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BusinessBusiness and financeIncoming

Ever better and cheaper, face-recognition technology is spreading

TOURING the headquarters of Megvii in Beijing is like visiting Big Brother’s engine room. A video camera in the firm’s lobby recognises visitors in the blink of an eye. Other such devices are deployed around the office. Some of the images they capture are shown on a wall of video called “Skynet”, after the artificial-intelligence (AI) system in the “Terminator” films. One feed shows a group of employees waiting in front of an elevator with a white frame around every face and the name of each person next to it. Quizzed on the Orwellian overtones of the set-up, Yin Qi, the startup’s chief executive, simply remarks that “this helps catch bad guys.”

Even if Mr Yin wanted to ponder the implications of the technology, he would not have the time. Megvii is busy building what he describes as a “brain” for visual computing. The firm has come a long way since its founding in 2011 (its name stands for “mega vision”). More than 300,000 companies and individuals around the…Continue reading

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Business and financeFINANCEFinance and economicsIncoming

Price-bots can collude against consumers

MARTHA’S VINEYARD, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, is a favourite summer retreat for well-to-do Americans. A few years ago, visitors noticed that petrol prices were considerably higher than in nearby Cape Cod. Even those with deep pockets hate to be ripped off. A price-fixing suit was brought against four of the island’s petrol stations. The judges found no evidence of a conspiracy to raise prices, but they did note that the market was conducive to “tacit collusion” between retailers. In such circumstances, rival firms tend to come to an implicit understanding that boosts profits at the expense of consumers.

No one went to jail. Whereas explicit collusion over prices is illegal, tacit collusion is not—though trustbusters attempt to forestall it by, for instance, blocking mergers that leave markets at the mercy of a handful of suppliers. But what if the conditions that foster such tacit collusion were to become widespread? A recent book* by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke, two experts on competition policy, argues this is all too likely. As more and more purchases are made online, sellers rely increasingly on sophisticated algorithms to set prices. And…Continue reading

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BusinessBusiness and financeIncoming

McDonald’s is going for healthier fare and greater digitisation

IN A newly released film, “The Founder”, the character of Ray Kroc promises that the startup he had taken over from the McDonald brothers “can be the new American church”. Portrayed by Michael Keaton as a turbo-charged egomaniac whose scruples diminish as his success increases, Kroc understood the power of branding, the advantages of franchising and the attraction of speed in food retailing. McDonald’s is now one of the country’s biggest food chains, with more than 14,200 outlets.

The domestic market is still its most important one, despite the firm’s massive global presence. When it reported this week that global sales had dropped by only 5% in the fourth quarter, the number beat expectations. News of a drop in sales in America of just 1.3% was received more gloomily. Hopes had risen because of the previous six consecutive quarters of domestic growth. At the end of 2015 and in early 2016 the chain had reaped the rewards of introducing the popular all-day breakfast in America. A year or so later, Egg McMuffins and sausage biscuits have shed some of their allure.

Still, Steve Easterbrook, the firm’s British boss, who took over…Continue reading

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BusinessBusiness and financeIncoming

McDonald’s is going for healthier fare and greater digitisation

IN A newly released film, “The Founder”, the character of Ray Kroc promises that the startup he had taken over from the McDonald brothers “can be the new American church”. Portrayed by Michael Keaton as a turbo-charged egomaniac whose scruples diminish as his success increases, Kroc understood the power of branding, the advantages of franchising and the attraction of speed in food retailing. McDonald’s is now one of the country’s biggest food chains, with more than 14,200 outlets.

The domestic market is still its most important one, despite the firm’s massive global presence. When it reported this week that global sales had dropped by only 5% in the fourth quarter, the number beat expectations. News of a drop in sales in America of just 1.3% was received more gloomily. Hopes had risen because of the previous six consecutive quarters of domestic growth. At the end of 2015 and in early 2016 the chain had reaped the rewards of introducing the popular all-day breakfast in America. A year or so later, Egg McMuffins and sausage biscuits have shed some of their allure.

Still, Steve Easterbrook, the firm’s British boss, who took over…Continue reading

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