The social network overhauled itself into three new divisions and shuffled the leadership of its key businesses in one of its biggest reorganizations.
With Dropbox and Spotify successfully going public, tech investors believe that a bonanza of initial public offerings is finally about to arrive.
The iPhone maker is the most valuable company in the world. But many believe its artificial intelligence technology falls short of its rivals.
Even though Mr. Trump still takes potshots at Amazon, the industry’s relationship with the White House is shifting as tech companies find some common ground with the president.
After selling their robotics company to Google, two engineers are working on technology they think can change how special effects are made.
The money from regimes that have been criticized for their human rights records — from Saudi Arabia’s government in particular, which has plans to funnel potentially hundreds of billions of dollars into tech companies through its state-controlled Public Investment Fund — stands in stark contrast to those aims. By accepting these investments, tech companies get to revel in the branding glory of global good while taking billions from a government that stands against many of those goals — a government that has an abysmal record with human rights groups, that has systematically marginalized women, that has not had much legal due process and that has advocated an extreme form of Islam that has zero tolerance for just about any religious or intellectual diversity whatsoever.
“Look, every company has a choice about their actions and inactions,” said Freada Kapor Klein, co-chairwoman of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which advocates for a more diverse and inclusive tech industry.
She said companies could choose not to do business with governments whose actions they found troubling, but many of today’s tech companies have lost a moral compass. “There is an elitism that makes it far too easy for them to rationalize their behavior with their belief that they are the smartest guys — and, yes, it’s always guys — in the room,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, this is not a topic many people want to talk about. SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate that runs the $100 billion Vision Fund, which is shelling out eye-popping investments in tech companies, declined to comment for this column. Nearly half of the Vision Fund, about $45 billion, comes from the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
WeWork and Slack, two prominent start-ups that have received recent investments from the Vision Fund, also declined to comment. So did Uber, which garnered a $3.5 billion investment from the Public Investment Fund in 2016, and which is in talks to receive a big investment from the SoftBank fund. The Public Investment Fund also did not return a request for comment.
Twitter, which got a $300 million investment from Prince Alwaleed’s Kingdom Holding Company in 2011 — around the same time that it was talking up its role in the Arab Spring — declined to comment on his arrest. Lyft, which received $105 million from Prince Alwaleed in 2015, also declined to comment.
Privately, several founders, investors and others at tech companies who have taken money from the Saudi government or prominent members of the royal family did offer insight into their thinking. Prince Alwaleed, some pointed out, was not aligned with the Saudi government — his arrest by the government underscores this — and he has advocated for some progressive reforms, including giving women the right to drive, a restriction that the kingdom says will be lifted next year.
The founders and investors also brought up the Saudi government’s supposed push for modernization. The Saudis have outlined a long-term plan, Vision 2030, that calls for a reduction in the state’s dependence on oil and a gradual loosening on economic and social restrictions, including a call for greater numbers of women to enter the work force. The gauzy vision allows tech companies to claim to be part of the solution in Saudi Arabia rather than part the problem: Sure, they are taking money from one of the world’s least transparent and most undemocratic regimes, but it’s the part of the government that wants to do better.
Another mitigating factor, for some, is the sometimes indirect nature of the Saudi investments. When the SoftBank Vision Fund invests tens of millions or billions into a tech company, it’s true that half of that money is coming from Saudi Arabia. But it’s SoftBank that has control over the course of the investment and communicates with founders. The passive nature of the Saudi investment in SoftBank’s fund thus allows founders to sleep better at night.
On the other hand, it also has a tendency to sweep the Saudi money under the rug. When SoftBank invests in a company, the Saudi connection is not always made clear to employees and customers. You get to enjoy the convenience of your WeWork without having to confront its place in the Saudi government’s portfolio.
Then, finally, there’s the justification of desperation. Some companies don’t have any choice but to take money that’s offered to them. (In 2009, The New York Times Company took a loan from the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who has been criticized for gaining his wealth through close connections with government officials.)
But the tech companies that the Saudis are itching to invest in often do have a choice; they are some of the most highly valued companies of our era, and many of them have no immediate need for more money. For instance: Slack, which raised $250 million from SoftBank last month, said it had no plans for spending the money and instead had raised it to preserve long-term “operational flexibility.”
But why take it from the Saudis? I suspect it’s the most obvious reason: because the money is there, and no one is making too big a fuss about it.
It used to be that most of the money in tech came from more vaunted sources — universities, philanthropies, pension plans and other nonprofits, which made up the bulk of funders to venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Now we’re in a new era, when giant pools of money splash through sleek-sounding Vision Funds and come out seeming squeaky clean — and ready to fund the next great thing to make the world so much better, we promise.
There are challenges, no doubt, with both the technology and government regulations. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be convincing the public that the whole idea isn’t crazy.
A Flying Car Prototype From Silicon Valley
“I love the idea of being able to go out into my backyard and hop into my flying car,” said Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has served as a consultant on Google’s self-driving project. “I hate the idea of my next-door neighbor having one.”
Kitty Hawk, the company backed by Mr. Page, is trying to be one of the first out of the gate and plans to start selling its vehicle by the end of the year.
The company has attracted intense interest because of Mr. Page and its chief executive, Sebastian Thrun, an influential technologist and self-driving car pioneer who is the founding director of Google’s X lab.
In 2013, Zee Aero, a Kitty Hawk division, became the object of Silicon Valley rumors when reports of a small air taxilike vehicle first surfaced.
Mr. Page declined a request for an interview but said in a statement: “We’ve all had dreams of flying effortlessly. I’m excited that one day very soon I’ll be able to climb onto my Kitty Hawk Flyer for a quick and easy personal flight.”
During his recent test flight, Cameron Robertson, the aerospace engineer, used two joysticklike controls to swing the vehicle back and forth above Clear Lake, sliding on the air as a Formula One car might shimmy through a racecourse. The flight, just 15 feet above the water, circled over the lake about 20 or 30 yards from shore, and after about five minutes Mr. Robertson steered back to a floating landing pad at the end of a dock.
The Kitty Hawk Flyer is one of several prototypes the start-up, based in Mountain View, Calif., is designing. The company hopes to create an audience of enthusiasts and hobbyists, who can pay $100 to sign up for a $2,000 discount on the retail price of a Flyer to “gain exclusive access to Kitty Hawk experiences and demonstrations where a select few will get the chance to ride the Flyer.”
More than a dozen companies — from large to small — are now in various stages of creating flying vehicles.
It is an unusual offer, since the company has yet to set a price for the vehicle, and Mr. Thrun’s and Mr. Page’s involvement can be taken as evidence that the company is aiming beyond hobbyists. Still, Kitty Hawk is clearly targeting a new kind of transportation — air flight that can be performed safely by most people and hopefully with government approval.
“We have been in contact with the F.A.A. and we see the regulators as friends,” Mr. Thrun said in an interview. He agreed that concerns about vehicles flying over our heads were legitimate. “I believe that all of us have to work together to understand how new technologies will shape the future of society, ” he said.
Two years ago, Mr. Thrun recruited two other pioneers, Mr. Robertson and Todd Reichert, aerospace engineers from AeroVelo, a University of Toronto spinoff company that won a coveted prize for a human-powered helicopter and set the land speed record for a bicycle last year.
They are flying under a special Federal Aviation Administration category for ultralight aircraft that does not require a pilot’s license and is intended for recreational flying in uncongested areas. To add an extra margin of safety, the Kitty Hawk engineers are sticking to flying over open water. The company said the final commercial product would look different and be far quieter than the test model.
“We hope that this is more of an exciting concept than what most people have had in their minds about flying cars,” Mr. Robertson said. “This is not yet that product in terms of what we will say and what it can do, but I think it demonstrates a vision of the future.”
Kitty Hawk could face stiff competition, not just from about a half dozen start-ups, but from the giant Airbus, headquartered in Blagnac, France. The aerospace firm has announced two different vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, concepts and is reported to be planning an initial test flight before the end of the year.
At the Geneva International Motor Show last month, Airbus proposed an autonomous vehicle named Pop.Up that would operate on the ground and in the air. And this year, the government of Dubai, in partnership with a Chinese firm, EHang, said it planned to begin operating an autonomous flying taxi in July. Also, Uber is expected on Tuesday to detail its “vision for the future of Urban Air Mobility” at a conference in Dallas.
There is no shortage of skeptics happy to point out the roadblocks for these vehicles. There is already significant resistance to the idea of unmanned drones flying over urban areas, and flying cars could face substantial opposition, even if they can be quieted to automotive noise levels.
For these personal air vehicles to become a reality in the United States, the country would need a new air traffic control system.
Two years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began development of an air traffic control system meant for managing all sorts of flying vehicles, including drones. One NASA developer described it as an air traffic control system, “for a sky dark with drones.” Researchers hope testing can begin by 2019.
Batteries are also an issue. While electric propeller-driven motors seem promising, today’s battery technology cannot support flights of a reasonable distance, say a 30- or 50-mile commute.
“How is this going to work? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but we can’t even take our cellphones on airplanes today because of fears about battery fires,” said Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, who is researching personal air transport for NASA.
And don’t forget that flying cars will not be able to pull to the side of the road in an emergency, said John Leonard, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
“Silicon Valley is full of very smart people, but they don’t always get the laws of physics,” he said. “Gravity is a formidable adversary.”
An article on Tuesday about efforts to build flying cars referred incorrectly to the timing of an offer in which consumers pay $100 to sign up for a $2,000 discount on the retail price of one such vehicle, a Kitty Hawk Flyer. They can do so now; they do not have to wait until later this year.
“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” said Alan Eagle, 50, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, 13, is at the nearby middle school. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”
Mr. Eagle knows a bit about technology. He holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)
Three-quarters of the students here have parents with a strong high-tech connection. Mr. Eagle, like other parents, sees no contradiction. Technology, he says, has its time and place: “If I worked at Miramax and made good, artsy, rated R movies, I wouldn’t want my kids to see them until they were 17.”
While other schools in the region brag about their wired classrooms, the Waldorf school embraces a simple, retro look — blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils.
On a recent Tuesday, Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates refreshed their knitting skills, crisscrossing wooden needles around balls of yarn, making fabric swatches. It’s an activity the school says helps develop problem-solving, patterning, math skills and coordination. The long-term goal: make socks.
Down the hall, a teacher drilled third-graders on multiplication by asking them to pretend to turn their bodies into lightning bolts. She asked them a math problem — four times five — and, in unison, they shouted “20” and zapped their fingers at the number on the blackboard. A roomful of human calculators.
In second grade, students standing in a circle learned language skills by repeating verses after the teacher, while simultaneously playing catch with bean bags. It’s an exercise aimed at synchronizing body and brain. Here, as in other classes, the day can start with a recitation or verse about God that reflects a nondenominational emphasis on the divine.
Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.
“For three weeks, we ate our way through fractions,” she said. “When I made enough fractional pieces of cake to feed everyone, do you think I had their attention?”
Some education experts say that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that this leads to better test scores or other measurable gains.
Is learning through cake fractions and knitting any better? The Waldorf advocates make it tough to compare, partly because as private schools they administer no standardized tests in elementary grades. And they would be the first to admit that their early-grade students may not score well on such tests because, they say, they don’t drill them on a standardized math and reading curriculum.
Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
When asked for evidence of the schools’ effectiveness, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America points to research by an affiliated group showing that 94 percent of students graduating from Waldorf high schools in the United States between 1994 and 2004 attended college, with many heading to prestigious institutions like Oberlin, Berkeley and Vassar.
Of course, that figure may not be surprising, given that these are students from families that value education highly enough to seek out a selective private school, and usually have the means to pay for it. And it is difficult to separate the effects of the low-tech instructional methods from other factors. For example, parents of students at the Los Altos school say it attracts great teachers who go through extensive training in the Waldorf approach, creating a strong sense of mission that can be lacking in other schools.
Absent clear evidence, the debate comes down to subjectivity, parental choice and a difference of opinion over a single world: engagement. Advocates for equipping schools with technology say computers can hold students’ attention and, in fact, that young people who have been weaned on electronic devices will not tune in without them.
Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association, which represents school boards nationwide, said computers were essential. “If schools have access to the tools and can afford them, but are not using the tools, they are cheating our children,” Ms. Flynn said.
Paul Thomas, a former teacher and an associate professor of education at Furman University, who has written 12 books about public educational methods, disagreed, saying that “a spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning.”
“Teaching is a human experience,” he said. “Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”
And Waldorf parents argue that real engagement comes from great teachers with interesting lesson plans.
“Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers,” said Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft. He has three children in Waldorf schools, which so impressed the family that his wife, Monica, joined one as a teacher in 2006.
And where advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, Waldorf parents counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?
“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”
There are also plenty of high-tech parents at a Waldorf school in San Francisco and just north of it at the Greenwood School in Mill Valley, which doesn’t have Waldorf accreditation but is inspired by its principles.
California has some 40 Waldorf schools, giving it a disproportionate share — perhaps because the movement is growing roots here, said Lucy Wurtz, who, along with her husband, Brad, helped found the Waldorf high school in Los Altos in 2007. Mr. Wurtz is chief executive of Power Assure, which helps computer data centers reduce their energy load.
The Waldorf experience does not come cheap: annual tuition at the Silicon Valley schools is $17,750 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $24,400 for high school, though Ms. Wurtz said financial assistance was available. She says the typical Waldorf parent, who has a range of elite private and public schools to choose from, tends to be liberal and highly educated, with strong views about education; they also have a knowledge that when they are ready to teach their children about technology they have ample access and expertise at home.
The students, meanwhile, say they don’t pine for technology, nor have they gone completely cold turkey. Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates say they occasionally watch movies. One girl, whose father works as an Apple engineer, says he sometimes asks her to test games he is debugging. One boy plays with flight-simulator programs on weekends.
The students say they can become frustrated when their parents and relatives get so wrapped up in phones and other devices. Aurad Kamkar, 11, said he recently went to visit cousins and found himself sitting around with five of them playing with their gadgets, not paying attention to him or each other. He started waving his arms at them: “I said: ‘Hello guys, I’m here.’ ”
Finn Heilig, 10, whose father works at Google, says he liked learning with pen and paper — rather than on a computer — because he could monitor his progress over the years.
“You can look back and see how sloppy your handwriting was in first grade. You can’t do that with computers ’cause all the letters are the same,” Finn said. “Besides, if you learn to write on paper, you can still write if water spills on the computer or the power goes out.”