Start Up No.970: the mystery of Sandberg, Huawei’s 2013 tell, the bias around AI, the paralyzed robot waiters, and more

There are more than 8,000 of these still in use by the NHS. Is that definitely bad? CC-licensed photo by Mikhail Noel on Flickr.

It’s charity time. Today’s suggested charities are for those who are both deaf and blind. (I’ve linked in the past to Molly Watt’s descriptions of her experiences.)
In the UK there is Deafblind UK.
In the US, there are many charities and organisations supporting the deafblind.
Pick one near you.

Please give as you feel able.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Because why not. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

My befuddling dinner with Facebook empress Sheryl Sandberg • WIRED

Virginia Heffernan:


What I decided is that what middle-class women mean by “work” (cubicles) and “life” (childcare) is not what Sheryl Sandberg means by those words. The axes of existence for her might be closer to what I’d call “glamour” (scallops) and “deluxe domesticity” (her kids have a house with a private waterfall). So this night of book promotion, though there were no desks in sight, somehow counted toward the “work” in the “work-life balance” she was aiming to embody in her life of glamour and luxe.

In other words, I idolized Sheryl Sandberg the woman—good for any sister who finds a way to amass $1.6 billion for being at parties and steering clear of some boring ops job—but from the first minute I saw her in person in 2013 I was very, very concerned about Facebook. It dawned on me that Sandberg was human—a small, vain, bright, self-absorbed, convivial everywoman with a talent for money and fame—and that no one human, even Sandberg, could discipline the galactic, epochal spiritual wildfire that Mark Zuckerberg had inflicted on the Internet.

The Facebook of 2013 is now a distant memory. As 2018 comes to a close—a “low dishonest” time, as Auden said of the 1930s—that high-flying, hardly working, nap-besotted, righteous Facebook has given way to one known for secrecy and collaboration with disinformation campaigns and computational propaganda. The purpose of these campaigns at Facebook, in the words of the Oxford Internet Institute at Balliol College, is to “hack people.”

Hacking us. Not connecting us. I deactivated my Facebook account a year and a half ago, and at the same time sold the few shares of Facebook stock I’d bought to be a good sport on the day of the IPO.


I listened to Sandberg’s appearance in August 2017 on Desert Island Discs, a UK radio programme which interviews people about their lives and loves, and usually manages to extract some insight. Sandberg was pure Teflon; somehow both flawless and utterly uninteresting. (You might disagree; the BBC managed to extract “10 things we learned from her guest slot”.)
link to this extract

From 2013: Exclusive: Huawei CFO linked to firm that offered HP gear to Iran • Reuters

Steve Stecklow, writing in January 2013:


Cathy Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, served on the board of Hong Kong-based Skycom Tech Co Ltd between February 2008 and April 2009, according to Skycom records filed with Hong Kong’s Companies Registry.

Reuters reported last month that in late 2010, Skycom’s office in Tehran offered to sell at least 1.3 million euros worth of HP gear to Mobile Telecommunication Co of Iran, despite US trade sanctions. At least 13 pages of the proposal were marked “Huawei confidential” and carried Huawei’s logo. Huawei said neither it nor Skycom ultimately provided the HP equipment; HP said it prohibits the sale of its products to Iran.

Huawei has described Skycom as one of its “major local partners.”


And guess what? The arraignment of Meng Wanzhou last week included the allegation that Huawei operated SkyCom specifically in order to do business with Iran. From the latest story:


The US authorities allege Meng committed fraud by telling an HSBC executive her company was in compliance with US sanctions against Iran limiting communication technology. The meeting took place in 2013, but the location was not revealed.


The US case looks strong. This isn’t a bargaining chip.
link to this extract

The seductive diversion of ‘solving’ bias in artificial intelligence • Medium

Julia Powles and Helen Nissenbaum:


What has been remarkably underappreciated is the key interdependence of the twin stories of A.I. inevitability and A.I. bias. Against the corporate projection of an otherwise sunny horizon of unstoppable A.I. integration, recognizing and acknowledging bias can be seen as a strategic concession — one that subdues the scale of the challenge. Bias, like job losses and safety hazards, becomes part of the grand bargain of innovation.

The reality that bias is primarily a social problem and cannot be fully solved technically becomes a strength, rather than a weakness, for the inevitability narrative. It flips the script. It absorbs and regularizes the classification practices and underlying systems of inequality perpetuated by automation, allowing relative increases in “fairness” to be claimed as victories — even if all that is being done is to slice, dice, and redistribute the makeup of those negatively affected by actuarial decision-making.

In short, the preoccupation with narrow computational puzzles distracts us from the far more important issue of the colossal asymmetry between societal cost and private gain in the rollout of automated systems. It also denies us the possibility of asking: Should we be building these systems at all?

The endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all.
In accepting the existing narratives about A.I., vast zones of contest and imagination are relinquished. What is achieved is resignation — the normalization of massive data capture, a one-way transfer to technology companies, and the application of automated, predictive solutions to each and every societal problem.

Given this broader political and economic context, it should not surprise us that many prominent voices sounding the alarm on bias do so with blessing and support from the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple. These convenient critics spotlight important questions, but they also suck attention from longer-term challenges. The endgame is always to “fix” A.I. systems, never to use a different system or no system at all.


link to this extract

Heading to a cardiologist….. : AppleWatch • Reddit


If you have the Apple Watch 4 please please update to the new firmware released yesterday and take your ECG.

I did last night and tried it out. Weird. Abnormal heat rate notifications. Ran the ECG app and came back afib. Well…glitchy firmware. Let’s try again. Afib. Again and again and again. Piece of crap watch.

My wife wakes up and I put it on her. Normal. Normal. Me afib. Try the other wrist, try the underside of the wrist. Every time afib warning.

Ok. So go to Patient First. Parking lot full and I’m going to blow it off and head home. Look at the watch again, afib again.

Fine walk in and sign in. They ask what’s wrong and I’m embarrassed. ‘Ok so there is a new watch feature….hahaha….I’m silly but can we check this?”

I did not know that this comment was a quick queue pass for Patient First. I’m taken right back and hooked up. The technician looks at the screen and says “I’m going to get the doctor”


Yup, he had atrial fibrillation. Discovering these from day one is pretty impressive.
link to this extract

How y’all, youse and you guys talk • The New York Times


The data for the quiz and maps shown here come from over 350,000 survey responses collected from August to October 2013 by Josh Katz, a graphics editor for the New York Times who developed this quiz and has since written “Speaking American,” a visual exploration of American regional dialects.

Most of the questions used in this quiz are based on those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project begun in 2002 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. The original questions and results for that survey can be found on Dr. Vaux’s current website.

The colors on the large heat map correspond to the probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did. The three smaller maps show which answer most contributed to those cities being named the most (or least) similar to you.


Apparently I’m from Providence, Yonkers or New York. Fun for anyone to try, whether or not you’re American.
link to this extract

Cafe in Japan hires paralyzed people to control robot servers • Nextshark

Carl Samson:


A cafe with an all-robot staff controlled by paralyzed people has opened in Tokyo.

The cafe, called Dawn ver.β, held its ribbon cutting ceremony on Nov. 26.

Ten people with conditions like ALS [muscular dystrophy] and other spinal cord injuries are currently employed at Dawn, according to Sankei.

From home, they operate the OriHime-D, a 120-centimeter (4-foot) robot that communicates, moves around and handles objects.

Behind the OriHime-D is Ory, a startup that develops robotics for disabled people. In a video, a paralyzed man is seen “typing” commands through his eyes. The OriHime-D can also be used by people involved in childcare, nursing care or other activities that prevent them from leaving home or a certain location.

“Even those who can’t go out can work through this alter ego and have a role in society,” Ory noted.

Dawn (Diverse Avatar Working Network), based on the same cafe in the 2008 anime “Time of Eve,” imagines a coffee shop where humans and robots interact as equals, SoraNews24 noted.

The cafe, located in the Japanese capital’s Akasaka District, is a joint effort between Ory, All Nippon Airways (ANA), the Nippon Foundation, and the Avatar Robotic Consultative Association (ARCA).


The “workers” do get paid, though the cafe has ended the experiment as of Friday. I truly cannot decide if this is wonderful, or weirdly exploitative, or both, or neither.
link to this extract

Axe the Fax campaign leads to government ban on new fax machines in NHS by April 2020 • Silver Buck


An NHS campaign to remove fax machines across the health sector has led to the government announcing a ban of fax machines by April 2020.

The Axe the Fax campaign, which was launched in September, has been encouraging NHS organisations to pledge to remove their fax machines and share information, challenges and best practices with each other, largely through social media, to speed up the process.

Up until the launch of the campaign, which also features a dedicated Axe the Fax toolkit, there has been no guidance, advice or funding to support health and care organisations to improve stakeholder engagement or to change their processes to enable them to switch off the machines.

Richard Corbridge, Chief Digital Information Office at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which initiated the campaign when it announced It would remove its 340 fax machines by the end of 2018 said: “There is a huge disjoint in the digitisation of the NHS. While some areas are looking at artificial intelligence, others are still faxing patient information from one area of the hospital to another.

“Today’s announcement that fax machines will not be purchased from next month and be banned from March 2020 is a landmark in the Axe the Fax campaign, which has been locally led and driven and received huge buy-in not only from NHS organisations across the country but as far as the US and Australia.”


Apparently there are more than 8,000 of them in use. Yet faxes have their use: very hard to hack, point-to-point, simply sending proves it has arrived at the other end. However, they’re not entirely secure.
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This data shows that Remainers are overwhelmingly winning the Brexit war on social media • Buzzfeed News

Alex Spence:


Campaigners trying to keep Britain in the European Union via a second referendum are winning the war for attention on social media, according to an analysis conducted by BuzzFeed News of the most-viral Brexit-related stories of the year.

Data tracking the social distribution of media articles on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter reveals that news reports and opinion pieces portraying Brexit in a negative light are far more likely to be widely shared than those giving a positive impression of leaving the union.

Of the 100 most-viral stories about Brexit this year, 61 were negative in sentiment, according to BuzzFeed News’ review of data from BuzzSumo, a company that tracks sharing across social networks. The groundswell of anti-Brexit activity on these platforms has been a crucial factor in the campaign for a second vote, which has been gathering momentum since the summer, activists said.

In stark contrast, only eight of the 100 most-shared articles conveyed a positive view of Brexit, according to BuzzFeed News’ analysis. Two of those were columns by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage on the Telegraph website decrying the government’s “betrayal” of the Leave vote.

The rest of the articles were classified as neutral.


Three possibilities: (1) support for Remain has ramped up enormously (2) pro-Brexit bots (Russsssssian?) have been zapped by Facebook and Twitter, leaving the pro-Remain noise which shows up here (3) pro-Brexit folk have given up on social media.

On balance, I’d go with (2).
link to this extract

Eleven researchers publish sharp critique of EPA fuel economy logic • Ars Technica

Megan Geuss:


The EPA’s lengthy technical analysis stated that better fuel economy rules would be costly for companies. Those costs would be passed on to consumers, and those consumers would put off buying new cars with better safety features, causing accidents that would cost more than 12,000 lives. The EPA also argued that if fuel economy standards are left in place, people will be able to spend less on gas, which means they would drive more, meaning greenhouse gas emissions and driving in general might not reduce as much as expected. This so-called “rebound effect” has been well-studied in scientific literature, but economists and public policy researchers are extremely skeptical of how the current administration has applied it…

…In their Thursday letter, the researchers explained that one of the primary and most egregious differences between the reports centered on how the EPA estimated the projected fleet size of cars and trucks out to 2025. Tighter fuel economy standards lead to more expensive cars as well as more expensive used cars, the letter says. That would mean that the total US vehicle fleet would shrink if fuel economy standards are kept in place.

On the other hand, freezing the fuel economy standards would increase the total US vehicle fleet as the US economy grows. But oddly, the EPA’s 2018 report says that freezing fuel economy standards will shrink the US vehicle fleet. [Emphasis added – CA]

“This is inconsistent with basic economic principles,” the researchers wrote, adding that the EPA’s most recent model has erased about 6 million projected vehicles with little explanation. Such a model “leads to misleading conclusions related to the overall size of the fleet, fleet composition, and the amount of scrappage; and undermines EPA and NHTSA modeling efforts to improve the understanding of the costs and benefits of fuel economy standards,” the letter says.

Correcting that underestimation of vehicles almost entirely wipes out any reduction in crash fatalities that the EPA estimated, the researchers wrote. After all, more cars on the road means more crashes.


How surprising that the Trump administration would try to warp the calculation to fit the conclusion it wants to reach.
link to this extract

Prediction: the next ‘Friends’-style scramble at Netflix will be over ‘The Office [US]’ • BGR

Andy Meek:


If Comcast-owned NBCUniversal has not started thinking about what the future holds for The Office as far as its next streaming home, it likely will soon. Netflix in recent days kicked up a storm from fans of Ross, Rachel and the rest of the Friends gang when it briefly looked like the show was set to disappear from Netflix come January 1. And then some behind-the-scenes dealmaking led Netflix to win the rights to keep streaming it for another year. However, it reportedly had to pay the hefty sum of $100m for that privilege.

So if that’s how much Netflix had to pay to hang out to Friends for just a little while longer, you can bet there’s going to be a similar scramble to keep Jim, Pam and the entire Dunder Mifflin crew whose story apparently generates more viewing hours than anything else Netflix has got.

This dynamic will be fascinating to watch play out in the coming months and really throughout 2019, as a few credible streaming challengers get off the ground to potentially rival Netflix, such as Disney+. By one estimate, Netflix’s original programming at the moment makes up only 8% of its content when measured in hours. Which is why we’re going to see the streaming giant keep ramping up its slate of original offerings, things like Narcos and The Haunting of Hill House, while at the same time also doing whatever it can — such as paying massive amounts of money — to keep popular content from outside providers streaming on its platform for as long as possible.


In my experience, Amazon Prime is full of junk I don’t want to watch; Netflix is full of stuff I do want to watch (so far). Content is king.
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Updated AlphaZero crushes Stockfish in new 1,000-game match •


In news reminiscent of the initial AlphaZero shockwave last December, the artificial intelligence company DeepMind released astounding results from an updated version of the machine-learning chess project today.

The results leave no question, once again, that AlphaZero plays some of the strongest chess in the world.

The updated AlphaZero crushed Stockfish 8 in a new 1,000-game match, scoring 155 -6 =839…

AlphaZero also bested Stockfish in a series of time-odds matches, soundly beating the traditional engine even at time odds of 10 to one.

In additional matches, the new AlphaZero beat the “latest development version” of Stockfish, with virtually identical results as the match vs Stockfish 8, according to DeepMind. The pre-release copy of journal article, which is dated Dec. 7, 2018, does not specify the exact development version used. 

[Update: Today’s release of the full journal article specifies that the match was against the latest development version of Stockfish as of Jan. 13, 2018, which was Stockfish 9.]


“Some of the best chess in the world”? Come on – it’s by far the best chess player that has ever existed. Stockfish is used to analyse the human championships; maybe AlphaZero will start developing new tactics unthought of by humans, as it has in Go.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

11 thoughts on “Start Up No.970: the mystery of Sandberg, Huawei’s 2013 tell, the bias around AI, the paralyzed robot waiters, and more

  1. Regarding the disabled people running service machines, I’d go with “both”, for wonderful and weirdly exploitative. If you think about it, it’s obvious what’s going on. The company needs testing and data for its development, preferably with real-life conditions. The standard arrangement would be to do some sort of clinical program, e.g. a study with patients in a medical institution. But in that case, the participants aren’t going to be strongly motivated to work at it for hours on end, because it’s boring and tedious and tiring. And the tests themselves will be subject to strict clinical review standards. But make it a *job* – then a whole bunch of the constraints go away. And people will feel much more social pressure to do boring tedious tiring work for hours on end if it’s their job.
    On the other hand, some of these people probably do think having a job is valuable, even if that job is really some sort of complicated regulatory fiction (but doesn’t that describe many jobs?).

  2. Regarding who’s winning in the Brexit social media battle, most likely is the missing option (4) the pro-Brexit bots have switched sides. The objective of most foreign influence operations is to sow internal division.

  3. I keep hearing extremely interesting tidbits about 2 Google projects (Fuchsia and Flutter) that may well be, each on its own, the most interesting thing to happen to IT in several years.

    First, both projects have the promise of staying power. This isn’t Google’s umpteenth attempt at Social or Messaging, it’s very technical infrastructure-type stuff that they’ve already started dogfooding, and Google has the culture and workforce to tackle that well. Both are FOSS.

    Second, both are in very mature areas (OS and app toolchain+runtime) that are very mature, but might have become ripe for major disruption. I was working in the dev area when MS launched .net (remember ? It was a dev platform for Entreprise, *and* a series of apps/sites/services for Individuals… not confusing at all !), Flutter seems to be getting a lot more pull.

    Third, both are ground-up rethinks. Not tweaks, not one-horse shows, but clean-slate holistic rethinks of what a modern OS and a modern dev platform should be. Luckily that does include backwards compatibility, but as a grafted-on extra, not as a core design constraint.

    Finally, the goals and features are sexy. Microkernel, Modularity, OS-level support for VMs/containers for Fuchsia; Instant compilation, OS independence and “format” (phone, tablet, laptop, desktop…) independence for Flutter (and for Fuchsia too, incl. embedded, wearable…).

    Flutter just got released as 1.0, and already has some major deployments under its belt:
    Fuchsia is in alpha, the core Magenta microkernel seems to be working, the 3 upper layers (drivers + core OS stuff, services, and app runtime) are still skeletal. Timescale is “less than 5 years”, so 4.99 years.

    I can’t help but think getting rid of Unix/Linux (kernel only: 15 million lines of code !; 200+ million for the whole OS) and of C/Java+arcane toolkits (Obj-C/Swift resp.) would help move things along at a much faster pace.

  4. Re Apple Watch and atrial fibrillation – I wonder what the impact on health services will be of more more people knowing they have such abnormalities – I guess, over time, the percentage of undiagnosed cases that would have led to more serious outcomes will mitigate the increased short-term demand on services.

    In a similar theme of the unforeseen consequences of tech – interesting that a tourism board is asking people not to geotag pictures posted on social media to avoid the areas getting trampled by copycats Maybe they should just shut down the tourism board if there are too many visitors!

    • I think that knowing you have afib a long time before it becomes serious must be a big plus. I’d love to know the cost breakdown of whatever the treatment is for afib v the likely (deathly?) outcome at unknown time.

      • Yeah that may be the case but it may not. The cost in medication alone of managing potentially decades of a chronic condition can run into very large figures indeed.

        I’m certainly not sayin it shouldn’t be done but it may have detrimental financial consequences.

        It’s part of a theme where I wonder how long it will be before governments abandon their healthy living advice. With over-population and increasing demand on services, maybe governments should be advocating lifestyles likely to increase the chances of sudden death.

      • How is 8b more real overpopulation than 190m, which apparently is when someone was first recorded doomsaying about overpopulation. And then regularly at pretty much all stops in-between.

        The overpopulation threshold always seems to be “now”. Because the world was better when I was younger ? (hint: it wasn’t, I was). I remember when I was a kid, the Yellow Peril, then Africa overflowing, then Maghreb… unavoidable invasion famine and upheaval. Very similar to the nutters’ end of the world prophecies, but for those who don’t dare being utterly random and need a veneer of facts, however false, irrelevant, biased.

        I see it as a variation of the “hell is others, and I myself can’t do nothing to fix today’s issues” mantra of over-the-hill people.

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