Good Monday Morning

It’s August 15. President Biden is expected to sign the Inflation Recovery Act this week. In addition to helping people with health care costs and closing tax loopholes many corporations use, the bill also pays consumers to make greener choices with home appliances, upgrades, and electric vehicles. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,293 words — about 5 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“The sole issue on appeal is whether an AI software system can be an ‘inventor’ under the Patent Act … Here, there is no ambiguity: the Patent Act requires that inventors must be natural persons; that is, human beings.”

— U.S. Circuit Court Judge Leonard Stark in his Thaler v. Vidal decision Friday that upheld a ruling that AI entities cannot receive patents on inventions. Sadly, Judge Stark did not cite any of the arguments Captain Picard made on behalf of the android Commander Data to prove Data’s right to self-determination 33 years ago on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Driving the news: Machine language learning continues to get very big very fast. Calling it an AI or artificial intelligence is probably misusing that term. Assuming that it is sentient is certainly misusing the term, but it’s here and changing our lives.

Three Important Stories

  1. Google will deploy its MUM model in search engine results to improve the quality of the “featured snippets” that often appear at the top of a search results page. Google acknowledges that they answer what the user typed, but may not necessarily provide an accurate answer or may be fooled by nonsensical questions. One example Google cited: “when did Snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln?” is a query that shouldn’t receive a result that looks like an answer.
  2. Meta users are still tracked even on iOS when they visit a website link in an Instagram or Facebook browser, according to The Guardian. The company insists that it follows all relevant user privacy settings and does so only to aggregate user data.
  3. Meta got in trouble for this more than a decade ago, and is just now paying the piper for that tune. A $90 million payout to Facebook users in 2010 and 2011 is nearing its final filing date. You can learn more about the suit and how to file a claim at CNET.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Facebook’s Blenderbot

Meta has launched its BlenderBot 3 chatbot into public beta. Anyone can interact with the bot, and Meta is actively soliciting optional feedback. The company is explicit about their awareness that the chatbot has a lot of learning to do, but after playing with it (I mean testing it) for a few days, it’s much better than I expected.

Chatbots are Machine Learning Algorithms
These programs are trained on enormous amounts of text. We’ve often written about Open AI’s GPT-3 model that was trained on 175 billion parameters, and BlenderBot is about the same size.

The program works by engaging people in conversation to learn about them and hone its next lines. Over time, BlenderBot learned that I liked baseball, my favorite team, about my job, and other things about my life. It can store those self-reported learnings about me or I can wipe them and start fresh. I did both several times although it was interesting to visit the bot and have it excitedly tell me that it had just read an article about digital marketing.

BlenderBot is Much More Than Eliza
ELIZA was a very early chatbot program written in the mid-1960s. The software had scripts that allowed it to tailor its next responses and appear human to casual users. It’s critical to remember that most humans had never seen or used computers before. The first home computers were still more than a decade away. As you can imagine, ELIZA was as simplistic as some modern toys.

BlenderBot Can Search Online In Real Time
Chatbot functionality increases many times over when they can actively query online databases. Think of a voice assistant like Alexa or Siri, but much more powerful because of the size of the language models used to create them. But even more than the query-answer model your phone’s assistant might provide, BlenderBot can lie.

After one period where we had discussed various baseball players and teams, I wiped its memory and prompted it about baseball only to have the program respond that it didn’t like baseball or any sports. BlenderBot also told a Guardian reporter that it was working on its ninth novel. When I asked the same question, it responded that it was studying because it was a college student. When I pressed for details, the program claimed to be attending Michigan State.

BlenderBot Is Often Wrong
Meta warns that BlenderBot can get things wrong and actively insist on untruths. Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Horwitz posted this exchange last week:

Meta calls conversations like this “hallucinations” and warns users that BlenderBot’s output may be inaccurate or offensive. That brings to mind earlier programs like Microsoft’s Tay. That program launched six years ago and was hooked up to Twitter. After several days it began tweeting pro-Nazi propaganda.

That remains the problem with algorithms. Removing the biases is downright tricky, and it remains a labor of love, or at least keen interest, to play with a bot that is trying to gaslight you.

Remember Google’s AI Ethics Issues?
Big Tech’s use of these large language models was behind the 2020-21 Google AI Ethics lab controversy. Two of the lab’s co-founders were fired and one of their mentors subsequently resigned after they co-authored an academic paper suggesting that very large language models like this had the potential to deceive people because of dangerous bias.

I Want To Try BlenderBot Too!
Of course you do! Here is the link.

Did That Really Happen? — The Mandela Effect

The Mandela Effect is the catchy name given to collective false memories that include the widespread insistent belief that Nelson Mandela died in prison. (He famously did not die in prison, but went on to serve as the first president of South Africa and then passed away in 2013 at the age of 95 — more than twenty years after he was freed.)

Before you get into a battle with BlenderBot, have a look at this article about new Mandela Effect research from a team of University of Chicago psychologists. 

Following Up — Amazon Care Launches Behavioral Health Services

We wrote a few weeks ago about Amazon’s purchase of One Medical and its 180 medical offices in 25 cities. To buttress their coverage, Amazon has signed a deal with online behavioral platform Ginger. The program will allow Amazon Care customers 24/7 access to Ginger’s coaches, therapists, and psychiatrists.

Protip — Google Docs Tips & Tricks

Templates, links, and extensions, oh my. There is a lot more to Google Docs than meets the eye, and the good folks at Android Police explain those Docs features with images in this guide.

Screening Room — Snickers

As elegantly simple as those 6 word stories, this 15 second Snickers spot shows you the rookie  mistakes you can make when you’re hungry.

Science Fiction World — Stickers Instead of MRIs

MIT researchers have created a paper-thin sensor that sticks to human skin and can image parts of the body. This is the kind of story that caused us to create this section.

Coffee Break — Befriending Your Crow Army

I couldn’t stop sending this brilliant Stephen Johnson piece to people last week. Everyone who read it seemed to develop … ideas. That’s why you should also read, “How to Befriend Crows and Turn Them Against Your Enemies.” 

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

It’s August 8. The annual Perseids meteor showers are expected to peak Thursday night, but NASA said last week that a full moon will reduce the number of visible meteors to 10-20 per hour.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,132 words — about 4 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted: “When we hear about data that impacts the privacy of people seeking reproductive care, oftentimes it’s easy just to think about period tracking apps or the name of a person who visits an abortion clinic, But there are whole categories of data around ‘maternal products,’ for example, that also threaten those people’s privacy.”

— The Atlantic Council’s Justin Sherman to Gizmodo, who detailed finding profiles on 3 billion American residents identified as “actively pregnant” or “shopping for maternity products.”

Driving the news: Senate Democrats passed the Inflation Recovery Act on Sunday afternoon despite no Republican votes. The bill is projected to reduce the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars, lower the cost of prescription drugs, and provide desperately needed funding for climate and energy programs.

a)More than 360 gig workers have been victims of carjackings or attempted carjackings in the past five years, according to a revised study by The Markup. The company also quotes Uber confirming 24,000 assaults or threats against its drivers from 2017-2020.

b)Hulu majority owner Disney announced that the streaming service would accept political advocacy and candidate ads, effectively immediately, according to Axios. The company says that it will not accept political ads on an ad-supported version of Disney+ expected to launch later this year.

c) Add Pinterest to the list of Q2 tech success stories. Sales increased 9% and the company beat Wall Street estimates with a narrower user decline than expected. Of special interest: Pinterest said that its number of monthly active users dropped to 433 million as of June 30 and the company partially blamed Google search algorithm changes.

1)  It’s not just your site. Even massive sites experience Google fluctuations that cause real financial shifts, which is why you need constant search engine optimization.

2) Y’all, Pinterest has 433 million monthly active users still and is relevant in ways you can’t imagine. I was able to find companies and concepts related to climate change, lodging, exchange student programs, translation services, school lunches, even political news, in seconds. Businesses are using the site for organic and paid content.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Big Tech’s CSAM Dilemma

Notice: this section describes news about technology and child sexual abuse imagery. The subject ends at the next header that begins “Did That Really Happen?”

You’ve probably heard about the controversy behind holding Big Tech accountable for CSAM on its platforms. Apple announced last summer that it would scan photos stored on its devices for child abuse imagery. After a monthslong privacy debate, Apple said that it would delay but not end its program and purged its website materials of its description.

News this week from TikTok and WhatsApp have reignited the debate around Big Tech CSAM responsibilities.

WhatsApp first
WhatsApp leader Will Cathcart told the BBC on July 30 that it would “very foolish” for WhatsApp to reduce the security of its application for any government. The Meta-owned service claims to use internal systems to detect hundreds of thousands of CSAM images. Cathcart also said that the service reports “more than almost any other internet service in the world.”

And Now TikTok
The Department of Homeland Security launched a probe of TikTok last spring. The video service has an “Only Me” feature that reportedly allowed predators to misuse the service. 

Last week, Forbes broke the story that contractors who moderate content for TikTok are shown “graphic images and videos of children involved in sexual acts that had been removed from the service.” TikTok told Forbes that it does not train people using visual CSAM examples, but conceded that it did not control training for third-party contractors.

Visa, Mastercard Continue In Court with Pornhub
Visa and Mastercard told Reuters last week that they will no longer provide payment processing for the MindGeek subsidiary that sells advertising on Pornhub over fears that the company facilitates CSAM. MindGeek denies the claim, saying that it has never tolerated CSAM or illegal content.

EU Agencies Fight Over Privacy
The European Parliament is due to consider legislation that would require tech companies to detect, report, remove, and block CSAM material. Last week two EU agencies charged with privacy oversight issued a joint statement criticizing the bill. As Apple discovered last year, the ability to violate privacy even in a noble cause is controversial.

IMPORTANT: If you’ve been exposed to CSAM content, here is helpful information from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Did That Really Happen? — Scientist Claims Food close-up was Space Image

As if science wasn’t having a hard enough credibility problem coping with conspiracy theories, a well known French scientist last week posted an extreme close-up of a chorizo sausage that he claimed was a Webb space telescope photo. The scientist’s 91,000 Twitter followers helped the image go viral until he claimed that the hoax was a cognitive bias demonstration.  

 Following Up — AT&T Nets Millions After Fee Refund

We’ve been telling you for years about “administrative fees” from internet providers and mobile carriers that seemingly run afoul of a company’s own policies. The Verge reports that AT&T generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for one fee that doubled to $1.99 in 2018. AT&T has agreed to settle a class action suit for $14 million as well as a $3.5 million legal fee. 

Meanwhile, we once again remind Spotlighters of the maxim that penalties that allow profit are simply “administrative fees” that reduce its margin.

Protip — Blocking Spam Calls & Texts

Wired takes you on a tour of Android and iPhone devices to show you how to block pesky commercial calls or the texts that seemingly exploded out of nowhere in the past few years.

Screening Room — USMNT Captain Christian Pulisic & VW

VW has a lovely spot featuring US Men’s National Team captain Christian Pulisic that doesn’t even show the vehicle for the first 48 seconds. Don’t forget that soccer topics were our three highest Google search trends this week.

Science Fiction World — Plasma Boring Robots

Earthgrid says that it is developing a plasma boring robot that it expects to dig tunnels to rewire the utilities grid much faster and at a fraction of the current cost. There are schematics and videos at this link.

 Coffee Break — Postcards from Timbuktu

Timbuktu is a real place. You’ll find it near the Sahara Desert in Mali. Some enterprising businesspeople there have created a postcard service with custom messages, cool local photos, and that lovely Timbuktu postmark.

Sign of the Times

Good Monday Morning

And Happy August! The Senate Parliamentarian is expected to decide by Wednesday if Senate Democrats can pass a new tax, climate, and health care bill as part of the budget reconciliation process. If so, they’re expected to remain in session until the end of this week. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,166 words — about 4 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted:“This moved us a year ahead of where we were, if not two.

— Biologist John McGeehan to the New York Times on Google DeepMind’s AI breakthrough that predicts the 3D structure of nearly every protein in bacteria, humans, animals, and plants.

Driving the news: The economy is hurting Big Tech in ways we didn’t see in 2008-09 or 2020.

a)Sketchy Clearview AI will have to face a class-action suit over its unauthorized use of images of Illinois residents’ faces, a federal judge ruled last week. We told you back in May that Facebook had to pay each of its members living there $397 for violating the same law.

b)Kobalt Music Publishing is removing its 700,000 song catalog from Facebook and Instagram in the U.S. after they failed to reach a licensing agreement renewal. Kobalt is the second publisher to report Meta troubles after Epidemic Sound filed suit against the social media company claiming “rampant” unauthorized use of its music. Kobalt claims that over 40% of the UK and US top chart hits in a typical week are part of its catalog.

c) Amazon sued the administrators of 10,000 Facebook groups that it identified coordinating fake reviews on the e-commerce site. A company announcement said that it had reported the groups to Facebook since 2020 and that more than half of the groups have been deleted. It’s important for you to realize the scope of fake reviews even on prominent websites.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Big Tech Finance Has Its Ugliest Quarter

We’ve seen Wall Street doubt Big Tech finance machinations before, but as we warned last week, the stakes are getting higher when companies with trillion dollar valuations miss their targets. And those misses were unprecedented:

  • Facebook parent Meta posted its first ever revenue decline
  • Snap and Roku both talked about “significant slowdowns”
  • Amazon posted its second straight quarterly loss
  • Microsoft and Google barely made their numbers, but both missed their whisper numbers

Sounding like Blue Chips of Yore
Call it whatever you like, but the economic pain is being felt in Silicon Valley and Washington. Statements about big tech finance are now sounding awfully similar to blue chip companies in past decades. 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced a new program called “Simplicity Sprint” and is publicly urging employees to be more productive and efficient. Amazon has already cut 100,000 employees after doubling head count when the pandemic began and is contending with a $3.9 billion write-down on its 18% stake in electric vehicle maker Rivian.

Services Affected Too
Meta’s Instagram launched and then somewhat walked back an effort to remake the site to be more like TikTok. That happened quickly after billionaire Kylie Jenner publicly chided the company. Jenner, who first came to fame as the daughter of Caitlyn and Kris Jenner, has more than 300 million followers on Instagram, a larger following than anyone else on that site.

Instagram head Adam Mosseeri said that the company would “temporarily” scale back its plans to show more video determined by algorithms and remain a predominantly image driven site. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that 15% of Facebook feeds and “an even higher percentage” of Instagram feeds are made up of Meta-recommended content rather than user-subscribed content and that he expects the percentage to double by next year.

More Cost Cutting
Axios reports that Facebook is allowing a number of deals with news publishers to lapse this year. The company reportedly paid $3-$20 million each to prominent media companies like CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. Facebook has been under legal and industry pressure to pay news publishers for content, but reported last year that fewer than 1 in 25 Facebook posts contained links to a news story.

Google announced that it would continue using tracking cookies for at least two more years, an initiative that seemed designed to mollify Wall Street concerns about softening ad revenues. 

And although they hit their numbers, Amazon said that it would raise prices for Prime membership by 20% to 43% in Europe. Amazon also said that it would discontinue its storage service Amazon Drive. New files cannot be uploaded to the service after January 31, 2023, and files will be deleted at the end of 2023. The company insists that Amazon Photos will not be affected, but we think that you should double-check yours.

Did That Really Happen? — Biden Video Was Real

Prominent conservative media pundits began inaccurately claiming last week that a video of President Biden speaking about the Jan. 6 insurrection was “a deepfake” with the president’s face superimposed on an actor’s body. 

There was no evidence, and the BBC debunked this latest conspiracy theory.

Following Up — Denmark Bans Google Workspace and Chromebooks

We told you a couple of weeks ago about Italy banning Google Analytics 4 over privacy concerns. Now Denmark has banned Google’s Chromebook devices and the use of Google’s Workspace accounts from being used in schools. Denmark’s government cited the same lack of compliance with European privacy laws that Italy did earlier this year.

Protip — Identify Plants With Android Built-In Feature

Using Google’s default app on Android phones allows users to search by simply taking a picture. One nifty way to use this feature is to take a picture of a plant and have the search engine tell you the plant’s name and how to care for it. Here is a Tom’s Guide explainer.

Screening Room — Arby’s & Ryan Reynolds

We’re headed to Twitter instead of YouTube today for Arby’s cute and creative new spot featuring Ryan Reynolds.

Science Fiction World — The Strongest Hydraulics

Scientists have apparently found a way to use spider leg joints as a superstrong gripping system that can pick up objects 130% of their own body weight and are easy to reproduce because, uh, nature. The Mary Sue can fill you in on the details.

 Coffee Break — Free Photo Restoration

We’ve been telling you a lot about how machine learning software is creating text and images. Now you can try out one of the models that will restore old photos with blemishes. It’s a crude system because it’s noncommercial and free, but give it a whirl here and see if it helps restore some of those old pix that weren’t worth hiring someone for. 

Sign of the Times