confidence in a new screening system designed to reduce the chances that its influential search engine will highlight untrue stories about people and events, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "fake news."

"It's not a problem that is going to go all the way to zero, but we now think we can stay a step ahead of things," said Ben Gomes, Google's vice president of engineering for search.

Besides taking steps to block fake news from appearing in its search results, Google also has reprogrammed a popular feature that automatically tries to predict what a person is looking for as a search request as being typed. The tool, called "autocomplete," has been overhauled to omit derogatory suggestions, such as "are women evil," or recommendations that promote violence.

Google also adding a feedback option that will enable users to complain about objectionable autocomplete suggestions so a human can review the wording.





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