Start Up No.902: fear of a blank algorithm, Five Eyes v encryption, TSMC nabs alleged secrets thief, Google is 20!, and more

Overused – and probably useless. Photo by nchenga on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code • The Guardian

Andrew Smith takes a deep dive:


some HFT firms were allowing the algos to learn – “just letting the black box try different things, with small amounts of money, and if it works, reinforce those rules. We know that’s been done. Then you actually have rules where nobody knows what the rules are: the algorithms create their own rules – you let them evolve the same way nature evolves organisms.” Non-finance industry observers began to postulate a catastrophic global “splash crash”, while the fastest-growing area of the market became (and remains) instruments that profit from volatility. In his 2011 novel The Fear Index, Robert Harris imagines the emergence of AGI – of the Singularity, no less – from precisely this digital ooze. To my surprise, no scientist I spoke to would categorically rule out such a possibility.

All of which could be dismissed as high finance arcana, were it not for a simple fact. Wisdom used to hold that technology was adopted first by the porn industry, then by everyone else. But the 21st century’s porn is finance, so when I thought I saw signs of HFT-like algorithms causing problems elsewhere, I called Neil Johnson [a physicists specialising in complexity who studied stock market volatility] again.

“You’re right on point,” he told me: a new form of algorithm is moving into the world, which has “the capability to rewrite bits of its own code”, at which point it becomes like “a genetic algorithm”. He thinks he saw evidence of them on fact-finding forays into Facebook (“I’ve had my accounts attacked four times,” he adds). If so, algorithms are jousting there, and adapting, as on the stock market. “After all, Facebook is just one big algorithm,” Johnson says.

“And I think that’s exactly the issue Facebook has. They can have simple algorithms to recognize my face in a photo on someone else’s page, take the data from my profile and link us together. That’s a very simple concrete algorithm. But the question is what is the effect of billions of such algorithms working together at the macro level? You can’t predict the learned behavior at the level of the population from microscopic rules. So Facebook would claim that they know exactly what’s going on at the micro level, and they’d probably be right. But what happens at the level of the population? That’s the issue.”


link to this extract

Statement of Principles on Access to Evidence and Encryption • Australian Government Department of Home Affairs


The Governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are committed to personal rights and privacy, and support the role of encryption in protecting those rights. Encryption is vital to the digital economy and a secure cyberspace, and to the protection of personal, commercial and government information.

However, the increasing use and sophistication of certain encryption designs present challenges for nations in combatting serious crimes and threats to national and global security. Many of the same means of encryption that are being used to protect personal, commercial and government information are also being used by criminals, including child sex offenders, terrorists and organized crime groups to frustrate investigations and avoid detection and prosecution.

Privacy laws must prevent arbitrary or unlawful interference, but privacy is not absolute. It is an established principle that appropriate government authorities should be able to seek access to otherwise private information when a court or independent authority has authorized such access based on established legal standards. The same principles have long permitted government authorities to search homes, vehicles, and personal effects with valid legal authority.

The increasing gap between the ability of law enforcement to lawfully access data and their ability to acquire and use the content of that data is a pressing international concern that requires urgent, sustained attention and informed discussion on the complexity of the issues and interests at stake. Otherwise, court decisions about legitimate access to data are increasingly rendered meaningless, threatening to undermine the systems of justice established in our democratic nations.


The five governments at the top are the “Five Eyes” – which share intelligence intensively to solve cross-border espionage, terror and other malicious plots. One can see them here wishing to return the world to the late 1990s period when the US wouldn’t allow the export of “military encryption” – anything more than 40-bit, roughly speaking. The leaking of Phil Zimmermann’s Pretty Good Privacy source code across national borders ended that. And code is speech, so it can’t be held back at the US border.

Unfortunately for the Five Eyes, this isn’t about privacy. It’s courts against mathematics, and maths always wins. It is possible to build end-to-end encrypted apps. Nothing can stop that. If you ban them on iOS (easy-ish), they’ll be created, published and used on Android. This toothpaste is out of the tube.
link to this extract

Deep Angel and the Aesthetics of Absence • Deep Angel

Deep Angel is an MIT project which uses AI to subtract objects from pictures, rather than adding fakes:


If the future of media is manipulation, then the antidote to this future is a Zen kind of emptiness. Not “nothingness” nor a “void,” but rather the non-limitation and nondefinition of the infinite. With Deep Angel’s artificial intelligence, you become an active participant in the chaos of media creation. You can erase objects from photographs. Like Joseph Stalin, you can treat history as a malleable fiction, disappear unwanted artifacts, and develop a new world order. But, be careful. Once you know how to erase history, your view on history might change. The reassuring illusion of photography as fact will vanish. Seemingly paradoxically, a truth emerges from the revelations of falsehoods…

…Deep Angel is powered by a neural network architecture that builds upon Mask R-CNN and Deep Fill to create an end-to-end targeted object removal pipeline.


link to this extract

Why the world is full of buttons that don’t work • CNN Style

Jacopo Prisco:


In London, which has 6,000 traffic signals, pressing the pedestrian button results in a reassuring “Wait” light. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the “green man” — or “pedestrian stage,” in traffic signal design terminology — will appear any sooner.

“We do have some crossings where the green light comes on automatically, but we still ask people to press the button because that enables accessible features,” said Glynn Barton, director of network management at Transport for London, in a phone interview.

These features, such as tactile paving and audible traffic signals, help people with visual impairments cross the road and are only activated when the button is pressed. As for the lights, a growing number of them are now integrated into an electronic system that detects traffic and adjusts intervals accordingly (giving priority to buses if they’re running late, for example), which means that pressing the button has no effect.

Others, meanwhile, only respond to the button at certain times of day.

“But, in the majority of cases, pressing the button will call the pedestrian stage,” said Barton.
Close the door?

So what about the most jabbed button of them all: the “close door” in elevators? If you live in the US, it almost certainly doesn’t work.

“To put it simply, the riding public will not be able to make the doors close any faster using that button,” said Kevin Brinkman of the National Elevator Industry in an email.

But there’s a very good reason for this: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. “This legislation required that an elevator’s doors remain open long enough for anyone with disability or mobility issues, such as using crutches or a wheelchair, to get on board the cab safely,” said Brinkman.

So, unless the allotted boarding time has been reached, pressing the button will do nothing. It’s only there for firefighters, emergency personnel and maintenance workers, who can override the delay with a key or a code.


They’re called “placebo buttons”, of course.
link to this extract

TSMC ex-employee charged with trade secrets theft • Digitimes

Jessie Shen:


A Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) employee has been charged with stealing secrets from the pure-play foundry.

Surnamed Chou, the former TSMC deputy manager of technology stands accused of copying confidential documents regarding the foundry’s 16nm and 10nm node processes and related facilities, and trying to take the data with him to a new job in China, according to Taiwan’s Hsinchu District Prosecutors’ Office.

Chou had resigned from TSMC, ready to join Shanghai Huali Microelectronics (HLMC) when he was arrested, the office said. Chou has now been indicted for breach of trust.


link to this extract

The baroness, the ICO fiasco, and enter Steve Wozniak • FT Alphaville

Jemima Kelly on an $80m ICO [initial coin offering] scheme kicked off by Conservative peer Michelle Mone and businessman boyfriend Doug Barrowman, who with their four board members apparently have “a track record of over 300 [not a typo] years in business”; it didn’t go quite as planned:


We spoke to several of EQUI’s bounty-hunters [online boosters who write encouraging social media messages and push ICOs, for money] and were shown Telegram messages. When they complained about the amount there were getting paid or the way they were being treated, EQUI threatened them with lawyers if they “bad-mouthed” the company. One Telegram message sent to a group of bounty hunters said “police can track you down if you threaten & track and bad mouth our brand name”; another sent the same day said “you are all so stupid”.

EQUI declined to comment on the messages. That a peer of the realm’s business appears to have threatened criminal consequences for people encouraged to take part in its unregulated investment scheme is, if nothing else, a bad look.

One bounty-hunter, Maksim Koselev, a 29-year-old Russian warehouse worker, told us he had spent about 10 to 15 minutes per day, seven days a week, promoting EQUI online for the months during which the ICO was running, which included writing two promotional articles about the company in Russian. He’s worked as a bounty-hunter for more than 100 ICOs, he said, and apart from the exit scams — where those raising money disappear with the funds they have raised — this is the worst experience he’s ever had. He, and others, said bounty-hunters should have been paid 2% of the $7m Equi raised, particularly given that EQUI is still planning to raise money from investors. He told us: “We’ve been thrown out of the window with this… This is not the way you talk, even to bounty-hunters. They treat people like nothing.”

Our experience of interacting with EQUI has also been a bit… strange. When we contacted the company via its website we were replied to by Baroness Mone’s press officer, who offered us a “deal on an exclusive”. When we asked some questions about the bounty-hunters’ complaints, we were told that “anything that is written that is defamatory to EQUI or our founders we will take severe action”.


One has to congratulate Kelly on picking her way through the thickets of this story while avoiding defamation. Well, one hopes so on the latter.
link to this extract

Whose name should be on the laws of physics for an expanding universe? • Ars Technica

Krzysztof Bolejko:


The expansion of the universe was one of the most mind-blowing discoveries of the 20th century.

Expansion here means that the distance between galaxies in general increases with time, and it increases uniformly. It does not matter where you are and in which direction you look at, you still see a universe that is expanding.

When you really try to imagine all of this, you may end up with a headspin or even worse. The rate at which the universe is currently expanding is described by the Hubble Law, named after Edwin Hubble, whose 1929 article reported that astronomical data signify the expansion of the universe.

But Hubble was not the first. In 1927, Georges Lemaître had already published an article on the expansion of the universe. His article was written in French and published in a Belgian journal.

Lemaître presented a theoretical foundation for the expansion of the universe and used the astronomical data (the very same data that Hubble used in his 1929 article) to infer the rate at which the universe is expanding.

In 1928, the American mathematician and physicist Howard Robertson also published an article in Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, where he derived the formula for the expansion of the universe and inferred the rate of expansion from the same data that were used by Lemaître (a year before) and Hubble (a year after).

Robertson did not know about Lemaître’s work.


“Hubble-Lemaître’s Constant” doesn’t quite trip off the tongue. Bet it gets called the HLC if this passes.
link to this extract

From Android to iPhone: Some things were good, but I’ll never switch • Android Authority

C. Scott Brown:


With this experiment, I wanted to take away the safety net. I wanted to dive into the Apple ecosystem head-first and see if it’s as clunky and bad as I thought it was.

Here are the rules I placed on myself:

• I used an iPhone 8 Plus (Rose Gold, if it matters) on the latest version of iOS (11.4.1) from Sunday morning to the following Sunday morning — a full seven days.
• During that time, I could not even touch my Android daily driver: a OnePlus 5. I had to touch some other Android phones here and there because I work for Android Authority, so it’d be hard not to.
• Anything I could do on the iPhone I did on the iPhone. That means texting, messaging, phone calls, music, internet searches, and more.
• I relied on Apple apps as much as possible and only used the default settings and setup whenever I could.

Over the course of the week, I installed third-party apps like Facebook, Starbucks, Amazon, Slack, and so on. I tried my best to use every basic feature of the phone at least once, including things like Apple Pay, the Apple App Store, Apple Maps, and Apple News.

Be forewarned: both Apple and Android criticism is coming your way.


It’s a fair and interesting comparison. But his principal complaint – his real showstopper complaint – is about notification grouping (which is what Android users have disliked about iOS for years). Strange to test iOS less than two weeks before Apple will release a version which will change notification grouping. Sure, who’d expect him to know that? Except he mentions it.
link to this extract

Google at 20: how a search engine became a literal extension of our mind • The Conversation

Benjamin Curtis is a lecturer in philosophy and ethics:


Make no mistake about it, this is a seismic shift in human psychology, probably the biggest we have ever had to cope with, and one that is occurring with breathtaking rapidity – Google, after all, is just 20 years old, this month. But although this shift has some good consequences, there are some deeply troubling issues we urgently need to address.

Much of my research spans issues to do with personal identity, mind, neuroscience, and ethics. And in my view, as we gobble up Google’s AI driven “personalised” features, we cede ever more of our personal cognitive space to Google, and so both mental privacy and the ability to think freely are eroded. What’s more, evidence is starting to emerge that there may be a link between technology use and mental health problems. In other words, it is not clear that our minds can take the strain of the virtual stretch. Perhaps we are even close to the snapping point.

“Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?”

This was the question posed in 1998 (coincidentally the same year Google was launched) by two philosophers and cognitive scientists, Andy Clark and David Chalmers, in a now famous journal article, The Extended Mind. Before their work, the standard answer among scientists was to say that the mind stopped at the boundaries of skin and skull (roughly, the boundaries of the brain and nervous system).

But Clark and Chalmers proposed a more radical answer. They argued that when we integrate things from the external environment into our thinking processes, those external things play the same cognitive role as our brains do. As a result, they are just as much a part of our minds as neurons and synapses. Clark and Chalmers’ argument produced debate, but many other experts on the mind have since agreed.


Is anyone doing a “I went a week without a search engine” story to celebrate Google’s 20versary? Seems like an obvious story to demonstrate this effect. I think anyone would find it difficult (search engines are all around us) and painful (we don’t realise how heavily we rely on search).
link to this extract

Fortnite on PlayStation doesn’t have cross-platform play with other consoles because they are worse, explains Sony boss • The Independent

Andrew Griffin:


Sony has been embroiled in controversy since earlier this year when the game was released for Nintendo Switch and it said that PlayStation players would not be able to play with them. What’s more, players found that once they had logged in on their PlayStation, they could not log in to the same account on other platforms, despite both options being available for Xbox and PC players.

Gamers have continued to protest that the restrictions are unfair. But Sony has been clear that it will not change the policy.

Speaking at the IFA technology show in Berlin, Sony chief executive Kenichiro Yoshida said he felt playing on the PlayStation 4 was the best experience for gamers and therefore should not be compromised.

“On cross-platform, our way of thinking is always that PlayStation is the best place to play. Fortnite, I believe, partnered with PlayStation 4 is the best experience for users, that’s our belief,” he said, according to Press Association.

“But actually, we already opened some games as cross-platform with PC and some others, so we decide based on what is the best user experience. That is our way of thinking for cross-platform.”

Fortnite has amassed more than 125 million players since the launch of its battle royale mode last year, with many choosing to play on mobile devices such as their phone or tablet.


PlayStation players are second-class citizens in this, and that rankles with them. Sony can bluster, but this is dangerous: if Fortnite survives at the top for a year or even two, that could have a significant effect on its perception with the upcoming generation.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.902: fear of a blank algorithm, Five Eyes v encryption, TSMC nabs alleged secrets thief, Google is 20!, and more

  1. Now I understand why, when he switched from iOS to Android, my iBrother had me hunt for a way to get the OS’s Notification Log: he got used to it in iOS. No Android user ever had before, nor ever has since, asked me for that.

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