Start Up No.948: the deep fakes problem, Wisconsin dumps Foxconn fave, folding screens ahoy!, Bristol’s spying phoneboxes, and more

What if we said… it’s a spaceship? Artist’s impression via European Southern Observatory on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

In the age of A.I., is seeing still believing? • The New Yorker

Joshua Rothman on the rise of “deep fakes”:


As alarming as synthetic media may be, it may be more alarming that we arrived at our current crises of misinformation—Russian election hacking; genocidal propaganda in Myanmar; instant-message-driven mob violence in India—without it. Social media was enough to do the job, by turning ordinary people into media manipulators who will say (or share) anything to win an argument. The main effect of synthetic media may be to close off an escape route from the social-media bubble. In 2014, video of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner helped start the Black Lives Matter movement; footage of the football player Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée catalyzed a reckoning with domestic violence in the National Football League. It seemed as though video evidence, by turning us all into eyewitnesses, might provide a path out of polarization and toward reality. With the advent of synthetic media, all that changes. Body cameras may still capture what really happened, but the aesthetic of the body camera—its claim to authenticity—is also a vector for misinformation. “Eyewitness video” becomes an oxymoron. The path toward reality begins to wash away.

In the early days of photography, its practitioners had to argue for its objectivity. In courtrooms, experts debated whether photos were reflections of reality or artistic products; legal scholars wondered whether photographs needed to be corroborated by witnesses. It took decades for a consensus to emerge about what made a photograph trustworthy. Some technologists wonder if that consensus could be reëstablished on different terms. Perhaps, using modern tools, photography might be rebooted…

…Citron and Chesney indulge in a bit of sci-fi speculation. They imagine the “worst-case scenario,” in which deepfakes prove ineradicable and are used for electioneering, blackmail, and other nefarious purposes. In such a world, we might record ourselves constantly, so as to debunk synthetic media when it emerges. “The vendor supplying such a service and maintaining the resulting data would be in an extraordinary position of power,” they write; its database would be a tempting resource for law-enforcement agencies. Still, if it’s a choice between surveillance and synthesis, many people may prefer to be surveilled. Truepic, McGregor told me, had already had discussions with a few political campaigns. “They say, ‘We would use this to just document everything for ourselves, as an insurance policy.’ ”


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Murphy’s law: 33 Wisconsin election winners and losers • Urban Milwaukee

Bruce Murphy has 33 lessons from Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin, which threw out Trump-backed Foxconn-backing incumbent governor Scott Walker:


Loser: Foxconn. The company was all in for its generous benefactor Scott Walker, announcing three suspicious satellite innovation centers in Milwaukee, Eau Claire and Green Bay, in order to convince voters their massive $4.1 billion subsidy would benefit the whole state, but polls show it didn’t work. Now they will face a Democratically-appointed DNR secretary, who may have different ideas about how much air and water pollution — and how much withdrawal of Lake Michigan water — is allowed. 


This is going to be one to keep an eye on. In other news, Wisconsin approved marijuana use, so that’s an alternative use for those fields, perhaps.
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Google is adding native foldable device support to Android • Neowin

Rich Woods:


Google today announced that it will be adding native support for “foldables” into Android. These are devices with foldable displays, the first of which will come from companies like LG and Samsung.

The way it works is that when devices are folded, they look like regular smartphones, but when you open them up, there’s a larger screen. The idea is to seamlessly transfer the contents of the smaller screen onto the larger one.

The good news is that most Android apps are already optimized for different screen sizes, resolutions, and aspect ratios. After all, Android is a very diverse ecosystem that ranges from low-end phones with low screen resolutions to flagship phones that are QHD. There are aspect ratios from 4:3 to 19.5:9, and screen sizes that go from a few inches to the size of a desktop PC.

But native support is something that’s meant to prevent fragmentation. If this doesn’t happen, then OEMs will have to create their own implementations, which could result in different experiences across the board. We’ve seen this before, with fingerprint sensors and screen notches, both of which started appearing before there was native support in the OS.


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Pokemon Go earned $73m in October •

Rebekah Valentine:


Pokemon GO has once again seen a relatively successful month, though it’s coming down slightly after a summer surge. Niantic’s location-based AR adventure brought in $73m in revenue for October, a 67% year-over-year increase.

This is still a bit of a dip from the game’s summer high, but given the game is in many regards a seasonal one, the slight drop is unsurprising and in line with what Niantic has seen in past years as the weather grows colder.

What’s more interesting about the numbers from Sensor Tower is both that the game seems to be doing better this year than last, cold weather aside, and that it also narrowly edged out Fortnite (on mobile) for total revenue last month.


You’d forgotten all about Pokemon Go, hadn’t you.
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Data from millions of smartphone journeys proves cyclists faster in cities than cars and motorbikes • Forbes

Carlton Reid:


That bicyclists are faster in cities will come as no surprise to bicycle advocates who have staged so-called “commuter races” for many years. However, these races – organized to highlight the swiftness of urban cycling – are usually staged in locations and at hours skewed towards bicycle riders. The Deliveroo stats are significant because they have been extracted from millions of actual journeys.

And it’s all thanks to Frank.

Frank is the name Deliveroo gives its routing algorithm (the name was chosen for the Danny DeVito character in the TV series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.)

Delivering millions of simultaneous orders from thousands of restaurants to hungry consumers within 30 minutes using roving self-employed couriers equipped with smartphones is a complex vehicle routing problem: consumers want piping hot food; restaurants want meals picked up when cooked; riders – paid per drop – want multiple deliveries per hour, and Deliveroo needs to make money.


Good in-depth article about Deliveroo; and cyclists have repeatedly proven to be faster through cities than any other form of transport.
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Oumuamua: cigar-shaped UFO might have been an alien probe • NY Mag

Eric Levitz:


In October of last year, a mysterious, cigar-shaped interstellar object fell through our solar system at an extraordinary speed. When the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii first discovered “Oumuamua” — the object’s official nickname, meaning “a messenger who reaches out from the distant past” in Hawaiian — researchers assumed that it was an ordinary comet or asteroid. But the longer they observed Oumuamua, the more improbable that hypothesis appeared: After all, what kind of asteroid is ten times longer than it is wide, and suddenly accelerates in speed, for no discernible astrophysical reason?

A new paper from scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics offers an answer: the kind of asteroid that is actually a solar-powered component of an alien spacecraft that broke off its mothership while investigating Earth’s solar system.

Specifically, the paper postulates that Oumuamua is a “solar sail” — an object that propels itself through space by channeling solar energy, which is a technology that intelligent life-forms (such as they are) on Earth have already developed. This hypothesis would explain why Oumuamua suddenly accelerated while traveling through our solar system.


You look at it and you think: actually, could be. Though plenty of scientists really don’t think so.
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Opinion: Bristol’s new phoneboxes could end up spying on you • The Bristol Cable

Adrian Short on a plan to replace 25 BT phoneboxes with “BT InLinkUK” ones offering free calls and Wifi – with ads, and tracking:


When Transport for London (TfL) trialled a similar system on the Tube in 2016, their promises of “de-personalised” data collection fell apart when someone made a Freedom of Information Act request for the data. TfL decided that releasing it would be likely to breach people’s privacy.

“No city should grant anyone blanket permission to run a surveillance system on their streets”
There are also concerns around advertising. AdBlock Bristol have objected to the plans to flood the city with more screens, saying: “People in Bristol are increasingly concerned about the ongoing commercialisation of our public spaces, particularly through digital advertising.

“The council should be listening to those concerns, not blindly allowing dozens more digital advertising screens into our city.”

Bristol needs to decide whether a proliferation of advertising screens and enabling companies like Google to track people and vehicles around the city is a price worth paying for free phone calls and wifi.

But Bristolians won’t get that chance because there is no high-level process for making that decision or blocking the system if residents don’t want it. The process we have is simply to decide 25 minor planning applications, something normally so low-level that it doesn’t even get referred to the city’s councillors.

I’ve been working with AdBlock and the design technologist Ross Atkin to persuade councillors to take responsibility for the InLink system by making these decisions themselves rather than delegating to planning officers.

Councillors should be looking at the overall effect of the network, not just the individual kiosks.


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Large hydropower dams ‘not sustainable’ in the developing world • BBC News

Matt McGrath:


Hydropower is the source of 71% of renewable energy throughout the world and has played a major role in the development of many countries.

But researchers say the building of dams in Europe and the US reached a peak in the 1960s and has been in decline since then, with more now being dismantled than installed. Hydropower only supplies approximately 6% of US electricity.

Dams are now being removed at a rate of more than one a week on both sides of the Atlantic.
The problem, say the authors of this new paper, is that governments were blindsided by the prospect of cheap electricity without taking into account the full environmental and social costs of these installations.

More than 90% of dams built since the 1930s were more expensive than anticipated. They have damaged river ecology, displaced millions of people and have contributed to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases from the decomposition of flooded lands and forests.

“They make a rosy picture of the benefits, which are not fulfilled and the costs are ignored and passed on to society much later,” lead author Prof Emilio Moran, from Michigan State University, told BBC News.

His report cites the example of two dams on the Madeira river in Brazil, which were finished only five years ago, and are predicted to produce only a fraction of the power expected because of climate change.


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Apple walks Ars through the iPad Pro’s A12X system on a chip • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:


Apple is pushing up against high-end laptop and even desktop performance here, depending on what you’re using for comparison. Granted, comparing architectures can be Apples (ahem) and oranges. Apple’s CPU efforts are industry-leading on the mobile side of things, but they’re not perfect. While Apple focuses on performance, Qualcomm, well, doesn’t—partly because it essentially has a monopoly in the Android world and may not feel it even needs to, but partly because it focuses on connectivity. (Qualcomm’s modems are industry-leading, even if its CPUs are not.)

There’s one intriguing bit of context for all of this that Apple won’t acknowledge in its discussions with Ars or anyone else: Macs are still on Intel chips. It’s obvious to those who follow the company closely why that status quo isn’t providing what Apple needs to move forward in its strategies. Further, a Bloomberg report citing sources close to the company claimed that Apple plans to launch a Mac with custom silicon—and we’re talking CPU here, not just the T2 chip—are in the works.

Apple has come to dominate in mobile SoCs. In a lot of ways, though, Qualcomm has been an easy dragon to slay. Should Apple choose to go custom silicon route on the Mac platform, Intel will not be quite as easy to beat. But the rapid iteration that has led to the iPad Pro’s A12X makes a compelling case that it’s possible.

Apple won’t talk about its future plans, of course. You could say that’s all in the future, but when you have a 7nm tablet chip that rivals the CPU and graphics performance of most laptops and beats two out of five of the modern gaming consoles on the market with no fan at barely over a pound and less than a quarter-inch thick… it feels a bit like at least some particular future is now.

Now, if only there were iOS versions of Final Cut, Xcode, and Logic.


Axon also brings up one other point: Apple has implemented machine learning chips in its phones and, now, tablets. When are they going to come to the Mac? What particular role would they play there? Do they need ARM Macs? You’d have to think that it would be a whole lot easier to implement on a desktop than a phone.
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Ford buys electric scooter startup Spin • TechCrunch

Megan Rose Dickey:


Spin was one of the three companies that initially deployed its scooters in San Francisco back in March. Along with Bird and Lime, Spin was forced to remove its electric scooters from the city until the city determined a permitting process. Since failing to receive a permit to operate, Spin has been one of the more quiet scooter startups in the industry. Though, next week, Spin is meeting with the city of San Francisco to appeal the denial of its permit to operate electric scooters in the city.

As of June, Spin had a contract with electric scooter manufacturer Ninebot, owned by Segway, to purchase 30,000 scooters a month through the end of this year, according to a source. It’s not completely clear why Ford feels the need to acquire Spin — let alone any electric scooter company — instead of just forming partnerships with scooter manufacturers to launch its own service.

That same month, Spin was in the process of finalizing a $125m security token. The idea with Spin’s security token offering is to raise money from accredited investors, who will then be entitled to a portion of the revenue from Spin’s electric scooter operations, according to a source close to Spin. With STOs, investors can buy tokens that are linked to real-world financial instruments. In the case of Spin’s offering, the tokens are linked to its revenue. Spin had previously raised $8m in traditional venture funding.


The story was broken by Axios, but the context here is far more worthwhile. “A mercy killing”, according to one observer. Spin has been struggling for finance.

Interesting move by Ford, though.
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Samsung Infinity Flex display: folding phone concept revealed • Gearbrain

Alistair Charlton:


After months of rumors, teasers and anticipation, Samsung has finally revealed its first folding smartphone — but there’s a catch.

Shown off by CEO and president DJ Koh during the opening keynote of the annual Samsung Developer Conference in San Francisco, the Infinity Flex Display is only a prototype for now, and won’t be ready to buy until 2019.

The concept comes just days after Royole announced the FlexPai, which the company claims is the world’s first smartphone to feature a folding display, and early adopters should receive in late-December.

Unlike the production-ready FlexPai, Samsung is not ready to reveal its finished product just yet. The device shown on stage was bulky — especially when viewed in the closed position — but Samsung reassured the audience that “there’s a device inside here and it is stunning.”

Regarding durability, Samsung says the display can be folded “hundreds of thousands of times” without being damaged. The company also said the display is the thinnest it has ever made. Mass production, Samsung says vaguely, will begin “in the coming months.”


Vague. Very vague. Meanwhile…
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Hands-on with the world’s first foldable smartphone – Android Authority

Bailey Stein:


In its extended position, the FlexPai is more similar to a tablet than a smartphone. It features a 7.8-inch 1440p AMOLED display. The display itself is bright and offers saturated colors; I didn’t notice any difference in quality compared to standard AMOLED panels in traditional smartphones on the market today.

As you may have noticed, the display is sized at a 4:3 aspect ratio, presumably so the device can better function like a traditional phone when folded.

The folding mechanism is supported by a hinge composed of over 100 unique components. The hinge seems very sturdy, but obviously the real technical achievement comes in the form of the flexible display. In addition to the underlying flexible display panel, Royole is using a type of flexible plastic material instead of the familiar cover glass.

While the plastic does not feel nearly as premium as glass, it’s probably the best material available for the task. As an added benefit, it effectively makes the FlexPai shatterproof.

Taking the Royole FlexPai from tablet to phone mode is pretty straightforward. It’s just a matter of taking both sides and folding it down the middle. The hinge supports pretty much every angle, so you can fold and use it in any position you wish. Royole claims the FlexPai can be folded at least 200,000 times, which should be enough for several years of normal use.


Gimmick? Or wave of the future?
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Police crack encrypted chat service IronChat and read 258,000 messages from suspected criminals • Hot For Security

Graham Cluley:


Police haven’t described how they made the breakthrough of managing to crack the IronChat system, and snoop upon encrypted messages, but the suspicion will be that the encrypted chat app had a weakness – such as its reliance on a central server.

In a statement, police in the Netherlands explained that as a result of their surveillance, law enforcement agencies have seized automatic weapons, large quantities of hard drugs (MDMA and cocaine), 90,000 Euros in cash, and dismantled a drugs lab.

In addition, a number of suspects are also said to have already been arrested, with multiple searches taking place in various locations around the country.

“This operation has given us a unique insight into the criminal world in which people communicated openly about crimes,” said Aart Garssen, Head of the Regional Crime investigation Unit in the east of the Netherlands.

Police only decided to shut down the service after they became aware that criminals were beginning to suspect each other of leaking information to the police, introducing a very real risk that there could be a threat to individuals’ safety. For this same reason, Dutch authorities decided to go public about their access to the chat system at a press conference.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.948: the deep fakes problem, Wisconsin dumps Foxconn fave, folding screens ahoy!, Bristol’s spying phoneboxes, and more

  1. I’m surprised they’re not using flexible/foldable screens on smart bracelets. Rigid smartwatches are struggling with practical/aesthetics limits on both screen size and thickness, isn’t there a market for a pancake version ? That’d be outside if the norm (so “ugly” to be simplistic) but very functional.

  2. This probably won’t be reported much in this bubble, but the latest Google Android Security Report (or something similar) is out. 3 salient points:
    1- it exists. Google is willing to go on the record with facts and data, which Apple and MS aren’t, preferring to rely on PR and innuendo -to great success, because as Trump as proven and as has just been explained to me here, emotions > reason and information.
    2- it’s rather good, only 0.08% of PlayStore-only Androids have what’s dubbed a “Potentially Harmful App” (mostly, ad-clickers). China excluded though. That number grows tenfold for phones installing apps from outside the PlayStore, which is less impressive.
    3- progress is very fast, that 0.08% was 1% only 4yrs ago.

    Combine this with the also underreported study from Gartner naming Android (when updated)nthe safest OS, and some undeservedly popular FUD mostlynaround potential, not actual, exploits should stop. Fat chance.

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