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Justice Dept. Said to Conduct New Interviews in Inquiry Into Google’s Ad Tech

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The Justice Department has in recent weeks conducted new interviews for its investigation into Google’s ad technology, a sign it may be moving closer to filing its second antitrust case against the company, said three people with knowledge of the matter.

The Justice Department for more than a year has investigated whether Google abuses its dominance over the interlocking technologies that deliver ads online. Its lawyers are now speaking again with publishers and Google’s competitors to gather new material, confirm evidence and test its legal theory ahead of a possible lawsuit, said the people, who were not authorized to discuss confidential matters.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bloomberg earlier reported the Justice Department meetings.

“The enormous competition in online advertising has made online ads more relevant, reduced ad tech fees and expanded options for publishers and advertisers,” said Peter Schottenfels, a Google spokesman.

On Aug. 31, U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York will hear Google’s motion to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit led by the State of Texas over the company’s ad tech practices. By waiting for a ruling on that matter, Justice Department officials could see what a judge thinks of the antitrust claims before proceeding with a lawsuit of their own, these people said.

Texas argues in its case that Google obtained and abused a monopoly over the digital advertising industry to manipulate auctions and generate profits far greater than those of rival ad exchanges. Those are the same issues that the Justice Department has been investigating, said people familiar with the investigation.

In 2020, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit arguing that Google had broken antimonopoly laws by abusing its power over online search. Later that year, the attorneys general of Texas and nine other states filed their own lawsuit focused on Google’s control of the display ad tech ecosystem, which is used by publishers like news outlets to sell ad space on their websites.

This summer, Google offered to resolve the Justice Department inquiry by moving its ad tech businesses into a separate unit under its parent company, Alphabet, according to a person with knowledge of the offer, which was earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal. But the government was very skeptical of the offer, the person said.

Mr. Schottenfels said that Google was “engaging constructively with regulators to address their concerns” and “we have no plans to sell or exit this business.”

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In Phoenix, a Taiwanese Chip Giant Builds a Hedge Against China

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Intel, which hopes to introduce its own new production processes over the next two years, took issue with TSMC’s suggestions that its technology in Arizona will be the most advanced in the United States in 2024. “I would disagree with that point of view,” said Ann Kelleher, the executive vice president who heads Intel’s manufacturing technology development.

State and local officials in Arizona have already agreed to offer financial incentives for the first phase of TSMC’s construction, and the company is expected to apply for federal grants for both phases under the CHIPS Act.

Mr. Chatterji, the White House adviser, estimated that the two new TSMC factories in Arizona, once operating at full capacity, could by themselves fulfill U.S. demands for such advanced chips. But Handel Jones, an analyst who heads International Business Strategies, said TSMC’s factories in Taiwan would still be needed, both because of their production capacity and because they will be making more advanced technology by 2026.

TSMC operates four factories in Taiwan that each can process up to 100,000 semiconductor wafers each month. In Arizona, TSMC initially said the first factory could process 20,000 wafers a month. It now estimates that the two factories’ combined output will be 50,000 a month, or 600,000 a year.

But even relatively small operations in the United States can become important, industry executives said, particularly for individual customers like Apple or for the production of particularly crucial chips in emergencies.

By adding more advanced production technology in the United States, TSMC “would help address vulnerabilities associated with the shortage of semiconductors evident over the past few years,” said Bob LeFort, president of the U.S. arm of Infineon, a big German chip maker.

TSMC’s move is also a sign that the CHIPS Act is having an impact on the plans of big companies, helping to not only spur their spending but galvanize investments by companies that supply them with production tools and materials.

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Elon Musk’s Neuralink is reportedly facing a federal probe on animal welfare grounds

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Neuralink, the brain implant company founded by Elon Musk, is reportedly facing a federal probe over the treatment of animals used in its experiments. Reuters reports that a probe was recently opened by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inspector general and focuses on potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act. A spokesperson for the USDA inspector general declined to comment to Reuters on its report.

Although Reuters says it’s unclear how wide-ranging the probe is, the news agency details a range of concerns over animal welfare raised in interviews with more than 20 current and former Neuralink employees. These include reports that, in one experiment, 25 out of 60 pigs allegedly had the wrong size of device installed as part of a study, while on another occasion, two separate pigs had devices installed on the wrong vertebra, leading to one needing to be euthanized to end its suffering. 

Staffers are reportedly pushed to meet ambitious deadlines

Neuralink’s aim is to develop ways for the human brain to interface directly with computers to help treat a range of neurological conditions and even help paralyzed people walk. So far, the company has made a number of public demonstrations of its technology being used by animals, including showing a monkey playing Pong with its brain and another typing on a computer using an implant.

It is common for animals used in scientific tests to be killed after experiments are completed so that their autopsies can provide further data. But current and former Neuralink employees interviewed by Reuters said that testing mistakes can lead to excess deaths by requiring tests to be repeated. They can also make the resulting data less accurate. Reuters reports that Neuralink has killed around 1,500 animals since 2018.

None of this is firm evidence of wrongdoing (and Reuters notes that Neuralink has passed all USDA inspections), but employees have reportedly raised concerns internally that Musk’s drive for quick progress has created an environment filled with what Reuters calls “under-prepared and over-stressed staffers scrambling to meet deadlines.” Musk’s attempts to motivate employees to work faster reportedly include telling staff to imagine they have a bomb strapped to their heads. Reuters says the CEO also wrote in an email in February this year, “In general, we are simply not moving fast enough. It is driving me nuts!”

Publicly, Musk has been bullish about the potential for Neuralink to start human trials in the near future. At a recent event, the Tesla and now Twitter CEO said that he hoped to install the device in a human’s head within the next six months. Musk previously said he hoped to start human trials in 2020 and then in 2022.

Neuralink has faced criticism for its treatment of animals before. Earlier this year, a nonprofit called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which is against the use of animals in medical experiments, alleged that, in a study funded by Neuralink, scientists at the University of California, Davis treated monkeys involved in one of its experiments inhumanely. Neuralink responded to the allegations, saying that “the facilities and care at UC Davis did and continue to meet federally mandated standards.” 

Neuralink did not respond to The Verge’s request for comment. Reuters’ report is well worth reading in its entirety. 

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Most Video Game Reboots Stink. But Not the Latest Final Fantasy.

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One of the most anticipated video games of the year isn’t really new. It’s 15 years old. And it’s a prequel to a game that’s even older.

The new game is Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, set for release next week. It’s a reboot of a mobile game with almost the same name from 2007, except with nicer graphics and sped-up battles so it can be resold for modern systems, including new PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo consoles. It’s also a prequel to yet another game reboot, 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Video game reboots are nothing new, and, boy, there have been a lot of them lately. This year, game studios have released refreshed versions of popular titles including The Last of Us, Marvel’s Spider-Man and Tactics Ogre, among others.

With Reunion, the maker of Final Fantasy, Square Enix, is capitalizing on the enterprise of nostalgia. Final Fantasy, originally released in 1987, became a blockbuster when the game’s seventh installment debuted in 1997. In that game, players took on the role of Cloud, an angsty mercenary working with a group of misfits to prevent the apocalypse.

Since then, Final Fantasy VII has become one of the most influential games in history, spawning spinoffs, animated movies and fan fiction. The game has been rereleased at least half a dozen times on every major gaming platform, including PCs, tablets and smartphones. It’s a juggernaut — and Reunion is playing its part in keeping that franchise going.

Most video game reboots don’t do much more than bump up the resolution of the graphics to look better on new TVs, but Reunion is different. With completely overhauled visuals and smoother gameplay, it is much better than the original. It’s a strong example of how to do a reboot with justice and to keep a well-established title going with a very safe bet.

“We can see the audience for these characters and the Final Fantasy VII franchise better than if we were to do something that didn’t already have a certain amount of recognition,” said Yoshinori Kitase, Square Enix’s executive producer of Reunion, through a translator.

I finished Reunion last week after playing part of the original Crisis Core. The changes in the battles and visuals transformed the game from a so-so installment into a must-play episode of Final Fantasy, whose cachet in the gaming world rivals that of “Star Wars” in pop culture. (To put it another way, Reunion is Final Fantasy’s “Rogue One” — the prequel we deserve.)

Reunion is also an extreme approach to a “remaster,” which is video game parlance for an old game whose graphics have been scaled up to look better on new TVs. Since Square Enix originally released Crisis Core for a mobile gaming device, the obsolete PlayStation Portable, the graphics had to be redone for modern systems.

Now the pixelated, expressionless faces of characters in the original have been replaced with detailed, lifelike mugs; the drab backgrounds of city streets and dungeons have become rich with color and texture.

The game’s producers also took an extra step to fix the most annoying aspect of the original — the battle system — to make progressing through the game more fast-paced and fun. That’s a smart fix in an era when people have unlimited options for other stuff to do if they get bored with a video game.

Square Enix otherwise left Crisis Core’s story intact, including its script carried by voice actors. The game centers on Zack Fair, a member of the elite military force, Soldier, which is controlled by Shinra, the world-dominating electric power company.

Zack is tasked with tracking down a pair of comrades who have deserted Shinra. It’s not a spoiler to say our hero meets a tragic end, a fact that has been well known by fans of the franchise for more than two decades. But the prequel tells the story of how his legacy contributed to the epic events of Final Fantasy VII.

Yet while Reunion’s graphics are a marked improvement from the original, the game is not nearly as polished or as highly produced as its sibling, Final Fantasy VII Remake.

That’s because Reunion is essentially an intermission for a much bigger show. Its main purpose, according to Square Enix, is to keep gamers hooked on the franchise in between releases of Final Fantasy VII Remake, which sold 3.5 million copies in its first three days in 2020, making it one of the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 games. That remake is being spread out into installments that will come out every two to three years. (Episode 2 is expected for release next winter, nearly three years after Episode 1, and the series will conclude with Episode 3.)

“It’s going to be a long wait,” Mr. Yoshinori said. “So we want to make sure to keep those fans on board and interested.”

Even so, this intermission is a crowd pleaser. The game gives lots of airtime to Aerith, Sephiroth and Cloud, the stars of Final Fantasy VII, fleshing out these characters and setting the stage for the epic game.

In terms of gameplay, Reunion takes a novel approach to battles. Players can freely control Zack in 3-D space, swinging his giant sword at a monster and dodging its attacks in between nuking it with magic spells. This feels more stimulating than the old-school “turn-based” system, in which players exchanged blows with an enemy by pressing a button to trigger an action and then waiting for the enemy to take its turn.

The biggest problem with the original Crisis Core’s battle system was the Digital Mind Wave, which is essentially a slot machine constantly running in the background of each fight. When the reels land on certain combinations, special attacks are triggered that can obliterate enemies.

In the original, the slot machine was noisy and downright obnoxious, interrupting a battle to play its animations. Fortunately, it has been toned down to silently run in the background, and when the slot machine unlocks a bonus, players can press a button to activate it whenever they wish and even skip the animations.

Reunion also streamlines the experience of grinding, which traditionally involves doing repetitious (often mind-numbing) fights to get strong enough to proceed through the game. Instead of wandering around and fighting random enemies, players can embark on optional missions, which deploy Zack to eliminate a specific foe. In this process, players can level up and gather useful items and magic spells to aid them on their main journey.

In the end, it took me about 18 hours to complete the game, and I had fun (unlike my experience with the original Crisis Core, which I stopped playing after four hours because the battles were so tedious). My chief complaint is that the game was too easy. After completing a small number of optional missions, players will find themselves overpowered and vanquishing the game’s main villains in a few effortless blows.

Some gamers eager for brand-new titles may feel that releasing reboots is too easy for game makers like Square Enix. Mr. Yoshinori said the risk to reboots was that they could end up appealing to a single demographic of older fans. The company had originally intended to do a more modest refresh of Crisis Core with minor improvements to graphics, but once it became clear that Final Fantasy VII Remake had drawn in many new fans, the mission changed to attract those gamers, too.

“We decided midway through development that we had to up the game,” he said.

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