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‘Hardcore’ Musk drives into a culture clash at Twitter

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Elon Musk has turned Twitter upside down, just three weeks after his $44 billion acquisition of the platform
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After snapping up Twitter, one of Silicon Valley’s most iconic companies, Elon Musk swiftly introduced his no-holds-barred work ethic, setting up a bitter culture clash with thousands of workers who still believed in the platform’s higher mission.

In less than a month, Musk sacked half the company’s 7,500 employees, axed executives and engineers who disagreed with him and finally imposed an ultimatum: work “extremely hardcore” or leave. 

The style is reminiscent of what Musk pushed through at Tesla, SpaceX and his other companies, where the multi-billionaire drove his teams hard, seeing their personal sacrifice as the key to success. 

After an initial willingness to wait and see, Musk’s style has proved disconcerting in a company culture that valued ethics and a strong sense of community, even when worked hard.

“I have the impression that Musk really likes humanity but not so much humans,” said Emmanuel Cornet, a software engineer who was among the first to be fired from the social media company after the acquisition on October 27.

Before that, he’d been one of the many employees genuinely curious to see the successful entrepreneur at work, despite his propensity for provocation that has delighted so many of his fans.

“I think we had blinkers on. Most of the employees tried to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible, and also because finding another job is not necessarily easy,” he said.

But Musk, beyond the big smiles and enthusiastic declarations, has lived up to his reputation, with those remaining having no choice but to give their job their all.

“His behavior is still of the bully on the playground, firing anyone who tells him he’s wrong,” said Sarah Roberts, a social media professor at UCLA. “Any kind of criticism with his wildly inaccurate … statements gets you fired.”

– No ‘respect’ –

Cornet was particularly shocked by what he called a lack of respect from the richest man in the world. 

“In the long term, objectively, he seems to be trying to help the planet, with electric cars, in particular,” he said. “But the people around him seem disposable.”

Musk brings “this kind of swashbuckling bravado from being an entrepreneur interested in things like rockets and cars and big hardware that has impressive performance and really wows people,” said John Wihbey, a media professor at Northeastern University.

“The Twitter culture is much more low key. It has a politically progressive, geeky, pro-social vibe,” he said.

The libertarian entrepreneur has long had close ties with Silicon Valley, where he co-founded Tesla.

But he has since disavowed politically liberal California, railing against health restrictions during the pandemic and becoming a hero to conservative libertarians online. 

At the end of 2021, he moved the headquarters of his flagship company to Texas, a majority conservative state. 

Twitter was founded by Jack Dorsey, who “is very much this kind of Zen guru, sort of a spiritual seeker vibe,” said Wihbey.

Employees of the network were “proud to work there”, he said. “They really believed in the product.”

Cornet worked 14 years at Google before going to Twitter, two groups which, at the time, did not seem “obsessed with profits.” 

“The sense of community at Twitter is so strong it continues after” the layoffs, he said with admiration. Ex-employees gather on Discord, WhatsApp, signal and other platforms to support each other and be nostalgic.

– ‘Badge of honor’ –

Many former “tweeps” said they were okay with working hard, but not just for bombastic promises, like “building a revolutionary Twitter 2.0”, and at the mercy of brutal decision-making. 

When an employee asked during a meeting about the risk of attrition, Musk replied that he had no “great answer.” 

“I can tell you what works at Tesla is people being in the office and being hardcore,” he said.

The mercurial leader abhors work from home –- which is very popular with computer engineers –- and loves to tell how he slept on site at Tesla when his company was “on the verge of bankruptcy.” 

“He was able to drive things hard at Neuralink, Tesla, or Solar City because they had technologies that were on the frontier or, in the case of Tesla, far enough ahead of most other commercial automakers. He has a highly committed workforce there,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, professor at Yale University. 

At Twitter, on the other hand, the massive layoffs, the new culture of coercion and Musk’s “whims” are not likely to rally the staff, said Sonnenfeld, a specialist in corporate governance. 

“At this stage,” said Sarah Roberts, “for many it’s a badge of honor to have been fired by Elon.”

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HTC boss welcomes Apple VR competition

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Taiwanese company HTC showed off its virtual reality headset at the Mobile World Congress (MWC), the telecom industry's biggest annual gathering, in Barcelona
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The boss of consumer electronics firm HTC on Monday welcomed Apple’s launch of its own a mixed reality headset, saying it will help the technology take off and become mainstream.

Apple began sales of Vision Pro, the company’s pricey virtual and augmented reality headset on February 2 in company’s biggest product launch since the original iPhone went on sale in 2007, putting it in competition with HTC.

Once a major player in the smartphone market, the Taiwanese company has staked its future on the merging of virtual and physical worlds with its HTC Vive line of headsets.

“I think it is good that Apple joined the competition. I mean Apple is a big brand so its good,” HTC chief executive and co-founder Cher Wang told AFP at the four-day Mobile World Congress, the telecom industry biggest annual show, which got underway in Barcelona on Monday.

“I think their price is very high but people started to see what you can do” with the technology, she added.

Asked when she thought virtual and augmented reality would become mainstream, Wang said: “It is not going to be too long. Definitely this is an area we believe will be the next internet.”

“I think when the price point gets lower and the technology, what we provide, improves further, things will get more ubiquitous,” she added.

Sales of virtual and augmented reality headsets have remained modest with critics complaining the devices cause eye strain, mess up the user’s hair and often require a clunky battery pack although they are getting lighter.

Most headsets are still mostly used for gaming but Wang said VR is increasingly being used in business settings to simulate work experiences, such as in healthcare such to train surgeons to become more proficient in the operating room as well as to help police learn how to de-escalate violent situations.

“We have been doing quite well in these areas. There are all sorts of applications,” she said.

HTC Vive Focus 3 headset are even being used on the International Space Station to help astronauts exercise and give them images of life on Earth during their long stays, Wang said.

“Astronauts talk about how they really miss greenery, the air, butterflies,” she said. “It calms down their anxiety because it is such an enclosed space for many, many months.”

The IDC consultancy estimates worldwide shipments of augmented reality and virtual reality headsets fell by around 8.3 percent in 2023 to 8.1 million units as rising inflation damped household consumption and business spending slowed.

But it expects shipments to grow by 46.4 percent this year, thanks in part to a “full year’s availability” of Apple’s Vision Pro “which is expected to bring lots of attention” and Meta’s Quest 3 which went on sale in October 2023.

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Smartphone makers bet on AI to boost sales

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Smartphone makers are promoting AI-infused devices at the Mobile World Congress
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Smartphone makers are packing their latest devices with flashy new artificial intelligence tools such as real-time voice translation and advanced photo editing in efforts to reignite consumer demand.

The trend was on display at the telecom industry’s biggest annual show, the four-day Mobile World Congress (MWC) which got underway Monday in Barcelona, where handset makers focused on the unique AI-powered features of their new flagship devices.

“Phones have just got boring, they are not as exciting as they used to be. The changes from one model to the next are not that great,” Ben Wood, chief of researcher at CCS Insight, told AFP.

While cameras, battery life and screens are “a little better” than before, companies need to add more “exciting” capabilities to their products to encourage people to upgrade their phones, Wood added.

“AI is a way to do that,” he said.

South Korean giant Samsung’s stand at the MWC prominently plugged its new premium AI-powered Galaxy S24 range, which allow users to make or receive a call in a language they don’t speak and then receive a live translation of the call both audibly and on the screen.

The feature can handle 13 languages, including French, Japanese and Hindi.

The new handsets — which were launched in January — also includes an AI-powered photo editing tool that allows you to easily move and erase objects and people from photos, and then generates content to fill the empty spaces that match its surroundings.

– ‘Changes everything’ –

Smaller device makers are also betting heavily on AI.

China’s Honor launched its new AI-infused flagship Magic 6 Pro smartphone in Barcelona which features a camera with motion-sensing capabilities that can detect and automatically photograph a fast actions such as sports at the best moment.

The device anticipates users’ needs to help them navigate apps more efficiently. For example it can recognise an address in a text message to automatically direct you to a map app.

“AI changes everything,” Honor CEO George Zhao said, adding it “can make fantastic things happen.”

Smartphone makers are now able to offer these sort of AI-powered features — often directly on the handset without resorting to more time-consuming and costly cloud computing — because the computing power of AI chips has increased significantly, analysts said.

“This potentially could be the start of a new era for smartphones,” said PP Foresight analyst Paolo Pescatore, adding the challenge for device makers will be to inform consumers about the new AI-powered tools.

“Articulating the merits of AI and the new features to users will be no easy feat. Not all users are necessarily aware of AI and they will be sceptical at first,” he told AFP.

– Falling sales –

The focus on AI comes amid sluggish smartphones sales as consumers are taking longer to upgrade their devices due to a lack of significant innovations, high inflation and economic uncertainties.

Global smartphone shipments declined 3.2 percent to 1.17 billion units in 2023, its second consecutive yearly decline, according to the IDC consultancy which predicts a marginal rebound this year.

AI-powered tools could also become a new revenue stream for device makers. Samsung has hinted that it may introduce more powerful AI features in the future for paid subscribers.

“The kind of value it is adding does not feel like it is enough to justify spending money on it. But Samsung have more of an eye on the future when AI goes to a whole different level of experience and becomes even more powerful that people then may be prepared to pay for it,” said Wood.

“Everybody wants to drive a services revenue. They all look at Apple, particularly in the mobile phone business, and they are so jealous of Apple being able to generate so much revenue from a services model,” he added.

Apple charges users of its iPhone for a variety of services such as extra cloud storage which has buoyed its profits.

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‘Fake love’ crypto scammers ensnare US victims

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Romance crypto scams have resulted in losses worth billions of dollars
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The “wine trader” wooed her online for months with his flirtatious smile and emoji-sprinkled texts. Then he went for the kill, defrauding the Philadelphia-based tech professional out of $450,000 in a cryptocurrency romance scam.

The con — which drained Shreya Datta, 37, of her savings and retirement funds while saddling her with debt -– involved the use of digitally altered deepfake videos and a script so sophisticated that she felt her “brain was hacked.”

The scam is commonly known as “pig butchering,” with victims likened to hogs fattened up by fraudsters with feigned love and affection before the proverbial slaughter — tricking them into a fake crypto investment.

The rapid growth of this fraud, thought to be run by crime syndicates in Southeast Asia, has resulted in losses worth billions of dollars in the United States, with victims saying there is little recourse to recover the money.

As it has for many victims, Datta’s experience began on a dating app — Hinge, in her case, where last January she met “Ancel,” who introduced himself as a French wine trader based in Philadelphia.

Datta said she was “charisma bombed” as the conversation quickly moved to WhatsApp. The gym buff with a dreamy smile deleted his Hinge profile to give her “focused attention,” a refreshing experience in the age of fleeting online relationships.

They exchanged selfies, flirty emoticons and did brief video calls in which the suave but “shy” man posed with a dog, later determined to be AI deepfakes.

They texted daily, with “Ancel” enquiring about little things like whether she had eaten, preying on Datta’s desire for a caring companion after her divorce.

Plans to physically meet kept getting pushed back, but Datta was not immediately suspicious. On Valentine’s Day last year, she received a bouquet from “Ancel” sent from a Philadelphia flower shop, with the card addressing her as “Honey Cream.”

When she sent him a selfie, posing with the flowers, he sprayed her with red kiss mark emojis, according to WhatsApp exchanges seen by AFP.

– ‘Traumatizing’ –

Between the mushy exchanges, “Ancel” sold her a dream.

“The dream was, ‘I’m retiring early, I’m well off. What is your plan?'” Datta, an immigrant from India, told AFP.

“He’s like, ‘I’ve made all this money investing. Do you really want to work till you’re 65?'”

He sent her a link to download a crypto trading app — which came with two-factor authentication to make it appear legitimate — and showed her what he called money-making trades through annotated screenshots seen by AFP.

Datta converted some of her savings into cryptocurrency on the US-based exchange Coinbase and the fake app initially allowed her to withdraw her early gains, boosting her confidence to invest more.

“As you make astronomical amounts of money trading, it messes with your normal risk perception,” Datta said in hindsight.

“You feel like, ‘Wow, I can do even more.'”

“Ancel” egged her on to invest more savings, take out loans and, despite her reluctance, liquidate her retirement fund.

By March, Datta’s nearly $450,000 investment had more than doubled on paper, but alarm bells went off when she tried to withdraw the amount and the app demanded a personal “tax.”

She turned to her London-based brother, who did a reverse image search of the pictures “Ancel” had sent her and found they were of a German fitness influencer.

“When I realized it was all a scam and all the money was gone, I had proper PTSD symptoms — I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t function,” Datta said.

“It was very traumatizing.”

– ‘Brainwashed’ –

Dating sites are rife with disinformation, with Facebook groups such as “Tinder swindler dating scams” and “Are we dating the same guy?” cropping up, and researchers calling out the growing use of AI-generated profile pictures.

But the use of romance as a hook to commit financial fraud is provoking new alarm.

The FBI told AFP that last year more than 40,000 people reported losses totaling well over $3.5 billion from cryptocurrency fraud, including pig butchering, to the agency’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

But that estimate is likely low, as many victims tend not to report the crime out of shame.

“What’s horrific about this crime is it is meant to take every last penny from its victim,” Erin West, a California-based prosecutor, told AFP, adding that she is “deluged with victims every day.”

Self-harm among victims is a common concern, campaigners say, with most unable to recover their losses and some falling prey to another breed of scammers — fake recovery agents.

Datta, who is in therapy and has moved to a smaller apartment to manage her debt, said she had little hope of recovery after reporting the crime to the FBI and Secret Service.

Neither body responded to AFP’s queries about her particular case. Nor did Coinbase, which informed Datta in an email –- after she was conned — that she “may have sent cryptocurrency to a fraudulent investment platform.”

More agonizing, Datta said, was dealing with public judgments such as, “How could you be so stupid?”

“There should be no shame in becoming a victim of this absolutely masterful psychological scam,” West said.

“Victims are truly brainwashed.”

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