Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

About the Program

Hosted by Ben Johnson, this daily "journal of the Digital Age" airs during broadcasts of Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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Silicon Tally: Swipe right for romance

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Andrea Silenzihost of the WFMU podcast Why Oh Why?

(10/31/2014)

Car companies catch up to a connected world

Car companies have been slow to adapt to a connected world. But they're starting to catch up, putting out cars that increasingly work like huge smartphones on wheels. 

Qualcomm is a company built on smartphone chips. But lately, they've also been trying to get their chips inside cars.

"Fundamentally, the car is turning into a smartphone," says Qualcomm's senior vice president of business development Kanwalinder Singh. He's speaking from the passenger seat of an Audi A3, the first car with its own 4G connection. 

With the help of Qualcomm chips, the A3 features more detailed Google maps, internet radio, and Netflix streaming for the kids in the backseat. Drivers can dictate Tweets using voice command, and the car reads incoming text messages out loud. 

Singh says Qualcomm is giving drivers the features they want, and they're doing it in a safe way.

"We believe that driver distraction would actually be alleviated by providing these services," he says. "When all of this is embedded, like it is in this Audi, phone calls destined to you and your smartphone would actually come through the car's antenna, and play through the car's audio-visual system. You would interact through the car."

But some driving safety researchers say moving these features from the phone to the car won't make drivers any safer.

"I think they're really ignoring the powerful effect of cognitive distractions," says Linda Hill, who leads a team of driving safety researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. 

Hill admits voice command might cut down on visual distraction, preventing phone-handling drivers from staring down into their laps. But eye-tracking studies have shown that even when drivers have their hands free and their eyes on the road, their minds can still be elsewhere.

"A recent study looking at that found that voice-to-text increased driving errors more on a closed driving course than text-to-text did, shockingly," Hill says.

Hill does like the idea of building one bit of technology into cars, though: An app that disables phones in moving vehicles. 

(10/29/2014)

For more privacy, let's go to India

One of China's largest electronics companies, Xiaomi, has a plan. They want to sell 100,000 phones in India every week. But there's a problem. A privacy problem.

Chinese smartphones have notoriously been banned or even put on a trade restriction lists because people are concerned that they might be carrying spyware installed by the Chinese government.

To combat this stigma, Xiaomi announced that they will be building a data center in India to ensure customers that they will not be storing their data on Chinese servers.

Molly Wood, Technology columnist at the New York Times, brought up an interesting point in this regard. She wonders if at some point, some country will declare themselves as the "Switzerland of data storage," in that this country will not honor requests from anyone to sift through your data.

However, there's only one slight problem with that, she says. What if we don't trust the manufacturers of the product either? What then?

Click on the media player above to hear Molly Wood in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/29/2014)

The $128 million dollar supercomputer

Cray, a Seattle based supercomputer company, just announced that they will be supplying the UK's Met Office, their version of the national weather service, with its next generation supercomputer worth over $128 million.

The machine itself looks like a bunch of refrigerators, known as racks, lined up next to one another.

Barry Boulding, Vice President of Business Development for Cray, says, "Weather forecasting today is more than just the morning news. It's really about providing a set of products to financial markets and the defense industry. What the Met Office just purchased will give them the ability to deliver 13 times more to their customers than they were able to deliver in their previous business."

Technology and the level of computing power continues to improve, and with it, the accuracy of forecasts. But along with more capability comes more complex questions. 

Click the media player above to hear Barry Boulding in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/28/2014)

Silicon Tally: Nadella must have good karma

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Kevin Roose, a writer for New York Magazine.

(10/24/2014)

Parking valet on demand

Recently, I was late for a meeting in downtown San Francisco. Worse yet, it was during the workday when it was impossible to find parking. 

Now, this is a problem you’ve likely encountered if you live in a big cityThat is, circling around looking for parking. Well, no surprise, the techies in Silicon Valley have an app for that. And so I pulled out my iPhone, clicked on a parking app called Luxe and told it where I was going.

When I got to my location, Kelda ran up to greet me. She was my Luxe valet.

How long are you staying today?” she asked.

I told her about an hour. And then I asked Kelda how she knew what side of the street I was going to be on.

She took out her iPhone and said, “I have it right here on the app and so you can see where you’re coming from.”

Kelda took my car to a parking lot that had partnered with Luxe. For this service, I pay five-dollars-an-hour with a $15 dollar maximum. Not bad for valet parking in downtown San Francisco. And when I was ready to leave, I pulled out the app to get my car.

Curtis Lee, the CEO of Luxe Valet, says despite its name, the start-up isn’t just providing a luxury, it’s using technology to tackle real transportation problems.

“Thirty percent of traffic is people looking for parking,” he says. “And in parts of San Francisco, that amounts to 27 minutes on average” of people circling around.

With parking being a $30 billion industry in the United States alone, Lee points out there are a handful of start-ups in San Francisco that are trying to capture that market.

I call it the 'instant gratification economy,'” says Liz Gannes, a reporter at Re-code. She says it started with services like iTunes, where with one click, Apple could zap a song to your computer. Now smartphones are bringing it into the real word.

You push a button on your phone and get rides through Uber and Lyft,” she says.

She says this new iteration of the instant gratification economy has a few big challenges. First off, these parking-tech companies probably don’t make sense outside of densely populated cities

“And, you’re dealing with real world goods and services,” Gannes adds.

Unlike, say, a digital music file, you can’t just zap up a hundred parking spaces. Plus, you need real people in the real world to provide the service.

One of the ways that different companies are doing that is that they’re working with people who are not full-time employees and are subcontractors,” Gannes says. 

And that introduces real world labor issues. In other words, as the instant gratification economy tries to move offline, tech companies are losing their online advantage and facing many of the same problems brick-and-mortars do.

 

(10/24/2014)

Silicon Tally: The one where you watch all of Friends

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by David Albert, co-founder of Hacker School, a retreat for computer programmers in New York City.

(10/17/2014)

The value of voicemail

Text messages, e-mails, missed phone calls, "Yo's  it's easier than ever to let someone know you want to get a hold of them. In many ways, the voicemail is a relic in the eyes of millennials and those younger, but a staple of etiquette for Gen X'ers and older.

This was the precise problem that Leslie Horn ran into with her mother. She just wouldn't stop leaving voicemails.

But then something happened that made her change the way she viewed the end of unanswered phone calls forever: her father passed away.

Upon the passing of her father, Horn's phone rang for months. Many of them ended at the machine.

It was here that she realized a few things about these messages. People often ended up saying more than they do in an actual conversation (in an endearing way), it's nice to hear a voice other than your own sometimes, and that there was a special place reserved for all the messages people left her throughout the years waiting in storage.

Old friends with stories, the occasional ramblings of a drunk dial, and one very special message for her birthday last year: A voicemail from her dad.

(10/16/2014)

A new financial innovation in the housing market

Financial innovation in the housing market is back.

The last year saw the creation of something called "REO-to-rental securities" or "rental-backed securities." It's enough to give you subprime crisis flashbacks. But in fact, it's a very different species of financial instrument. 

It does start with a house, much like that of Jess Joslin. "It's a two-story brick house with a two garage," she says. 

Joslin rents from American Homes 4 Rent, one of the largest players in the emerging market of single family rentals owned by big investors. "From what I understand, almost all their houses look like this," Joslin says. "They’re really nice."

The largest investors have purchased nearly 200,000 houses in the last several years. The purchasing peaked in 2012, and has focused on places where the subprime mortgage crisis hit hardest. 

"You’re seeing it in Phoenix, in Las Vegas, in Atlanta," says Laurie Goodman, director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. 

In many of these markets, housing prices fell by more than a third, and the plan was to buy low with cash from investors, and then reap the profits from high rents. But in many of these markets, housing prices have appreciated, while rents have remained more stagnant. "Rents haven't gone up all that much," says Goodman. "And they haven't gone up nearly as much as home prices."

This change has meant that the buy-to-rent strategy generates less return for every dollar. To make up for it, in the last year, these investors have looked for ways to put other people's dollars to work. 

Enter securitization. 

Do we call them rental-backed securities? 

"They're viewed as a hybrid," says Doug Bendt, director of research for mortgage-backed securities at Deutsche Bank. 

His bank pioneered this new financial instrument as a way of giving investors more leverage. "'Necessity is the mother of invention,' as the saying goes," he says.

Think of it as a really big loan to a really big landlord, chopped into little pieces and sold to bondholders. The landlordlike American Homes 4 Rentgets some cash for the rising home prices, and lower borrowing costs going forward. "Just kinda like a homeowner refinancing," says Bendt. 

The bondholders get a check every month, thanks to thousands of rental payments from people like Jess Joslin.

And if some of the thousands of Joslins stop paying their rent? The landlord can kick them out of their homes and find new tenants, or sell the whole house. That, and a much smaller scale and more conservative approach, are why analysts like Goodman and Bendt see the rental-backed security as far more benign than the infamous toxic assets that led to the last housing crisis. 

"I think people think, ‘Oh this is a repeat of the excesses of the past!’ But in reality, it’s very, very different than the past," says Goodman. "It’s sort of a begin to creep back to normalcy."

A normalcy where more people are renting, and more of their landlords are multi-billion-dollar companies.

(10/13/2014)

An argument for a federal robotics commission

Private companies, academic institutions, and governments are dabbling more and more with the idea that our future will be full of robots capable of completing all sorts of tasks. But does it necessarily mean that we need a Federal Robotics Commission?

Ryan Calo, Assistant Law Professor at the University of Washington and an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, joined us to talk about his vision for a commission compromised of technologists, engineers, and scientists:

“I don’t know that we need a Federal Robotics Commission exactly as I’ve described it, but what we do need is to start thinking more systematically about robotics law and policy.”

Professor Calo brought up one example: The Department of Transportation was recently asked by Congress to investigate whether the sudden acceleration problem in Toyota vehicles was a software glitch. The DOT didn’t have the experts needed in-house to figure out the problem, so they hired people at NASA to look into it.

Ultimately, this is the argument for having a Federal Robotics CommissionTo have a group of experts who understand the issues technology can bring about and properly advise different agencies and states about how to proceed with different policies.

For more information, check out "The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission" by Ryan Calo.

(10/13/2014)

Silicon Tally: Death, Sext, and Digital Money

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Anna Sale, host of WNYC's "Death, Sex & Money," a podcast about the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation.

(10/10/2014)

AT&T pays a price for cramming

Two major federal government agencies and the country's state attorneys general have settled a case with AT&T in which the wireless carrier will pay $105 million dollars for cramming.

If you don't know what cramming is, you're not alone, and that's part of the problem. In this casethe biggest in history according to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commissionit's about AT&T allowing third party companies to hit its customers with fraudulent charges.

Click the media player above to hear FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

$80 million of the settlement will go through a program the FTC has set up to reimburse customers who suffered the charges.

(10/09/2014)

A farmers market at your front door

Rob Spiro is the co-founder of Good Eggs, a Brooklyn startup that brings the local farmers market to your front door.

In order to deal with the demands of an inherently unpredictable food environment, the company is putting together a software engineering team that not only builds a website where you can shop for food, but sophisticated logistic systems throughout its locations.

Good Eggs is currently providing services to Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, and the San Francisco Bay Area. And as Spiro points out, "If you look at the market in any given city, the inventory is 100% different." Which is why the company has designed small "Foodhubs," each one with their own unique supply chain.

Being able to centralize activity will help local farmers compete with industry giants. Spiro says the ultimate goal is to have 1,000 Foodhub's located around the world, serving 10,000 food producers, and millions of customers.

Click the media player above to hear Rob Spiro in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/08/2014)

Being human in the age of automation

In Nicholas Carr’s new book, "The Glass Cage – Automation and Us," he describes an academic study in which researchers discover a key difference between how we feel at work versus at home. At work, people can’t wait to clock out, whereas at home, they dread returning to work.

But surprisingly, the study also found that by many metrics, people are actually happier on the job. And in a world where the main goal of technology seems to be to reduce the work we do, Carr thinks maybe we should take a different tack:

“I think most of us, if we really thought about it, know that it’s really when we’re being challenged and when we’re really immersed in a task or a job…that’s when we feel like we are experiencing life in some better, more fulfilling way.”

In the book, Carr offers one example of how the video game, Red Dead Redemption, helped him realize that games can be a good model for software designed to engage and challenge us in an activity. Carr argues that if we are simply more mindful of how technology influences our experience of life, we can make better decisions about the things we buy, even if it’s as small as a video game.

Click the media player above to hear Nicholas Carr in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/07/2014)

Five ways a web series can make money

The web series "Frankenstein, MD" recasts Mary Shelley's titular doctor as "Vicky," fresh out of med school and vlogging with her assistant "Iggy," who only moans "yes, master" sarcastically. The show is born out of a partnership between PBS Digital Studios and Pemberley Digital, which made a name for itself with similar adaptations of Jane Austen novels.

Bernie Su developed "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" and "Emma Approved" — webcam updates on "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma" respectively — and now "Frankenstein, MD." He says telling stories in four-to-five-minute increments "speaks to our modern culture."

“People want to just get in and get out, get in and get out,” says Su. “What’s challenging for that format for us is when you’re talking about a long story, like a grand narrative.”

But Pemberley Digital’s challenge is even bigger than that. The studio doesn't only update classic literature broken up into YouTube-able chunks, it creates shows with an eye toward building franchises and making real money, which isn't something all web-series creators can say.

Here are five ways Pemberley has turned its web series into a business, starting with "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries."

YouTube Ads

YouTube's partnership program allows Pemberley and other users to get a cut from ads shown before their videos.

Merchandise

The world of Lizzie Bennet and William Darcy has not only expanded to spinoff videos, but pins, a mug, posters and more.

Affiliate marketing

Similar to the YouTube ad program, if Su's company links to another website and that site makes a sale, Pemberley gets a piece.

DVDs

You can still stream "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries," but Pemberly has also put the series out on home video.

"We’ve sold, I believe now, 7,000 units," Su says. "Again, for a show that is available for free online, which is amazing.”

Book deal

Simon & Schuster published a novelization called "The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet," which retells the series as journal entries. For those keeping score at home, Su says, "Lizzie Bennet is now "a book based on the web series, which is based on a book.”  

(10/06/2014)

Silicon Tally: Cafe au...underwear?

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, host Ben Johnson takes on Marketplace reporter Tracey Samuelson.

(10/03/2014)

Discovering hidden languages in centuries-old writing

If you were around during the '80s, you probably remember the Indiana Jones movies—the swashbuckling archaeologist traveled the world digging up ancient treasures.

If you were to go looking for a real-life, present-day Indiana Jones, you might get someone like Michael Toth. He travels with his teams around the world using modern technologylasers, high-tech camerasto unearth treasure. It's centuries-old writing that appears in very faint form on manuscripts called palimpsests. Along the way, they've discovered everything from lost languages to some very mysterious fingerprints. 

You’re not discovering ancient manuscripts; you’re working to read what’s buried in them. Tell me a little about the work you do.

We work on a range of manuscriptsthe earliest copy of Archimedes work, David Livingston’s diaries—and we use spectral imaging to reveal that text which is not seen by the naked eye.

Why isn’t that text visible? We’re talking about two different layers of writing here, right?

That is correct. It’s usually on parchment. And they’re written initially with an ink made out of the galls of oak trees, and that’s been scraped off and overwritten. And in doing so, it’s preserved that text underneath it.

And the process you use is something called spectral imaging. Tell me about that and what kind of technology is involved in that.

So we shine lights on the object to bring out that ink which responds best to, say, the ultraviolet in the case of iron gall, or a modern carbon black ink in the infrared.

You and I met in the Sinai Desert, when you were working at Saint Catherine’s Monastery to look at some of the ancient manuscripts that have been held in the library there for over 1,000 years. Tell me a little about the work you’ve done at Saint Catherine’s and some of the things you found.

Some are historical texts. Some are medical or mathematical texts. We’re still assessing what is underneath this rich trove and, ultimately, are going to make this available to the world.

Do you have a favorite moment of discovery?

Oh, yes. The work on Abraham Lincoln’s draft of the Gettysburg Address. And as we were imaging it, at the bottom, on a blank part of the paper, the ultraviolet light came on and there’s gemlike glow at the bottom. And we said, “Hey, we’ve gotta look at this,” and we saw a thumbprint. And then on the back three fingerprints. As if someone was holding that paper, which is folded in thirds, as if it’s in a coat pocket, had held it up to read.

And is it Abraham Lincoln’s fingerprints?

We don’t know. We know there’s enough of the whorls and loops to be able to assess the fingerprint. But of course there was no FBI fingerprint lab, much less West Virginia back then. So they are working with various forensics experts to try to assess that compared to other documents.

(10/01/2014)

When you die, who gets your digital assets?

John Ajemian was riding his bike on a perfect sunny day in the Boston suburbs in 2006 when he was struck and killed by a car. He was 43.

“After his death, we wanted to plan a memorial service,” says Marianne Ajemian, John’s sister and one of the executors of his estate. “And he kept all his correspondence and records on his email account.”

In addition to his contacts, Marianne wanted the financial records and correspondence it might hold. But the provider refused to give the family access to the account, so she’s suing them. The case is ongoing.

“If you have a diary, if you have letters, your personal representatives are entitled to see that,” she argues.

As people store increasing amounts of information online in email, social media and cloud storage accounts, what happens to those digital accounts has become a more pressing issue. A recent study by MacAfee found that the average person has $35,000 in digital assets stored online or on their devices. 

This summer, the Uniform Law Commission, a group that writes laws for states, drafted legislation that would give executors or other personal representatives access to digital accounts when someone dies. Delaware became the first state to pass a version of it last month, joining only a handful of states that already have more limited laws.

“Essentially, what we’re trying to do is allow the fiduciary to have access, unless the account holder didn’t want a fiduciary to have access,” says Suzanne Walsh, an estate lawyer who helped draft the ULC’s proposed legislation.

“In the old days when I began practicing law, we worked with file cabinets and paper documents,” she explains. “Yesterday’s filing cabinet is now a laptop or a computer or even a phone. Because of that, the nature of our work has changed when we’re administering an estate or assisting an incapable person.”

Balancing access and privacy can be complicated, though.

“There are sometimes third parties who have communicated with the deceased person who expect those communications to remain private,” says Jim Halpert, the general counsel of the State Privacy and Security Coalition, which represents Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others on issues like this. “[They] don’t expect somebody that they don’t know, and in some cases a person the deceased didn’t even know, to be going through the communications.”

People may not want their family reading their emails, he says, though the law commission’s version provides the option to opt out of access.

Moreover, many service providers worry that state laws granting access are in conflict with existing federal laws.

Currently, companies have varying policies about what happens when an account holder dies. For example, Yahoo says in its terms of service that accounts can’t transfer after death, but a spokesperson says the company will give access if the deceased lays out their explicit permissions in their will. Google lets people chose whether their info should be shared or deleted if they die. Facebook gives family members the option to close the account or "memorialize" it, which preserves the photos and posts already visible on the account, but doesn't give access to private messages. 

Halpert says another solution would be to give access to logs that list senders and receivers, but not the contents of emails.

For Marianne Ajemian, that’s not enough.

“John was a writer,” she says. “And so whatever was in that email account could have been very important to us.”

Until she gets into the account, she says she doesn’t know what she might be missing — and how much sentimental or financial value it could hold.

(09/30/2014)

Silicon Tally: India is anti-‘Gravity’

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Joe Hanson, a science writer and host of the PBS digital series "It’s Okay to be Smart."

(09/26/2014)

#Scandal heads to #Twitter

Even if you don't watch the wildly popular television drama Scandal, you'd probably know of its popularity if you spent some time poking around Twitter. Aside from a huge television audience, the show is a favorite of the blue bird. With the season premiere coming Thursday of this week, we talked with Darby Stanchfield, better known as Abby Whelan on Scandal. And for the record, she has her very own hashtag: #SassyAbby.

Tell me about the community of Scandal fans on Twitter.

They’ve named themselves Gladiators. They’re super passionate. They’re smart. They’re funny. There’s not a thing that doesn’t get by them.

What’s an example of something that fans have caught that surprised you?

I used to have this signature coffee mug that I would use in my scenes, and one time I grabbed one of the company mugs that was in the kitchen area, and I think someone was like, “Wait a minute, where’s Abby’s mug that matches her hair?” Granted, every single series regular, and usually the creator, we’re all live-tweeting, whether we’re on set or we’re not working or at home.

Part of the contract.

You know it’s not, actually. We’re not paid to do it. Actually, Kerry Washington–it was her idea–and she talked to [series creator Shonda Rhimes] about it, and Shonda sent out this email that said we all needed to sign up on Twitter. We all did it, because our boss was asking us to, but it ended up being the most effective, grass-roots way to help the audience discover this crazy political drama called Scandal.

You have your own hashtag, #SASSYABBY.

One of the ways that I differentiate myself from the other cast-mates is I basically go into character during the live tweeting. And the way you know is I put my caps lock on and I just make snarky comments from Abby’s point of view.

How has the way that you think about being an actor changed because of Twitter? And how is your understanding of your own character shaped by the technology around you, even when you’re not on the set?

Twitter almost has the effect of a live theater event. You have an immediate interaction with the audience. You know when something lands and when it’s funny. When I’m on Twitter, there’s a visceral reaction immediately with the flood of tweets that come in about any given moment in my performance. And it’s as close as you can get to live theater with a television show. But in terms of my creative process or how I think about my character, I would say that’s still very traditional. I have my point of view, and I always find a way to love my character and tell that story.

(09/24/2014)

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