Tidbits in the News: Elon’s Tesla, Facebook’s Instagram, MIT’s Reputation

Many things happening in the news, including the sentencing of former South Korean president Park Keun Hye to 24 years in prison, but those stories are for the bigger fish in the ocean. I’m here to feed on the plankton, so let’s get started.

Elon’s Tesla

Elon Musk is reported to have taken over control for Model 3 production, stating that it’s the most important job he has on his plate right now. Specifically, he plans on tackling the fact that Tesla is missing its production targets by 20%, something Musk seems keen on rectifying.

In the linked article, you can read more about the speculation this has sparked around Musk and his relationship with his senior VP of engineering, Doug Field. But this is a red herring, in my opinion. Because this may as well be a sign of greater problems at Tesla.

To be fair, the company did have similar production issues when the company began rolling out its Model S sedan, and again, when it began production on its Model X SUV. But, with every subsequent new product, the optimization process got shorter and shorter. That was the expectation with the Model 3 — they were expecting their expertise with the Model S and X to translate to easy production ramp up with the Model 3.

But that doesn’t seem to have happened. In fact, production milestones were delayed with each passing day, seeming to signal that Tesla’s aluminium expertise didn’t quite transfer when working with steel. This is a key issue that shouldn’t be overlooked. Steel is, by far, more readily available than aluminium, which makes it cheaper to source, and thus allows for more affordable products.

The main questions concerning Tesla’s financial performance have been 2 fold. First, could Tesla generate the demand for its vehicles to rival traditional automakers? Second, could Tesla scale production accordingly? The Model 3 was Tesla’s answer to both those questions. It was  supposed to show that Tesla could generate demand for its niche vehicles, while meeting demand by scaling production accordingly.

But Tesla’s answer has been rather underwhelming. The demand question has been thoroughly answered — it just needed to provide a more affordable option. The critics then went on to focus on the second question of production. And this is where Tesla seems to be faltering rather hard. And this is not an area that they want to be faltering in.

First, there’s the problem of brand image. Tesla promised delivery of vehicles by a certain date — a date that they’ve missed several times. Its been a major source for criticism of the company, especially with every day consumers, who are accustomed to the just-in-time delivery business model of traditional automakers. But that’s nothing compared to what this has meant for the company’s end goal — a truly mass market electric vehicle. This is something Musk has personally promised to consumers, and it’s a promise he seems keen on keeping.

Second, it’s cost intensive, especially if the optimization process drags on continuously like this. This is something that any company would be looking to stem, especially if it wants to improve profitability.

Then, there’s the possible impact it could have on future Tesla products, particularly their electric semi, which has seen immense interest from the likes of Wal-Mart. This issue with production could signal to potential clients of the  electric semi that their orders may not even arrive until much after the promised date. This could impact sales for the semi, which seems to be key in Tesla’s plan to scale its business.

With Musk at the helm, it’ll be interesting to see whether Tesla’s problems can finally reach a satisfying end. If not, then the problems may be deeper than it first seemed.

Facebook’s Instagram

It seems that Facebook is taking no chances with external apps, as it just severely restricted the API call limit on its Instagram platform from 5000 calls per hour to 250. This is, of course, following the fiasco with Cambridge Analytica and an unintended data leak for the internet giant.

I can’t speak as to whether this move from Facebook will prove to be effective, but I can say it is sending a message — possibly one that might not work in Facebook’s favor. This act, at least to me, indicates that Facebook is pushing the  blame on third party developers, which is well in line with the sentiment that Zuckerberg and Co. are giving off.

I’m not going to write about whether Facebook is really at fault, nor am I going to write about whether third party developers are the real antagonists of this story. But I am going to say Facebook isn’t doing its part on communicating what its “next steps” are to rectify the problem. It feels, at least based on what I’ve seen, the company is looking to punish third party developers as a collective, rather than rolling out measures to monitor data extraction from the platform with more scrutiny.

Dealing with a group as a collective is never ideal, regardless of the situation. It’s a common tactic used in politics to accuse the other side of wrong doing. It uses the extremes of a group as indicative of normal behavior — which is obviously wrong. Cambridge Analytica is not indicative of third party developers on the Facebook platform. Normalizing their behavior to generalize the group sends a dangerous message that may drive the group away from the platform as a whole.

Trouble is, with the immense user base Facebook has garnered for itself, it doesn’t seem like the damage will be permanent. In fact, most end users of the platform don’t seem phased by the scandal, acting almost as if they had expected no less from the company. This user base, this market, will make it impossible for developers to completely wean themselves off the platform — at least until the next big thing comes along.

Facebook won’t die because of this. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after all this blows over, it comes back stronger than ever. But could it have been handled a different way? Yes. Would it have been more effective in protecting the Facebook brand? Definitely. But does it really matter that they did things abrasively like they did? No, it most certainly does not.

MIT’s Reputation

So this is a bit of a bizarre story. MIT has distanced itself from Nectome, a startup focused on brain preservation for the possibility of future digital upload. There’s a couple of things that I find rather interesting with this story, and many of them don’t actually involve MIT directly.

First, Nectome is a Y-Combinator alumni. I’ve heard stories of Silicon Valley investors being interested in longevity related technologies, be it anti-aging or  digital consciousness, but this is the first time I’ve seen the two holding hands. Take that as you will, because the value of these so-called “immortality” technologies is highly subjective at the moment. I do want to point out, however, MIT has also been associated with this company via its Media Labs professor Edward Boyden, who seems to have been on Nectome’s payroll via a grant the company had received. Though the school has since denounced all ties with the startup, it seems the trend may have expanded well beyond the heart of Silicon Valley on to the East Coast.

Second, the technology behind Nectome is one that is of questionable science, especially concerning the preservation of neurons and nervous cells. Moreover, there’s additional doubt, expressed by the company, concerning the feasibility of reconstructing the human consciousness in a digital environment. MIT is a science school that prides itself on its research prowess. It should have known the questionable nature of the business as a whole. The fact that a rogue agent at the school was able to go and associate himself with, what essentially is with today’s technologies, fantasy, it calls into question MIT’s  vetting process for its faculties and its ability to monitor their activities.

Maybe one day this opinion will be obsolete. Maybe one day all of this will be science, not science fiction, let alone fantasy. But, until then, MIT’s brand needs to act as a seal of approval as to whether, using current and developing technologies, the idea the company is pursuing is attainable within a reasonable time frame. MIT has a societal responsibility, not in the least due to its standing within academic circles, to uphold the values of academia, and distinguish science from science fiction. It needs to be better than this.

I say this because I, personally, really respect what MIT does with its Media Labs. I really think MIT is a huge reason behind Boston’s success as a startup hub on the East Coast. MIT has a reputation to uphold, and this isn’t the way to do it. It needs to prevent these things so that it doesn’t have to cut ties with any company again.

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