With help from Mohana Ravindranath
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— Cozy on up: Airbnb has joined the ranks of tech titans already volunteering their services to support President Joe Biden’s pandemic response — one of several areas where the industry is aligning itself with the new administration.
— Coming to a Google Search near you: Americans eager to get a Covid vaccine will soon be able to track down where to get the shots through a simple query on Google.
— Who’s winning the AI race? The U.S. has only a narrow lead on China, a new report finds — and without aggressive action under the new government, that gap could soon close at an enormous cost to the country.
IT’S MONDAY! WELCOME BACK TO MORNING TECH, AND TO OUR FIRST FULL WEEK OF BIDEN. I’m your host, Alexandra Levine. I recently hung up my tech reporter hat and assumed my alter ego, The Toastess — a toast and speechwriter for personal milestones — to speak with our Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, Matt Wuerker, about speechwriting in the Biden era. Check it out here in POLITICO’s “Punchlines.”
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TECH OUTREACH TO BIDEN CONTINUES — Days after Amazon, Google, Twitter, IBM and Intel threw their weight behind the president’s first flurry of executive actions — and in some cases offered their help — Airbnb is doing the same to support the government’s national vaccination program.
— ‘Vaccine depots’: In a letter to David Kessler, a co-chair of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board and the top science official overseeing the administration’s vaccination drive, Airbnb said it was willing to find homes on its platform that could be repurposed as vaccine distribution sites, particularly in remote parts of the country with less access to medical facilities or resources. The company also offered up hosts’ homes for health care workers traveling to distribute vaccines, the same way it has done for first responders in past emergencies and natural disasters. In December, its nonprofit arm, Airbnb.org, had pledged $1 million to cover stays for medical workers administering testing, working on contact tracing and overseeing other response initiatives.
“During the Second World War, businesses supported the national effort by helping turn America into the arsenal of democracy. We are deeply appreciative of President Biden’s call to action and committed to working with national, state and local governments to win the war against this pandemic,” Airbnb’s senior vice president for global policy and communications, Christopher Lehane, wrote to Kessler on Friday.
— Amazon, too, has offered to help Biden’s vaccine push — and there may be a reason why. “The move could also help the company boost its own ambitions of expanding into the $3.8 trillion health care marketplace,” my colleague Susannah Luthi reports. If Biden accepts the offer, she notes, it could unlock valuable access to health data for Amazon, just as it moves into the pharmacy and digital health space. (An Amazon spokesperson rejected the idea that the company’s offer was motivated by a desire to gain competitive leverage or stir up good publicity, Susannah reports.)
— Where does Google come in? Keep on reading.
FOR THOSE EAGERLY GOOGLING ‘WHERE TO GET A COVID VACCINE’ — If you’ve Googled “Covid testing near me” recently, you’ve likely seen a map with a list of local testing centers and hours. Soon, Google Search will turn up the same information for vaccinations, the tech giant announced today.
— People searching for vaccines in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas will be the first to see the new map, which will run down drive-through locations, whether you’ll need an appointment or referral, and if it’s limited to certain groups. That information comes from Vaccine Finder, a Boston Children’s Hospital initiative that gathers data from public health departments and retail pharmacies, the company said.
— That’s just one of several Covid-19 efforts that CEO Sundar Pichai touted in a blog post today. Google is doling out $155 million in grants and cash to tackle vaccine education and equitable vaccine distribution, such as to people of color and rural residents. Google Cloud customers will also see new software features designed specifically for pandemic-era logistics, such as temperature fluctuation detection for vaccine supply transport or appointment scheduling. And the company’s opening up some of its spaces and parking lots for vaccine distribution across the country.
GLOBAL AI RACE: WHERE DOES U.S. STAND HEADING INTO BIDEN ERA? — Ahead of Europe but neck-and-neck with China, according to a new report out today from the Center for Data Innovation. The analysis — which used metrics like AI-related talent, research, commercial activity, infrastructure, adoption and availability of data to determine the rankings — found that China is nipping at America’s heels with aggressive investments in AI research and supercomputing, among other areas.
— Don’t be complacent: The Chinese government’s prioritization of and progress on AI — both catching up with the U.S. and outpacing the EU — should serve as a warning of sorts, according to the report’s lead author, Daniel Castro. “This issue is more than just a point of pride,” said Castro, who is director of the Center for Data Innovation. “The United States and European Union need to pay attention to what China is doing and respond, because nations that lead in the development and use of AI will shape its future and significantly improve their economic competitiveness.” Complacency will cost the U.S., he added.
— What policy changes can help the U.S. maintain its (quickly narrowing) lead? The U.S. needs a comprehensive, “proactive national AI strategy,” according to the report — and needs to put money behind it, including by expanding funding for R&D and investing in the country’s talent pipeline both in the U.S. and abroad. The study also suggests that federal privacy legislation, likely to see fresh momentum this Congress, could chill AI innovation and urges lawmakers against tightening rules around data collection. “When U.S. policymakers propose banning AI-based technologies such as facial recognition or algorithms used to screen job applicants, on the misguided notion that they are inherently biased or not protective of civil liberties, they are in essence paving the way for China to take the lead in that technology,” the report says.
— The view from Biden’s office: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which helped steer the country’s AI strategy under the Trump administration, is likely to have even more clout under Biden, who is for the first time elevating the office’s top post to a Cabinet-level position. (Obama veteran Eric Lander was nominated as the office’s director.)
Away CEO Stuart Haselden is stepping down. … Jennifer Lee, who was previously on the finance team at Moderna, joins Lime as its chief accounting officer. … Snap is hiring a public policy associate to help lead its policy partnerships.
U.S. Digital Response, a nonprofit funded by the Gates Foundation, Schmidt Futures and others that offers tech support for state and local governments’ crisis response, announced a new executive team. That includes Alex Allain, a former director of engineering at Dropbox; Jessica Cole, a former fellow in the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub; Jessica Watson, a former director of product design at Facebook; Raphael Lee, a former engineering manager at Airbnb; and Raylene Yung, a former engineering and product executive at Stripe and Facebook. Yung, who will remain USDR’s CEO, founded the organization last March with former U.S. deputy chief technology officers Cori Zarek, Jennifer Pahlka and Ryan Panchadsaram.
Across the pond: 5 things to know about the EU’s new Google cases, via POLITICO Europe.
ICYMI: “Facebook and Amazon topped all other U.S. companies in federal lobbying expenditures last year,” WSJ reports. “It was the second straight year they outspent all other companies, including stalwarts such as AT&T and Boeing.”
Workforce woes: After buying Postmates, Uber laid off more than 180 employees in that division — including most of Postmates’ executive team, NYT reports.
‘Faces of the Riot’: That’s the name of a new website that “has done the work of cataloging and publishing every one of those faces in a single, easy-to-browse lineup,” Ars Technica reports.
Antitrust fight spirals globally: “Beijing recently unveiled guidelines for competition,” WSJ reports, “adding to efforts in Brussels and Washington to curb the power of digital companies.”
Busted? “Tesla is suing a former employee and software engineer named Alex Khatilov, alleging trade secret theft and breach of contract,” CNBC reports.
So long, Bay Area: “Why Silicon Valley is heading to Miami and Austin,” via NBC News.
Where’s Waldo: “The strange case of Alibaba’s Jack Ma and his three-month vanishing act,” via The Guardian.
Back to the future: As WhatsApp sees a mass migration to rival messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram, in Hong Kong, users are shifting to ICQ, a 1990s predecessor to AOL Instant Messenger that has been reimagined for the smartphone age, WSJ reports.
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