In today's edition, an exclusive look at GM's work on an AI chatbot for its cars.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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Hi, and welcome to Semafor Tech, a twice-weekly newsletter from Louise Matsakis and me that gives an inside look at the struggle for the future of the tech industry. If you haven’t wrangled with technology in your car, then you don’t own a car. It seems like for the past 25 years, auto technology has been in this awkward place where everything runs on software but all the great stuff we associate with the software revolution isn’t available. (I say this as someone who ripped the old stereo out of my car and installed one with Apple CarPlay).

I wondered whether all these new AI algorithms that power ChatGPT and other new products would find their way into cars. It turns out GM, which has a two-year partnership with Microsoft Azure, is building exactly that.

Sticking with the car theme, I also text messaged Austin Russell, CEO of Luminar, who just inked a new deal to supply autonomous tech to Mercedes. Elon Musk (sorta car-themed, too) wants to build a tech utopia just outside Austin, Texas to house his tunnel-digging enterprise. (Austin is already a tech utopia. Duh!).

Louise is still out and next week, she'll be reporting from Taiwan. Pass along any tips or story ideas to her at lmatsakis@semafor.com.

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Move Fast/Break Things

Reuters/Dado Ruvic

➚ MOVE FAST: Depositing money. Stripe, coming off a round of layoffs, is raising $6 billion at a $50 billion valuation, Newcomer reported. And Anthropic, which is to Google what OpenAI is to Microsoft, is raising $300 million, The Information reported. The downturn is less down for some.

➘ BREAK THINGS: Withdrawing money. On Wednesday, the parent of Silvergate Bank, which served the crypto industry, said it’s winding down and liquidating the lender. Yesterday, Silicon Valley Bank’s own financial troubles led to some fearful startups withdrawing money from the firm. Now the storied institution is exploring a sale.

Semafor Stat

The percentage of women in Africa working in tech roles who have more than one job to make ends meet, according to a survey conducted by the Africa Tech Festival and other groups.

Reed Albergotti

GM wants to bring ChatGPT-like assistant to drivers

THE SCOOP

Unsplash/ Jörg Buntrock

We’re still a long way from letting artificial intelligence drive you to work, but some car owners will soon be conversing with ChatGPT on their morning commute.

General Motors, which manufactures Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, and GMC cars and trucks, is working on a virtual personal assistant that uses artificial intelligence models behind ChatGPT, according to people with knowledge of the product.

The voice-activated chatbot will use Microsoft’s Azure cloud service, which has exclusive rights to the OpenAI tech that powers ChatGPT, image creator DALL·E, and Microsoft’s Bing chatbot.

Scott Miller, GM’s vice president of software defined vehicle and operating system, confirmed some of the details, including that the company is developing an AI assistant, which he said could push things beyond the simple voice commands available in today’s cars.

For instance, if a driver got a flat tire, they could ask the car to explain how to change it, which might result in the car playing an instructional video on a display inside the vehicle.

Another example: A diagnostic light pops up on the dashboard. Drivers could ask the digital assistant what it means and whether they should pull over or keep driving to deal with it when they get home. It might even be able to make an appointment at a recommended repair shop.

KNOW MORE

A voice-activated interface for drivers has long been a goal of car companies and tech companies alike, but the idea has never reached its potential, in part because the natural language technology needed to make them useful hasn’t been up to the challenge — or even to match the basic capability that iPhones bring with CarPlay.

That has changed in recent years as companies utilize breakthroughs in artificial intelligence technology known as “transformer models” that are capable of learning from exponentially larger pools of data, dramatically expanding their capabilities.

General Motors has a head start on incorporating the new technology in its vehicles because of its two-year-old partnership with Microsoft on autonomous vehicles.

The version of AI assistant in GM cars will behave differently than ChatGPT or Bing Chat. That’s because GM is working on adding another, more car-specific layer on top of the OpenAI models known for answering any question, often with unpredictable results.

Miller wouldn’t discuss in detail which AI models the company is using and whether the company has settled on a name for that assistant.

Unsplash/Donald Teel

REED'S VIEW

The real competition for automakers’ AI is mobile phones, which are both valuable and dangerous parts of contemporary driving in the United States, where distracted driving causes around 3,500 deaths a year.

Google, Apple, and Amazon have all made efforts to try and improve the situation. Apple and Google have worked with auto companies to integrate their phones, via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Google’s car “Assistant” takes it a step further, allowing drivers to control climate controls with their voice in some cars.

But Apple and Google are both partners and competitors to each other and to automakers. That’s especially true for Apple, which has been trying to get an automaker to build an “Apple Car” that will be powered by Apple’s technology.

Reluctant automakers fear that if Silicon Valley takes over the technology stack, car companies will become just another hardware supplier getting squeezed for every ounce of profit.

So GM and other auto companies have been attempting to transform themselves into tech companies. They’re already some of the way there. Nearly every vehicle component depends in part on software. But pulling all those pieces together into one operating system is the challenge car companies have been working on.

Adding to the difficulties is that it all has to work nearly perfectly, because cars can’t freeze and be rebooted, like an iPhone. But the outcome they imagine would be the most complex piece of consumer electronics ever made.

They’d also like to cut the phone out of the loop, provoking a new array of questions. Could a car integrate directly with your favorite software, bypassing smartphones? For instance, some cars offer Spotify built-in, without requiring Apple or Android. How many other tech companies will follow? Will you be able to order Whole Foods with a voice interface directly from your car?

Will Spotify need to create software for each car, updating it for each model and over-the-air update?

And some car companies will do this better than others. Will they license their technology to competitors?

And of course: Will it save lives?

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

Some studies have found that voice assistants in cars can be distracting. Drivers had to use too much mental capacity when interacting with them, the studies said.

THE VIEW FROM DRIVERLESS CARS

The end goal should be to get rid of the driver completely, as companies like Waymo and GM’s Cruise are trying to do. It’s unclear how the transformer models contribute to that aim.

From the backseat, drivers could do whatever they want with their devices without worrying about crashing.

NOTABLE

  • John Hauser, a marketing professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, co-authored a report about how machine learning models can create car designs that are appealing to consumers and innovative, which could save automakers billions in design costs for a model.
Evidence

Rebuttals

After my article in Wednesday’s newsletter headlined “Ex-FBI officials lay out security demands for companies to get billions in chips funding,” I got an email from John Abbott poking holes in the story’s premise. He’s an infrastructure analyst at 451 research, and I liked it so much I asked him if I could publish it. More of these kinds of responses, please! It sure beats Twitter. Here’s what he wrote:

“I'm not sure your piece gives enough credit to the chip companies in the field of security. Following the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities that sent shockwaves through the industry in 2019, AMD, ARM, Intel, and NVIDIA are all hard at work providing additional layers of security that dig deep into the silicon.

They have to — or else risk taking the blame for potentially devastating security attacks against their customers. Cloud, systems, automotive, mobile device, and software companies need a secure hardware platform on top of which they can confidently build their own security layers further up the stack.

That’s not to say they will get everything fixed by themselves. There are undoubtedly many bugs and design faults still to be discovered in mainstream processors. But to suggest that the U.S. government is in a position to impose its own additional security requirements on top of these efforts is surely unrealistic — law makers aren’t good at picking technological winners and losers.

And the industry will fight hard to keep its security efforts at arms length from government influence or control, or risk losing the trust of their international customers. What’s needed is cross-vendor collaboration between hardware vendors, cloud providers, and software houses based on open source governance and collaboration.”

One Good Text

Austin Russell is CEO and founder of Luminar Technologies, which recently announced a partnership with Mercedes-Benz to develop autonomous driving capabilities.

Ahem

DALL-E/Futuristic town in Texas

Welcome to Muskland. Twitter CEO Elon Musk is looking to build his own town on land purchased near Austin, Texas, The Wall Street Journal reports. He wants employees of his other companies in the area, SpaceX, Tesla, and tunnel constructor The Boring Company, to live in homes in the neighborhood, dubbed Snailbrook after Boring’s mascot.

Of course, rapper and Musk friend Ye (formally known as Kanye West) is advising the entrepreneur on the build out. One major attraction: rent starts at around $800 a month for a two- or three-bedroom place, according to the story. Residents would also have to elect someone to run the town. Mayor Musk, anyone?

Watchdogs

Republicans claim the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s investigation into alleged privacy violations at Twitter is politically motivated, Cat Zakrzewski writes in The Washington Post. Democrats are just picking on Elon Musk, they allege, for opening up Twitter to conservative voices. The Republicans may have accidentally backed into a half-decent conclusion about privacy regulation.

Another Washington Post article published the same day revealed how a Catholic group bought data on gay dating apps like Grindr to track priests. It’s not even the first time this exact same thing has happened and come out publicly.

It’s possible to buy data revealing the most intimate details of pretty much any American — and it’s probably findable for free somewhere on the web. If the FTC wants to protect our privacy, there may be more effective ways of doing it than exhaustive and expensive investigations into big tech companies that lead to gentle wrist slaps in the end.

Enthusiasms

NASA Asteroid Watch

NASA has been tracking an asteroid that might hit earth on Valentine’s Day in 2046. While it would certainly be romantic (I mean look at the size of that rock!), it’s unlikely to happen. In fact, the Arizona Cardinals have better odds (slightly) of winning next year’s Super Bowl.

How Are We Doing?

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Thanks for reading.

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— Reed and Louise