Weekend Roundup: Facebook’s Big Fine, Tesla Bullish on A.I. Driving

This week in tech was all about the future, with two of the industry’s most buzzed-about firms (Facebook and Tesla) revealing things that could have a sizable impact on their fortunes. On top of that, another huge company (Microsoft) unveiled a new programming language that could change how people code—if anyone bothers to adopt it. Let’s plunge in!

Facebook’s (Big?) Fine

Arguably the biggest corporate news of the week: Facebook is negotiating an enormous settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating the privacy of millions of Americans. How big? Facebook itself thinks that the final bill could reach anywhere between $3 billion and $5 billion.

“We estimate that the range of loss in this matter is $3 billion to $5 billion. The matter remains unresolved, and there can be no assurance as to the timing or the terms of any final outcome,” the company wrote in its most recent earnings statement.

For most companies, $3 billion would represent an existential threat to corporate survival. However, Facebook isn’t most companies; despite an avalanche of bad press related to data leaks and blasé privacy practices, the company remains a Wall Street darling, racking up revenues of $15.08 billion in the first quarter of the year. As long as you deliver the cash and growth, it seems, the markets will overlook your customers’ data slipping into the open.

The big question is whether the FTC’s reported fine is the tip of an enormous iceberg that also includes tighter data regulations. Even tech executives who laugh off huge government fines are terrified at the prospect of new laws that restrict how they can collect and use personal data, which could very easily wreck their business models. It will be interesting to see if the United States eventually adopts a ‘Data Bill of Rights,’ similar to what the European Union imposed with GDPR.  

Microsoft’s New Programming Language

It’s not production-ready, but Microsoft has launched a new programming language that could interest anyone who enjoys tinkering with code. Known as Bosque (check out the GitHub repository), it comes with big ambitions: It wants to establish a new paradigm for how people code software.

For decades, developers have relied on “structured” programming, which focuses on things such as code clarity, quality, and speed of development. Those are all good things! But Mark Marron, who wrote the paper establishing Bosque’s parameters, believes that structured programming relies too much on constructs such as loops that can introduce too much complexity to even straightforward builds.

Marron believes that Bosque is the vanguard of what he calls the “regularized programming model,” which (in the words of his paper) “eliminates major sources of errors, simplifies code understanding and modification, and converts many automated reasoning tasks over code into trivial propositions.” It does so by eliminating elements such as ‘do while,’ ‘while,’ and ‘for’ loops, which (in theory) could cut down on under-specified behaviors and unintentional side effects.

Bosque has big ambitions, but overthrowing decades’ worth of baked-in programming habits is a monumental task. Good luck, Marron!

Tesla Wants to Drive You Somewhere

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is known for promising big things—and then failing to deliver on his own self-imposed deadlines. And his week, he made arguably his biggest promise/prediction yet: that Tesla automobiles will become fully capable of driving without human supervision within a year or so.

In fact, he made this vision of a self-driving utopia sound easy: “All you need to do is improve the software,” he told the audience at Tesla’s April 22 event, during which the company’s autonomous-driving experts showed off the latest innovations in self-navigation technology.

(Just “improve the software”! Did you hear a faint sound? That was developers around the world cry-laughing into their hands.)

Musk claimed the hardware necessary for full autonomous driving is already onboard the latest Tesla cars, including eight “vision cameras,” 12 ultrasonic sensors, radar, and a custom-built onboard computer capable of processing all the information drawn from those inputs. Musk insisted the computer was more powerful than the “chip driver assistance system” developed by NVIDIA, although it’s probably not fair to compare Tesla’s two-chip computer against NVIDIA’s single-chip system.  

But again, Musk has a habit of making big claims that don’t pan out on the timelines he proposes. It would certainly astound the world if Tesla became capable of fully autonomous driving well ahead of its competitors, many of which have been making slow-but-steady progress in this technological arena (such as Waymo). As with all things Tesla, we shall see; certainly it’s been working on A.I.-powered driving for some time.