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What Is Palantir, and Why Is It Worth $20 Billion?

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Buzzfeed News reports that Palantir Technologies is raising $500 million on a valuation of $20 billion, making it the third-largest startup in America. “Its worth is surpassed only by Uber,” according to the report, “which is said to have a $50 billion valuation, and by Airbnb, which was recently reported by the Wall Street Journal to be raising money at a $24 billion valuation.” While the business models for both Uber and Airbnb are fairly well-known (i.e., apps for spending time in other people’s property, awkwardly avoiding small talk, and wondering if it’s all worth the few bucks you just saved), Palantir is a bit of a mystery to many.

Palantir is in the national security business. Unlike the common perception of defense contractors as Stark-Industries-type enterprises building robot suits and arc reactors, Palantir concerns itself with data analysis. In short, consider the hundreds of discrete moments that might go into a terrorist plot to blow up a national monument. Plane tickets are bought, parts for a bomb are purchased, targets are cased, agents are recruited, test-runs are carried out (including things like the bus tickets to get to the target, tickets to gain admission to the target, and so on). After the carnage, it’s easy to say, “Well obviously all of the dots were there. Why couldn’t we connect them?”

That’s what Palantir software is designed to do. It collects and synthesizes the data, helping government employees stop plots before they’re carried through to execution. Artificial intelligence is not running the show. Reportedly, the hands of human beings are firmly at the helm, which also helps protect civil liberties. By many reports, Palantir’s software is the best on the market today and works extremely well. The company counts among its successes derailing a massive, global web of cyber intrusion by the Chinese government; predicting the locations of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan before the bombs could go off; helping J.P. Morgan fight fraud; and bringing together the salad bar of databases of the American intelligence community, enabling analysts to work from cohesive intelligence.

For obvious reasons, there are concerns about the company and its activities. Even if Palantir’s motives are as pure as the wind-driven snow, the potential for harm is self-evident. Jay Stanley, an analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, described abuse of the software as enabling a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.” In at least one instance, government insiders proposed using Palantir software against WikiLeaks. (The plan was never carried out, due at least in part to a leak of the scheme to the press.)

In his final address as president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower warned that “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Critics of Palantir basically claim that they are the entity about which Ike was warning us. After all, our new $20 billion behemoth counts as its customers the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and major metropolitan police departments. If spies, armies, and the local fuzz need a mysterious product designed to drill into data about pretty much everything and that can be used against pretty much anyone, someone can claim to be “knowledgeable,” but it isn’t necessarily the citizenry.

The company’s name comes from Lord of the Rings. Remember those orbs that Sauron used to see people in Middle Earth? The orbs that controlled anyone who touched them? The orbs that could read people’s minds? Each of those orbs was a palantír. If it was good enough for the Dark Lord of Mordor, it’s good enough for the U.S. government.

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iPhone’s ‘Do Not Disturb’ Feature Is Actually Reducing Distracted Driving (a Little)
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While it’s oh-so-tempting to quickly check a text or look at Google Maps while driving, heeding the siren call of the smartphone is one of the most dangerous things you can do behind the wheel. Distracted driving led to almost 3500 deaths in the U.S. in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and even more non-fatal accidents. In the summer of 2017, Apple took steps to combat the rampant problem by including a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” setting as part of its iOS 11 upgrade. And the data shows that it’s working, as Business Insider and 9to5Mac report.

The Do Not Disturb While Driving feature allows your iPhone to sense when you’re in a moving car, and mutes all incoming calls, texts, and other notifications to keep you from being distracted by your phone. A recent survey from the insurance comparison website EverQuote found that the setting works as intended; people who kept the setting enabled did, in fact, use their phones less.

The study analyzed driver behavior recorded by EverDrive, EverQuote’s app designed to help users track and improve their safety while driving. The report found that 70 percent of EverDrive users kept the Do Not Disturb setting on rather than disabling it. Those drivers who kept the setting enabled used their phone 8 percent less.

The survey examined the behavior of 500,000 EverDrive users between September 19, 2017—just after Apple debuted the feature to the public—and October 25, 2017. The sample size is arguably small, and the study could have benefited from a much longer period of analysis. Even if people are looking at their phones just a little less in the car, though, that’s a win. Looking away from the road for just a split second to glance at an incoming notification can have pretty dire consequences if you’re cruising along at 65 mph.

When safety is baked into the design of technology, people are more likely to follow the rules. Plenty of people might not care enough to enable the Do Not Disturb feature themselves, but if it’s automatically enabled, plenty of people won’t go through the work to opt out.

[h/t 9to5Mac]

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Apple Wants to Patent a Keyboard You’re Allowed to Spill Coffee On
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In the future, eating and drinking near your computer keyboard might not be such a dangerous game. On March 8, Apple filed a patent application for a keyboard designed to prevent liquids, crumbs, dust, and other “contaminants” from getting inside, Dezeen reports.

Apple has previously filed several patents—including one announced on March 15—surrounding the idea of a keyless keyboard that would work more like a trackpad or a touchscreen, using force-sensitive technology instead of mechanical keys. The new anti-crumb keyboard patent that Apple filed, however, doesn't get into the specifics of how the anti-contamination keyboard would work. It isn’t a patent for a specific product the company is going to debut anytime soon, necessarily, but a patent for a future product the company hopes to develop. So it’s hard to say how this extra-clean keyboard might work—possibly because Apple hasn’t fully figured that out yet. It’s just trying to lay down the legal groundwork for it.

Here’s how the patent describes the techniques the company might use in an anti-contaminant keyboard:

"These mechanisms may include membranes or gaskets that block contaminant ingress, structures such as brushes, wipers, or flaps that block gaps around key caps; funnels, skirts, bands, or other guard structures coupled to key caps that block contaminant ingress into and/or direct containments away from areas under the key caps; bellows that blast contaminants with forced gas out from around the key caps, into cavities in a substrate of the keyboard, and so on; and/or various active or passive mechanisms that drive containments away from the keyboard and/or prevent and/or alleviate containment ingress into and/or through the keyboard."

Thanks to a change in copyright law in 2011, the U.S. now gives ownership of an idea to the person who first files for a patent, not the person with the first working prototype. Apple is especially dogged about applying for patents, filing plenty of patents each year that never amount to much.

Still, they do reveal what the company is focusing on, like foldable phones (the subject of multiple patents in recent years) and even pizza boxes for its corporate cafeteria. Filing a lot of patents allows companies like Apple to claim the rights to intellectual property for technology the company is working on, even when there's no specific invention yet.

As The New York Times explained in 2012, “patent applications often try to encompass every potential aspect of a new technology,” rather than a specific approach. (This allows brands to sue competitors if they come out with something similar, as Apple has done with Samsung, HTC, and other companies over designs the company views as ripping off iPhone technology.)

That means it could be a while before we see a coffee-proof keyboard from Apple, if the company comes out with one at all. But we can dream.

[h/t Dezeen]

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