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Recode Daily: SoftBank, explained

Plus: The troubles of a coding education nonprofit, the debate about Facebook’s real problem, and the case against an AI-enabled finance robot.

SoftBank CEO Masa Son.
SoftBank CEO Masa Son.
Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

Uber’s biggest shareholder, SoftBank, is a Japanese telecom giant “that has upended Silicon Valley investing over the last two-and-a-half years.” That’s because the firm’s $100 billion Vision Fund is just under twice what the entire VC industry raised altogether last year, with investments in big-name tech companies like Uber, Slack, WeWork, and DoorDash. As Theodore Schleifer writes, “No investment firm has been as talked about in Silicon Valley as SoftBank — the mere utterance of which can send tremors down the spines of rival firms or the competitors to SoftBank’s portfolio companies.” The fund isn’t without controversy — it’s stirred a debate about its outsized influence in the tech scene and its links to Saudi Arabia, “a country that has fallen in the graces of the tech sector since Saudi leaders allegedly ordered the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Schleifer digs into the history of the fund and the strategy behind its investments.
[Theodore Schleifer / Recode]

A nonprofit in West Virginia that promised to teach coal miners and other locals well-paying jobs is under scrutiny. Several participants of the program, called Mined Minds, are now saying they’re worse off for being a part of it. More than two dozen participants have filed a class action lawsuit against the organization, which allegedly has struggled to employ many of its graduates. Campbell Robertson writes: “Almost none of those who signed up for Mined Minds are working in programming now. They described Mined Minds as an erratic operation, where guarantees suddenly evaporated and firings seemed inevitable, leaving people to start over again at the bottom rungs of the wage jobs they had left behind.” The story raises questions about the success of coding camps — which in recent years have seen increasing popularity for people looking to transition careers.
[Campbell Robertson / The New York Times]

“Facebook is a capitalism problem, not a Mark Zuckerberg problem,” argues Ezra Klein in a piece in response to the calls from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to break up the company. Klein writes that there are two major critiques of Facebook at hand: one, that it’s monopolistic in the social media sector, and two, that it’s “akin to a modern tobacco company, in which fierce competition between firms has led to an arms race in developing techniques to foster digital addiction and hoover up user attention, no matter the social cost.” While breaking up Facebook may help fix the first problem, it wouldn’t address the second, according to Klein. As he writes, “Perhaps more competition in the social media space would lead to better alternatives. But perhaps it would do what it’s done so far: lead to yet fiercer wars for our attention and data, which would incentivize yet more unethical modes of capturing it.”
[Ezra Klein / Recode]

A Hong Kong businessman is going to court over his losses on investments made by an AI supercomputer, in a first-of-its-kind case. The robot at the center of the controversy, called K1, would analyze news and social media to “gauge investor sentiment” and then make predictions on stocks for a broker to execute on, supposedly using AI to adjust and improve its bets over time. That didn’t turn out well for Hong Kong business tycoon Samathur Li Kin-kan, who says the supercomputer lost him as much as $20 million in one day. Li Kin-kan can’t sue the robot itself, but he’s now suing the salesman (a 49-year-old Italian man who’s known in the industry as Captain Magic) who he says persuaded him to trust it. As Bloomberg writes, the case “throws the spotlight on the ‘black box’ problem: If people don’t know how the computer is making decisions, who’s responsible when things go wrong?”
[Thomas Beardsworth and Nishant Kumar / Bloomberg]

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