CLOSE
palantir.com
palantir.com

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

palantir.com
palantir.com

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
technology
Design Firm Envisions the Driverless School Bus of the Future
iStock
iStock

Engineers have already designed vehicles capable of shuttling pizzas, packages, and public transit passengers without a driver present. But few have considered how this technology can be used to transport our most precious cargo: kids. Though most parents would be hesitant to send their children on a bus with no one in the driver's seat, one design firm believes autonomous vehicle technology can change their rides for the better. Their new conceptual project, called Hannah, illustrates their ideas for the future of school bus travel.

As Co.Design reports, Seattle-based design firm Teague tackled both the practical challenges and the social hurdles when designing their driverless school bus. Instead of large buses filled with dozens of kids, each Hannah vehicle is designed to hold a maximum of six passengers at a time. This offers two benefits: One, fewer kids on the route means the bus can afford to pick up each student at his or her doorstep rather than a designated bus stop. Facial recognition software would ensure every child is accounted for and that no unwanted passengers can gain access.

The second benefit is that a smaller number of passengers could help prevent bullying onboard. Karin Frey, a University of Washington sociologist who consulted with the team, says that larger groups of students are more likely to form toxic social hierarchies on a school bus. The six seats inside Hannah, which face each other cafeteria table-style, would theoretically place kids on equal footing.

Another way Hannah can foster a friendlier school bus atmosphere is inclusive design. Instead of assigning students with disabilities to separate cars, everyone can board Hannah regardless of their abilities. The vehicle drives low to the ground and extends a ramp to the road when dropping off passengers. This makes the boarding and drop-off process the same for everyone.

While the autonomous vehicles lack human supervisors, the buses can make up for this in other ways. Hannah can drive both backwards and forwards and let out children on either side of the car (hence the palindromic name). And when the bus isn’t ferrying kids to school, it can earn money for the district by acting as a delivery truck.

Still, it may be a while before you see Hannah zipping down your road: Devin Liddel, the project’s head designer, says it could take at least five years after driverless cars go mainstream for autonomous school buses to start appearing. All the regulations that come with anything involving public schools would likely prevent them from showing up any sooner. And when they do arrive, Teague suspects that major tech corporations could be the ones to finally clear the path.

"Could Amazon or Lyft—while deploying a future of roving, community-centric delivery vehicles—take over the largest form of mass transit in the United States as a sort of side gig?" the firm's website reads. "Hannah is an initial answer, a prototype from the future, to these questions."

[h/t Co.Design]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NBD Photos, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
arrow
technology
Google Home Is Finally Able to Multitask
NBD Photos, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
NBD Photos, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The hallmark of any great assistant is a talent for multitasking. Now, CNET reports that this ability is now a part of Google Home. The voice-activated device can finally process and execute two tasks that are said in a single command.

With earlier versions of the software, if you wanted to ask Google Home to cancel an alarm for a certain time and set a new one, for example, you would need to speak the first command, wait for it to be completed, and then say the second. The new feature allows you to string together both requests without pausing. This is the case for tasks that are related, like playing a song and turning up the volume, as well as those that are unrelated, like checking football scores and asking for cake recipes.

To save even more breath, you can combine this tool with Google Home’s Shortcuts feature. Shortcuts lets you assign short phrases to more complicated commands (like replacing “play workout playlist on Spotify” with “workout time”). Now you can use Shortcuts to have Google tackle multiple tasks at once by saying just a couple words.

The home assistant’s new ability is limited: Three tasks is still too much for it to keep track of, even if you’re pairing a two-task shortcut with one straightforward command. So after asking for a time and weather update, you’ll have to be patient before asking Google the answer to the universe.

[h/t CNET]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios