Start Up: a new AI film!, Facebook ‘spying’ redux, the Android ‘app install’ scam, Quebec slows crypto mining, and more

We regret to inform you that USB-C is still a world of pain. Photo by Aaron Yoo on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Not open to negotiation. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This wild, AI-generated film is the next step in “whole-movie puppetry” • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:


Zone Out’s script, just like Sunspring’s, teeters on the edge of inanity and emotion—which, honestly, puts it right up there with the best of the sci-fi canon. (A dialogue example taken directly from the film, which almost sounds like Benjamin’s criticism of his masters: “Why don’t you tell me what… you say is true that the human being will be able to reenforce the destruction of a human being?”) This time, the script’s odd, not-quite-human results are only amplified by having so many other film-production tasks automated by AI.

Snags arose during production as the duo struggled to find public-domain film footage that they could safely use in their own potentially commercial enterprise. The challenge wasn’t just about copyright; the footage had to contain a significant number of shots with sole actors facing directly toward the camera, which Benjamin could more easily snip and insert into whatever it composed. Between their deep dive into a public domain film database and conversations with a lawyer, Goodwin and Sharp settled on two films: The Last Man on Earth and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

The most striking part of the film is its reliance on face-swapping technologies to adapt existing films to Benjamin’s will. Face-swapping has become a pretty hot topic in pop culture, particularly after an altered video of President Barack Obama went viral in 2017 (and a followup take, with director/comedian Jordan Peele filling in as an impersonator, rekindled the viral fire in April). Still, the technology’s limitations are quite apparent, especially when time limits factor into any production. An April attempt to insert actor John Cho into popular films illustrated the immense amount of computational time needed to refine a face swap, and Zone Out’s production team ran into similar issues while having Benjamin parse pre-recorded footage of actors Thomas Middleditch, Elisabeth Gray, and Humphrey Ker.


Since you ask, here it is:

Getting better, aren’t they? Refer back to that strange film Sunspring from two years ago.
link to this extract

Why the future of machine learning is tiny • Pete Warden

Pete Warden is thinking small – in both size and energy consumption terms:


I spend a lot of time thinking about picojoules per op. This is a metric for how much energy a single arithmetic operation on a CPU consumes, and it’s useful because if I know how many operations a given neural network takes to run once, I can get a rough estimate for how much power it will consume. For example, the MobileNetV2 image classification network takes 22 million ops (each multiply-add is two ops) in its smallest configuration. If I know that a particular system takes 5 picojoules to execute a single op, then it will take (5 picojoules * 22,000,000) = 110 microjoules of energy to execute. If we’re analyzing one frame per second, then that’s only 110 microwatts, which a coin battery could sustain continuously for nearly a year. These numbers are well within what’s possible with DSPs available now, and I’m hopeful we’ll see the efficiency continue to increase. That means that the energy cost of running existing neural networks on current hardware is already well within the budget of an always-on battery-powered device, and it’s likely to improve even more as both neural network model architectures and hardware improve.

In the last few years it’s suddenly become possible to take noisy signals like images, audio, or accelerometers and extract meaning from them, by using neural networks. Because we can run these networks on microcontrollers, and sensors themselves use little power, it becomes possible to interpret much more of the sensor data we’re currently ignoring. For example, I want to see almost every device have a simple voice interface. By understanding a small vocabulary, and maybe using an image sensor to do gaze detection, we should be able to control almost anything in our environment without needing to reach it to press a button or use a phone app. I want to see a voice interface component that’s less than fifty cents that runs on a coin battery for a year, and I believe it’s very possible with the technology we have right now.

As another example, I’d love to have a tiny battery-powered image sensor that I could program to look out for things like particular crop pests or weeds, and send an alert when one was spotted. These could be scattered around fields and guide interventions like weeding or pesticides in a much more environmentally friendly way.


link to this extract

#109 is Facebook spying on you? • Reply All Podcast

Via former Facebook ads guyt Antonio Garcia Martinez, this podcast transcript:


PJ: So what’s going on here is that we’re talking to people who believe that Facebook is listening in on them using their microphones. And Alex, who’s done a lot of research, and as far as I can tell believes it’s not happening, he’ll try to give you an alternate explanation
MONIQUE: Ok, so I have a very quick story, and this is so funny, I was just telling my friend about this last night. Um, so, a few months ago I was on the phone talking to my friend and she was talking about this device that she had bought, um, to help her open coconuts.
PJ: What
MONIQUE: It was this really weird thing and she was trying to explain–she was explaining this tool, but she couldn’t remember the name. And we get off the phone, and then that was it. And maybe 15, 20 minutes later, I’m scrolling on Facebook and I see an ad for this device called the Coco-Jack.
PJ: (laughs) The Coco-Jack?
MONIQUE: I screenshot it. And was like “Is this what you were talking about?” And she was like “Yes.” And ever since then, I’ve been convinced that they’re onto me.
ALEX: OK (clears throat).
PJ: God, this is like watching a conductor warm up.
ALEX: OK, is this person your friend on Facebook?
ALEX: Did she buy the Coco-Jack online?
MONIQUE: I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think she did.
PJ: I just watched a balloon deflate–
ALEX: No! Not necessarily.
ALEX: Do you know where she bought it?
MONIQUE: If I recall correctly, she was in Vegas at some, like um, weird little shop, like “as seen on TV” shop. And she picked it up there.
ALEX: Do you think that she was, like, frustrated by all her coconuts beforehand, and so she Googled like, “How to open coconuts?”
MONIQUE: Perhaps. Maybe. But why would I be seeing it on my- like I saw it on my feed?


OK, maybe not listening to your phone – but it comes across as maybe even more creepy.
link to this extract

Android users: beware these popularity-faking tricks on Google Play • We Live Security

Lukas Stefanko:


The trick takes advantage of the fact that apart from the app icon and name, there is one more element the user sees when browsing apps – the developer name, displayed just below the app name. And since unknown developer names are no use for popularity-boosting purposes anyway, some app authors have been setting fictitious, high numbers of installs as their developer names, in an effort to look like established developers with vast userbases.

We have discovered hundreds of apps using this and similar tricks to deceive users. The apps we’ve analyzed were either misleading users about their functionality or had no functionality at all, yet most display many advertisements.

Figure 1 – Apps uploaded to Google Play under the developer name “Installs 1,000,000,000 – 5,000,000,000”

The freedom to set any number of choice as developer name has inspired some remarkably ambitious claims – one game developer, for instance, would like users to believe his games have been installed more than five billion times. (Note: the highest-ranking apps in terms of number of installs fall into the category “1,000,000,000 ” at the time of writing; this category includes Google Play itself, Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, etc.)

In one particular case, we saw a developer change his name from a fake installation number to an actual developer name over time, which might indicate the trick is used as a temporary measure aimed at boosting the popularity of newly uploaded apps.


Wonder how easy will be for Google to block this? Searching for “install” as a developer name, or for figures, would probably catch it. How long before this trick is squashed?
link to this extract

ZTE’s near-collapse may be China’s Sputnik moment • NY Times

Li Yuan, suggesting that ZTE’s near-death experience will affect China as the sight of Sputnik overhead did America, presaging a technological surge:


China offers a competing vision to those who see technology as a global, liberating force. Its robust online culture coexists with stringent censorship. China forcefully espouses a view of sovereignty in the cyber realm that sees a greater degree of government control than the internet’s creators ever envisioned — a view that doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did, as politicians around the world grapple with the unintended consequences of technology.

Before we get to that future, however, the ZTE incident offers a glimpse of where China stands now.

ZTE’s near-collapse has shaken tech entrepreneurs, investors and ordinary Chinese people alike. In social media chat groups, at dinner tables, at industry conferences, terms like “semiconductors” and “fundamental scientific research” have become buzzwords. My novelist, economist and philosophy professor friends all ask me: How far behind is China’s microchip industry? How long will it take us to catch up with the United States? (Some ask even more basic questions, like: What’s a microchip?)

“The recent ZTE incident made us see clearly that no matter how advanced our mobile payment is, without mobile devices, without microchips and operating systems, we can’t compete competently,” Pony Ma, chief executive of the Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings said last month at a science forum.

China feels new urgency to increase its technological abilities. Its current push — called Made in China 2025 — lies at the root of worsening trade relations between the United States and China. But the problems with ZTE, which had $17bn in revenue in 2017, will only spur Chinese leaders to push ahead.


link to this extract

It’s 2018 and USB type-C is still a mess • Android Authority

Robert Triggs:


USB Type-C was billed as the solution for all our future cable needs, unifying power and data delivery with display and audio connectivity, and ushering in an age of the one-size-fits-all cable. Unfortunately for those already invested in the USB Type-C ecosystem, which is anyone who has bought a flagship phone in the past couple of years, the standard has probably failed to live up to the promises.

Even the seemingly most basic function of USB Type-C — powering devices — has become a mess of compatibility issues, conflicting proprietary standards, and a general lack of consumer information to guide purchasing decisions. The problem is that the features supported by different devices aren’t clear, yet the defining principle of the USB Type-C standard makes consumers think everything should just work.

The charging example clearly demonstrates a very common frustration with the standard as it currently stands. Moving phones between different chargers, even of the same current and voltage ratings, often won’t produce the same charging speeds. Furthermore, picking a third party USB Type-C cable to replace the typically too short included cable can result in losing fast charging capabilities.

I have three different phone chargers from LG, Huawei, and Samsung. Points for guessing how many of them can fast charge a phone from a different brand. It’s a simple question with a complicated answer.


Something involving plugging a cable into a charger shouldn’t have a complicated answer. I begin to wonder how USB-C is going to get out of this mess. (Thanks Papanic for the link.)
link to this extract

Canada’s Quebec halts crypto mining projects, may raise fees • Reuters

Allison Lampert:


The provincial government announced the move as state-owned power generator Hydro Quebec said it has asked the province to limit total power available to all digital currency miners to a block of 500 megawatts. That is about enough energy to run a single aluminum smelting plant, or a fraction of the 17,000 megawatts in capacity requested so far by miners looking to operate in Quebec.

The firm also said it asked the province’s energy board to determine quickly how much it should charge digital currency miners to help maximize the energy producer’s revenue.

Quebec’s energy ministry said it ordered Hydro Quebec to hold off on connecting new digital currency mining operations until regulators set new roles for the industry.


500 out of 17,000? That’s quite a halt. Bitcoin prices are down too, currently below $7,000 – compared to the $20,000 peak. Always dangerous to predict but can’t see what would bring it back now the impacts are becoming visible.
link to this extract

American collapse isn’t just economic and political — it’s moral and ethical, too • Medium

Umair Haque on how Kim Kardashian gets more attention than children being put in camps: what does this say about American morality


First, there’s the Kantian idea of a universal law of treating others as you wish to be treated, Kant’s “kingdom of ends.” It’s blindingly obvious to see that American don’t treat one another that way — they want everything for themselves, but deny the most meager of basics to their neighbours. Hence, the American Dream became something like a McMansion, a fleet of SUVs, and a black Amex card — and damn universal healthcare, education, media, finance. So Americans immediately fail the test of Kantian ethics — so-called “deontological” ethics, which simply mean “rules for what is right.” There is no rule for what is right in America — and that has profound consequences, which we will soon come to.

Second is the idea of utilitarian ethics, acting for the so-called greater good. But here again, Americans fail at the slightest observation. They will happily invest in more things that give them zero added utility, but genuinely make them miserable, like that Amazon gadget that spies on you, hours on Facebook which leave them lonelier, meaner, dumber, more resentful, envious, and unhappy — but they won’t spend a collective dime for the sake of the greater good. It’s shatteringly obvious that if Americans were the slightest bit concerned with the greater good, like good utilitarians, they’d spend time, energy, money on, say healthcare for everyone — but that hasn’t happenedin our adult lifetimes. So Americans fail this moral test, too.

Now, most moral systems fall somewhere between these two poles, of utilitarian (or consequentialist) ethics, and Kantian (or deontological) ethics… Nowhere within the spectrum of morality as we know it can we place the behaviour of Americans.


Somewhat damning, but the moral paralysis in the US (I think it’s that rather than indifference) is quite shocking. Compare the fury in the UK over Windrush citizens.
link to this extract

Facebook aims to bring the fun back into music • Midia Research

Mark Mulligan:


For a whole host of reasons that warrant a blog post of their own, streaming music has coalesced around a very functional value proposition. In short, the fun has been taken out of music. Apps like Dubsmash and showed that it doesn’t have to be that way. These apps were small enough to be able to do first and ask for forgiveness later. Even though Facebook has all the ingredients to do what those guys did – and at scale, it is far too big to try to get away with that strategy, so it had to get licences in place first. YouTube is the only other scale player that really brings a truly social element to streaming. Now it has got a serious challenger that just upped the ante beyond comments, mash ups and likes / dislikes. The music industry so needs this right now, especially to win over Gen Z.


Competition for Youtube makes this a very interesting arrival. Are the music companies getting more per play from Facebook than from Youtube?
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Opposing onshore UK windfarms ‘means higher energy bills’ • The Guardian

Adam Vaughan:


The government ended subsidies for t[onshore] windfarms in 2015 but the energy minister Claire Perry has recently said she is “looking carefully” at a U-turn for windfarms built in Wales and Scotland. Last week, the government gave its backing to windfarms on remote islands, such as the Isle of Lewis.

[Conservative peer Lord] Deben told the Guardian: “There is no doubt, and I feel very strongly about it, that onshore wind is the cheapest form of electricity. If the Scots want to have it, on which basis should we say they shouldn’t have it?”

Advocates believe onshore windfarms could be built for subsidies guaranteeing prices as low as £50 per megawatt hour – below the average £62.14 awarded to the latest offshore windfarms and far lower than the £92.50 for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

The payments are a top-up on the wholesale electricity price of around £45/MWh, with the difference paid by householders through their energy bills. Hinkley alone is expected to add £10-15 to annual bills by 2030.


Hinckley C was such a terrible decision. Theresa May, bamboozled by China on that one.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday’s link about Facebook “listening to you” got some pushback, as they say. So take a look at the link from the Reply-All podcast.

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