Weekend Roundup: Amazon’s Halo Wristband, Zappos CEO Steps Down

You made it to Friday! Before you shut down for the next few days, let’s check out some big stories from the week that you might have missed, including Amazon’s latest wearable and a prominent CEO stepping down. 

Amazon Halo: Wearable Winner or Privacy Nightmare?

For tech firms large and small, wearables have produced mixed results. For every Microsoft Band that failed to draw consumer attention (seriously, does anyone remember that one?), there’s been a FitBit or Apple Watch that’s gained marketplace traction. If Apple’s success with its smartwatch is any indication, this is an area where companies can earn many billions of dollars—provided they get the hardware and software right.

Now Amazon is tossing its proverbial hat into the ring with a new wristband, Halo, that’s meant to track the wearer’s activity, sleep, and… tone of voice?

Yes, Halo will use little microphones to detect and analyze the user’s tone as they speak, and then output whether they’re feeling stressed, angry, positive, or other mental states. In interviews with CNN, Amazon executives insisted that user privacy was forefront during the design process, and that voice samples will be deleted after processing. Nonetheless, if you heard a dim rumbling just now, that was the nation’s privacy advocates sprinting for their keyboards to compose some very harshly worded blog posts about tech-firm overreach.

If that wasn’t potentially problematic enough, Halo’s associated cloud service will use your smartphone camera to 3D-scan your body and calculate your body-fat percentage. It will then virtually render how you might look with more or less body fat. In theory, that might help people regulate their physical health—but as critics are already pointing out, it could have a negative impact on folks’ mental health.

Halo, which will come with standard wearable hardware such as GPS, a heart-rate monitor, and an accelerometer, will retail for $99.99, and the associated cloud service (which is separate from the user’s Amazon account, according to The Verge) will cost $3.99 per month. Will it succeed? Amazon has a mixed track record when it comes to hardware—although Alexa-enabled speakers have been a huge hit, other initiatives (such as the forgotten Fire Phone) crashed and burned. 

Zappos CEO Steps Down 

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is stepping down from his e-commerce company after more than 20 years. Zappos figured out a number of policies that have subsequently become e-commerce staples, including free shipping and returns; it was acquired by Amazon in 2009. 

Zappos has also served as a testing bed of sorts for innovative tech-management processes. Five years ago, the company made a big bet on “Holacracy,” where management is spread out among teams rather than concentrated in the hands of a few key figures. In a memo at the time, Zappos argued that the new system would emphasize “self-management, self-organization, and more efficient structures.”

However, roughly 14 percent of Zappos employees opted to take buyouts after Hsieh initiated the shift. Say what you will about the experiment, it was certainly bold—and provoked a strong reaction. Whatever Hsieh does next, it’ll no doubt be innovative.

A.I. Beats Top Pilot

First, artificial intelligence (A.I.) got very good at beating humans in games. Now, it seems, A.I. could be getting very good at beating humans in war: An A.I. trained with techniques pioneered by Google subsidiary DeepMind reportedly engaged with a human fighter-plane pilot in a series of dogfights—and won.

Of course, this battle happened in a VR simulator, not real life. But the A.I. also won decisively, 0-5, even though human and machine were flying the same planes (F-16), which meant it was a contest of speed and precision. In every instance, the A.I. perfectly timed a missile strike that would have killed the human pilot had they been flying a real plane.  

The Pentagon has said it has no intention of handing over potentially lethal decisions to A.I., according to Wired, but with results like this one, how long until A.I. becomes an even bigger player on the battlefield?

Have a great weekend, everyone!