News Article | September 23, 2009
Fisker Automotive has been awarded $528.7 million in U.S. Department of Energy loans to develop a more affordable plug-in hybrid for U.S. production. The hybrid car start-up company is indeed developing a $39,000 plug-in hybrid electric car, as CNET News predicted last week. Fisker currently refers to the mystery car as "Project Nina." The majority of the funds, which were awarded from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, will be put toward developing and building production facilities for the Nina car in the U.S. Nina's development and production will employ an estimated 5,000 U.S. workers counting indirect jobs from suppliers as well as direct Fisker employment, the company said Tuesday. Fisker recently introduced the Karma, a luxury hybrid sedan that sells for about $87,900. A small portion of the Department of Energy funds will go toward further developing production facilities for the Karma in the U.S. The Nina plug-in electric hybrid price of $39,000, is the estimate after government rebates are factored in to the price. While that price point would not be considered "affordable" to the average U.S. car buyer, it is an affordable price for plug-in hybrids and electric cars, which are not yet produced in large volume. Tesla's Model S electric sedan, in comparison, costs an estimated $50,000 to $56,400 after rebates. Tesla was awarded $465 million in loans from the same Department of Energy fund in June to build production facilities for the Model S. Using the federal loans, Fisker hopes to produce 100,000 "Nina" cars annually in the U.S. starting in 2012. And while the cars will carry made-in-the-U.S.A. bragging rights, Fisker hopes to sell many of the cars elsewhere too. "A significant percentage will be exported, helping to balance the U.S. trade deficit," Fisker said.
News Article | April 15, 2016
Mark Zuckerberg surveys all before him at Facebook f8. Image: Facebook If you spent any amount of time online in the past few days, you’ll have noticed plenty of chatter about chat bots, tiny little computer programs that live inside messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, Skype, or Slack that are designed to spit out useful bits of data like weather forecasts or the latest headlines using an interface—chat!—that requires little or no training to understand. Neat! It’s a nice idea, maybe, but you know what’s the single most obvious thing to me in the days since Mark Zuckerberg took the stage in San Francisco to proclaim the beginning of the Chat Bot Era? Brands and developers are feverishly trying to figure out in real time, right before our very eyes, where this whole chat bot thing is going. “There’s no question that bots are more suited for some kinds of interactions than others,” Sam Mandel, CEO of weather app Poncho, which released a weather bot for Facebook Messenger earlier this week, told Motherboard. “We think of it as really a conversation: When we built Poncho we wanted him to be your friend, and that’s why we think weather is just a great starting point in the sense that that’s a conversation that everyone has with their friends.” Unlike my friends, however, Poncho doesn’t quite understand the nuances of the Attitude Era: As Mandel explains it, Poncho decided to go all-in with a Facebook Messenger bot because people “have already voted with their time.” That is, since people already spend so much time inside messaging apps—nearly 75 percent of US iPhone owners regularly use messaging apps, according to mobile research firm App Annie, with even more impressive figures in countries like South Korea and China—that it would have been foolish for his company not to make a bot. “Our mission is to figure out how to present content on these interfaces,” he said. CNN's chat bot on the desktop version of Facebook Messenger. Screenshot: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard Right now, there’s a debate among brands and developers to determine how “lifelike” they want these first generation bots to appear, experimenting with things like how long to display typing indicators and what language to use when “talking” to the human on the other side of the conversation. “From the user’s point of view, how would you ask a question?” said CNN chief product officer Alex Wellen. “And what is the kind of response that gets you?” For CNN, which also released a Facebook Messenger chat bot this week that provides summaries of the day’s top news, the best answer at this early stage is to find the right balance between the conversational informality of something like Microsoft’s teen wannabe Tay—OK, maybe not that informal—and the kind of authoritative voice you’d likely expect from a journalistic outfit. “It’s really important that we’re—I guess the best word would be that we’re relevant and that we’re precise and crisp and accurate with the news and to get you what you’re looking for,” he said. “Stickers and nice turns-of-phrase are good for certain brands, and [that may not be] beyond CNN because we have a certain voice and a way we tell stories.” Another company that hangs its hat on storytelling is Disney, which is now worth more than $160 billion in large part thanks to the strength of franchises like Frozen and Star Wars (OK, George Lucas came up with that one, but still). Eyal Pfeifel, the co-founder and CTO of Imperson, a software company that develops conversational artificial intelligence, was tapped by Disney to create on-brand chat bots for characters like Miss Piggy and Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Miss Piggy chat bot on the desktop version of Facebook Messenger. Screenshot: Nicholas Deleon/Messenger “It’s not just that people are [using messaging apps], but they like this interface, and they use it quite a lot,” said Pfeifel, explaining why big companies like Disney are so eager to dive into the deep end of the chat bot pool. The thinking goes, according to Pfeifel, if you’re a brand or developer trying to sell flowers, or convince folks to tune into a sitcom about a bunch of talking puppets, it only makes sense to go where the people are. “You need to be there, but in a way that is native to messaging.” That brands and developers are still scratching their heads to figure out what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to chat bots may not be altogether surprising. After all, messaging as a computing interface is still brand new to anyone who didn’t grow up inside IRC chat rooms downloading MP3s and DivX files. (Cough.) “Originally we had DOS prompts,” said Pfeifel, walking through a history of computing interfaces, “then we suddenly has the graphical user interface, touchscreens for smartphones, and now we have also the messaging interface. It’s a new type of interface and over time people will realize what it is good for and what it does best.”
News Article | April 10, 2016
As discussed in our post on March 16 , the Congressional extension of the Production Tax Credit under Internal Revenue Code Section 45 and the Investment Tax Credit under IRC Section 48 in December 2015 failed to include extensions for certain types of renewable energy property, including fuel cell power plants, stationary microturbine power plants, small wind energy property, combined heat and power system property, and geothermal heat pump property. Congressional leaders have stated that the omission was an oversight that would be addressed in 2016.
News Article | March 9, 2016
Sexting, flirting on Facebook, tweeting a picture of one's bulge—digital media has expanded the means for infidelity so quickly that it's not always clear what can be called unfaithful. Chatting with a cam girl? Signing up for Ashley Madison, but never meeting anyone? “In the old days,” said Rob Weiss, a sex therapist and lecturer who’s written several books on technology and relationships, “I knew what cheating was. There was lipstick on the collar, you know, it was a physical thing that you could see and observe.” But despite what looks like a growing cultural acceptance of, at the very least, porn (which by some estimates, one in three women get into on the weekly) and on its more expansive end the idea that some digitally mediated sex could exist alongside the smellier, messier realities of intimacy IRL, there seems to be one type of affair that still drives people bonkers: sex in Second Life. It's not just Second Life, of course. Gaming worlds, where some players spend significant chunks of their lives, have only gotten more massive and more social, creating more opportunities for virtual romance—and, if you're boo'ed up, digital adultery. In-game unfaithfulness can also bleed into real life: There are a surprising number of stories about husbands leaving their wives for someone they met planning a raid in World of Warcraft. Not much has changed in public opinion since 2006, when a distraught wife told the Wall Street Journal how devastating it was to try to talk to someone as “they’ll be having sex with a cartoon”—by which she meant her husband’s Second Life squeeze. Meanwhile, some players find in-game intimacy, also called erotic roleplay, to be a natural part of experiencing life in a virtual world—and sometimes, their spouse are cool with it. In-game romantic relationships are even more understudied than other kinds of digitally mediated romance, and what studies do exist tend to skew towards consternation. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Wisconsin set up an adorable little virtual institute in Second Life and surveyed about two hundred and fifty people who were both in committed relationships IRL and in-game. They found a “concerning and emotionally seductive image of virtual love” when it turned out respondents were generally just as satisfied in their relationships regardless of whether their Second Life partner and real-life beau were one and the same—in fact, some were happier with their in-game lovers, though that might go with the territory when your second life doesn’t involve doing the dishes or dealing with in-laws. And for what it’s worth, the idea that online sex and relationships could facilitate fantasy at the expense of the more complicated realities of, well, reality was also of concern to Weiss: He mentioned a study in Japan suggesting over 30 percent of young men were just fine dating their devices, thank you very much. But when real relationships and in-world gaming romances exist side-by-side, people appear to engage in a fantastic number of arrangements and deploy a broad swath of tactics. In IRC role-plays and WoW forums, partners who are vocal about their in-world sex lives, though they don’t want to give their real names, seem pretty nonchalant about their relationships. One guy I spoke to said he and his partner both have in-game significant others in their long-term IRC role-play, but that they really consider their roles to be authorial, even when it comes to the sex their characters enjoy—it’s more about fleshing out the characters than enacting specific fantasies. Others might allow their characters flirtations but strictly prohibit the sexy chat, opting to “fade to black” instead of go into the steamy details. Julia, a player who’s been married eleven years, says she and husband met in a role-play community “so we both understand what [it] is and are comfortable with the separation between in-story and out-of-story.” There was never a question that her character’s feelings mirrored her own, particularly when it came to romance. Still, when she got into erotic role play specifically, she was worried he might become uncomfortable with it—they created some boundaries (only in-character dirty talk, the sex had to be a part of the larger story) and she gave her husband access to all her chat logs. Years later, she admits it’s a “big part of her sexuality” and, while her dude can still check up on her if he wants, he doesn’t take the opportunity very often. “I think we have a sensationalist view of what online sexuality is,” said Ashley M. L. Brown, a sex and games researcher and a lecturer at Brunel University London. “We only hear the stories about the couple who gets married or divorced because of an online game.” A few years ago, Brown did an ethnographic study of couples in WoW who engaged in erotic role play, together and separately. What we don’t hear, she says, “are stories I heard throughout my research about couples who make sensible compromises like, ‘it’s okay if you watch porn, I’ll erotic role play.’ We don’t hear about couples who use virtual worlds to stimulate and pleasure each other.” In her interviews, as well as with the gamers I spoke to, the idea of transparent chat logs—as a way to augment a couple’s sex life as much as a gesture of trust—came up with some frequency. Brown also noted that one of the major themes to emerge from her research was the idea that gaming and erotic role play, no matter how sexy, was considered by her subjects to be a fantasy that rarely mapped to reality—an assumption that is perhaps a little more pronounced in gaming than in, say, the conversation around sexting or porn. “What happens in the game world might be hot and sexy,” she says, “but it has little application to the real world. Just because it seems fun and sexy to have sex under a waterfall in a game world doesn’t mean it will be fun or sexy in the real world. Just because a threesome in-game is fun, doesn’t mean the player wants a real threesome.” And though Brown is reluctant to make sweeping analysis of gamers as a class, she does mention in her writings the potential effects of gaming’s conventions; cheaters within a gaming context, she theorizes, are “players that are unfaithful to the relationship agreements laid out at the start of play.” Perhaps, then, it’s a little easier for gamers than the rest of us to draw boundaries around the fantasies they enact online. Or, as one WoW playing glibly told Brown, he doesn’t consider his sexy chats online cheating for “the same reason I don’t consider murdering someone in role-play murder.”
News Article | April 12, 2016
At F8, Facebook’s massive annual developer conference, the big news is bots—specifically bots on Messenger, Facebook’s messaging app. Messenger now boasts 900 million users per month, which presents a tantalizing user base for companies eager to get their wares in front of customers. That’s where the bots come in. Facebook is turning Messenger into an open platform, and any company can now build a chatbot that users can talk with. If you’re an airline, you can build a chatbot to book tickets; if you’re OpenTable you can build a chatbot to take reservations. "To me it's about bringing back all the best parts of the interaction between people and businesses," David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook, says in an interview. "What we’re trying to build with bots are rich conversational experiences. That’s what we believe will be the future of interactions and services." Chatbots seem like a new fad in software design: Microsoft just announced its own suite of bot-building tools; Kik, the messaging platform massively popular among teens, announced one as well. But there are deep reasons why chatbots make sense. The app model has stalled out: People don’t use a ton of apps, and they don’t download many either. The reason is simple: There’s an enormous amount of friction associated with learning about a new app, downloading it, signing up for it, and then remembering you even have it. The promise of chatbots is that from within Facebook Messenger you can do anything you'd like. For example, you can book an airline ticket for the the first time or call an Uber, with a speed and ease that would be impossible if you were toggling between apps. Moreover, because you’re already in Messenger, there’s no need to sign up all over again if you're trying out a new service. Messenger already knows who you are, and once you start a conversational thread, your transaction history is right there, threaded into one neat, tidy stream of conversation that you and the bot can access. "We have a two-sided network," explains Marcus. "There are 15 million businesses using pages and 1.6 billion people using Facebook as their identity. These can now come together in threads that are contextual and canonical. For the lifetime of your interaction everything stays in one place, unlike email." And, unlike email, your Facebook profile becomes the keystone of your online identity. The other issue is discovery—exactly the problem that the app ecosystem failed to solve. To that end, Facebook is making sure that the bots are piggybacking onto the existing user flows of the mobile web. If they’re successful, bots will become something like the new Like button: There will be new plugins that companies can add to their websites, which will fire up their chatbots in Messenger. There will also be codes that businesses can slap onto stickers in their real life spaces—much like Kik does—which will allow patrons to fire up chatbots on the spot. Both Facebook Newsfeed and SMS messages will now have a prompt letting you continue a thread inside of messenger. In that way, Facebook is really hoping to create a new paradigm for the web altogether. You might start off at an airline’s website, but tapping a "chat" button leads you right back into Messenger, where you can complete your reservation. You might start off by browsing your Facebook feed, but end up chatting with CNN’s chatbot. With a tap from almost anywhere, users can be led right back into Messenger, exactly where Facebook wants them. Wherever you are—checking out on a website or reading an article in your needs feed—there will be a new chatbot option that could become a default for millions of people, if they’re designed right. Designing a chatbot seems perhaps easier than it is. For Facebook, the process began with a design sprint. Holed up in an Airbnb for three days, the Facebook Messenger team focused on a few problems that they had encountered in the experimental chatbots that they had created for clothing retailers Everlane and Zulily. Perhaps the biggest challenge was teaching people what the bots could even do. In that sense, Facebook’s increasingly powerful natural-language AI—Wit.ai, which is also being opened up to third-party developers—was a potential hinderance. Let’s say you fired up a bot. What's the first What does it do? What doesn’t it do? What's the first think you say? That’s why the experience with bots is less free-form than real chat. You’re presented with a series of options that you click, progressively telling the bot your preferences for how often you’ll be notified or what kinds of information you’d like to receive—"Like a Goosebumps choose your own adventure book," explains Jeremy Goldberg, a product designer for business and platform at Facebook. But there are some particulars about how the chatbot itself should behave. Facebook boils these down to four design guidelines, that all bots should adhere to: That the bots should be conversational, issuing messages in a natural tone of voice and short, pithy responses paced quickly but not so quickly that the bot is oppressively present—like a chat partner hanging on your every word and expecting just as quick of a response. The responses themselves can be interactive bubbles. Some let you horizontally scroll through a list of sweatshirts via Everlane or a list of popular stories via CNN. Others present options that you can tap—for example, you could share your present location with a weather app like Poncho—thus quickly making your your conversations more useful. Chatbots in Kik and elsewhere work much like this already, with guided options that push your chat along. But Facebook believes that the future will yield deeper and deeper integrations between the chatbots and the sensors and data on your phone. "We will keep pushing that forward. More and more kinds of messages and information that you can exchange," says Austin Bales, product-design manager at Facebook. Moreover, the natural language AI will get better, as bots hoover up more and more data about the things people say and the questions they ask. Over time, according to Marcus, this mix of natural language chat and tappable bubbles will yield a chatbot UX that feels increasingly fluid and intuitive. Facebook, for its part, believes that chatbots are already surprisingly intuitive to use. "It’s like before you order a cab or takeout on your phone. Before you did it for the first time, you probably thought that calling a phone number or using a website was just fine. But then you use an app and it just makes so much sense," says Bales. To which Goldberg, his colleague, adds: "There was an ‘aha’ when we showed people the prototypes. They hadn’t thought about interacting with businesses the same as you would with a person. But then it just seems like, ‘Of course you should be able to do this.’" Which makes sense. Then again, we'll see how well users cotton to chatbots, which have, after all, been around since the days of IRC. Only users will decide if they really are faster and more fluid than apps; the proof will be in both the numbers and the nuances of how useful the chatbots prove to be in aggregate. Facebook probably has to get it right, if for no other reason that as a hedge. With users reportedly sharing less and less on Facebook every year, it makes sense for them to create a business-friendly platform where users already are: Happily chatting away, devoting as much time as ever to talking directly with friends on their messaging apps, with less and less need for Facebook proper.