Start Up No.1,027: AI’s influence on science, how b*tcoin screwed the new Nazis, Google aims for gamers, Vestager on the data companies, and more


“Hi there! Here for your jobs. Or not.” CC-licensed photo by Josh Beam on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Undelayed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Are robots competing for your job? • The New Yorker

Jill Lepore is in caustic form, reviewing a number of books:

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The old robots were blue-collar workers, burly and clunky, the machines that rusted the Rust Belt. But, according to the economist Richard Baldwin, in “The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work” (Oxford), the new ones are “white-collar robots,” knowledge workers and quinoa-and-oat-milk globalists, the machines that will bankrupt Brooklyn. Mainly, they’re algorithms. Except when they’re immigrants. Baldwin calls that kind “remote intelligence,” or R.I.: they’re not exactly robots but, somehow, they fall into the same category. They’re people from other countries who can steal your job without ever really crossing the border: they just hop over, by way of the Internet and apps like Upwork, undocumented, invisible, ethereal.

Between artificial intelligence and remote intelligence, Baldwin warns, “this international talent tidal wave is coming straight for the good, stable jobs that have been the foundation of middle-class prosperity in the US and Europe, and other high-wage economies.” Change your Wi-Fi password. Clear your browser history. Ask H.R. about early retirement. The globots are coming.

How can you know if you’re about to get replaced by an invading algorithm or an augmented immigrant? “If your job can be easily explained, it can be automated,” Anders Sandberg, of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, tells Oppenheimer. “If it can’t, it won’t.” (Rotten luck for people whose job description is “Predict the future.”) Baldwin offers three-part advice: (1) avoid competing with A.I. and R.I.; (2) build skills in things that only humans can do, in person; and (3) “realize that humanity is an edge not a handicap.” What all this means is hard to say, especially if you’ve never before considered being human to be a handicap.

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It’s not a short piece, but it is very fine.
link to this extract


How artificial intelligence is changing science • Quanta Magazine

Rachel Suggs Dan Falk:

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In a paper published in December in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Schawinski and his ETH Zurich colleagues Dennis Turp and Ce Zhang used generative modeling to investigate the physical changes that galaxies undergo as they evolve. (The software they used treats the latent space somewhat differently from the way a generative adversarial network [GAN] treats it, so it is not technically a GAN, though similar.) Their model created artificial data sets as a way of testing hypotheses about physical processes. They asked, for instance, how the “quenching” of star formation — a sharp reduction in formation rates — is related to the increasing density of a galaxy’s environment.

For [Galaxy Zoo creator Kevin] Schawinski, the key question is how much information about stellar and galactic processes could be teased out of the data alone. “Let’s erase everything we know about astrophysics,” he said. “To what degree could we rediscover that knowledge, just using the data itself?”

First, the galaxy images were reduced to their latent space; then, Schawinski could tweak one element of that space in a way that corresponded to a particular change in the galaxy’s environment — the density of its surroundings, for example. Then he could re-generate the galaxy and see what differences turned up. “So now I have a hypothesis-generation machine,” he explained. “I can take a whole bunch of galaxies that are originally in a low-density environment and make them look like they’re in a high-density environment, by this process.”  Schawinski, Turp and Zhang saw that, as galaxies go from low- to high-density environments, they become redder in color, and their stars become more centrally concentrated. This matches existing observations about galaxies, Schawinski said. The question is why this is so.

The next step, Schawinski says, has not yet been automated: “I have to come in as a human, and say, ‘OK, what kind of physics could explain this effect?’”

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If you’d forgotten Galaxy Zoo, it was a crowdsourcing method of cataloguing galaxies, launched 12 years ago. Now, the article says, you’d get it done by an AI system in an afternoon.
link to this extract


Neo-Nazis bet big on bitcoin (and lost) • Foreign Policy

David Gerard:

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Bitcoin is pseudonymous, not anonymous, and carries a public ledger of all transactions—so there are multiple sites that track payments to known bitcoin addresses for far-right and so-called alt-lite figures. The “Neonazi BTC Tracker” on Twitter (@neonaziwallets), run by John Bambenek of the computer security service ThreatSTOP, documents the flow of cryptocurrency funds within the white nationalist subculture. Bambenek has also worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center on monitoring these groups.

“Bitcoin provides these neo-Nazi terror groups—and they are terror groups—the ability to raise and spend money in a way that’s hard to disrupt,” Bambenek told Foreign Policy. “But it also provides an intelligence analyst like me unfettered ability to surveil them, because they surrender all their privacy rights by using it—because bitcoin’s ledger is public.”

Cashing out your bitcoins can be tricky. There are only a few cryptocurrency exchanges that one can get U.S. dollars out of with any trust or reliability, and banks are reluctant to touch money from cryptos. “Bitcoin only means something if you can turn it into actual money or stuff,” Bambenek said. “That can only happen in a few hundred places—and many of those places have been immensely helpful [to the anti-Nazi cause].”

…It helps Bambenek’s work that neo-Nazis lack the self-restraint not to publicly reveal themselves—for example, one recent transaction sent 0.001488 bitcoins (about $5.93 at the time) to the Daily Stormer. “1488” is a number that is used as a signal between neo-Nazis—“14” is for the white supremacist slogan known as “the fourteen words” (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”), and “88” is for “Heil Hitler.”

“These guys can’t help but identify themselves,” Bambenek said. “It surprises me they are such an odd combination of arrogance and incompetence.”

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The arrogance comes with the territory; the incompetence they make themselves.
link to this extract


MPs warn consumers not to use ticket resale site Viagogo • Financial Times

Nic Fildes:

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British MPs have warned consumers not to buy or sell tickets to musical and sporting events through the resale site Viagogo, which they have accused of “flouting consumer law”.

The warning issued by the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, was issued as part of a wider report into the health of Britain’s live music sector. It raised concerns about the financial viability of smaller live music venues and discrimination against grime and hip-hop artists.

Viagogo, which is based in Switzerland, is one of a number of secondary ticketing platforms that allow consumers to buy tickets to sold-out shows from resellers. The UK Competition and Markets Authority conducted a lengthy investigation into the resale market after numerous concerns of consumer harm and that industrial scale touting online was artificially inflating the cost of tickets on resale platforms.

The CMA expressed “serious” concerns in January that Viagogo, unlike its rivals, had not complied with a court order to improve its behaviour. It said in March it would launch legal proceedings against the company.

MPs said that Viagogo had not proved to be a “trustworthy operator” and had caused distress to music fans.

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Viagogo is a byword for disappointment among a certain class of gig goers. So many concerts now restrict tickets to the individual buyer, with ID; Viagogo likes to think that’s an irrelevance. People buy resold tickets from its site, turn up at the gig… and that’s an expensive not-night-out.
link to this extract


Ride-hailing, fracking, capital hunger, and future profits • Crunchbase

Alex Wilhelm:

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at some point in the future Lyft expects its “Adjusted EBITDA Margin” to reach 20%. That’s pretty slack, and the news gets even worse. Here’s more from [Bloomberg columnist Shira] Ovide:

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I had to *really* squint to read the footnotes. “Adjusted” Ebitda excludes: depreciation and amortization, stock pay, charges to insurance reserves, acquisition related costs, income taxes and interest. Ok!

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In short, Lyft will, at some point in the future yet to be determined, generate 20% profit margins on its revenue, provided that we exclude an incredible slurry of material, GAAP costs from the calculations. The only way I can read the chart’s figures and its explainer text is that Lyft expects to never make money, and it wants you to know it.

A 20% operating margin would be mildly ok. It’s certainly not software-like performance, but Lyft could be big, and thus the profit material. But if your fake profit metric that strips out real costs only gets you to a 20% clear at some point, you aren’t going to have much profit at all, measured using normal metrics.

And this company wants $2bn more? After it has already raised $4.9bn?

A huge industry that can raise untold billions, whose profits are always out in the future? Ride-hailing isn’t the only game around when it comes to those terms. There’s also fracking.

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Fracking’s even worse, it turns out.
link to this extract


Home Office uses debit cards to spy on asylum seekers • The Times

Marc Horne:

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Individuals seeking asylum in Britain are issued with prepaid Aspen debit cards, allowing them to spend £35 a week on food, clothes and toiletries.

It has been discovered that the microchipped cards are being used to monitor people’s movements and are revoked if they leave their “authorised city”, the place where they are being given temporary housing. More than 27,000 cards have been issued but fewer than 200 people have been penalised for breaching the condition.

The Home Office confirmed that the cards were being used to track users and a spokesman said: “We are able to access and examine data from the cards on transaction value, point of sale location, date of transaction, retail outlet and ATM location.”

They confirmed that 186 people had their support stopped last year “as a result of a referral regarding the Aspen card usage”…

Stuart McDonald, the SNP [Scottish National Party] spokesman on asylum and immigration, said that the policy was a grossly invasive failure. “The limited information the Home Office has finally been prepared to make public shows that this mass surveillance has found a ‘breach in conditions’ in less than 1% of cases,” he said. “Tens of thousands of people have been monitored in a grossly invasive way to achieve virtually nothing.

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It’s only “grossly invasive” if they watch precisely what people are doing all the time, yes? This seems to pick up exceptions. Unless there are people looking at the locations of the transactions. But that seems like overkill, especially given the tiny number of breaches.
link to this extract


Google Stadia: company makes a play for gamers with new streaming service • The Guardian

Keza MacDonald:

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Google announced its entry into the video game market with Google Stadia, a service that will allow players to stream video games to any screen – phone, tablet, TV or computer.

Google announced Stadia at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. The cloud-powered service will allow users to log in from any screen using the Chrome browser, a Chromecast device or a Google Pixel phone or tablet and play the same games across all of them, with all the computational heavy-lifting done by Google’s servers instead of a games console. It means that players won’t have to purchase a box that sits under the TV in order to play, theoretically liberating video games from hardware altogether.

Google did not announce pricing, but it is likely that the service will be subscription-based. The service is expected to launch later in 2019 in the US, Canada, the UK and “most of Europe”…

…Previous game streaming offerings such as 2010’s OnLive have failed because of latency problems and “lag” – it doesn’t matter much if a TV show or film streams on a slight delay, but video games demand instant responsiveness when you press a button, and even a small delay can make them unpleasant to play. Google’s immense server infrastructure will mitigate that, the company says, allowing for smooth gaming at the standard that players expect from a console, in 4k resolution and at 60 frames a second.

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All about the timing.
link to this extract


European commissioner for competition Margethe Vestager interviewed on Kara Swisher podcast • Recode

Vestager, answering Swisher about the effect of the big tech companies on society:

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we have seen interference in national elections, referendas. We have seen a lot of data breaches. We have seen a lot of an economy that is shifting quite a lot into a use of data that is unprecedented. We are in the middle of a revolution, a technological industrial revolution. And I think as societies we have quite a lot of catching up to do to get in control.

Just as we had back in the days where we had sort of the Industrial Revolution of chemistry, when pesticides and all of that became, you know, the big guy in town, people thought that you could do amazing things. Just spraying everything, adding everything to products. It took some time before we realized that we have to get in control because otherwise it would be damaging for our ability to reproduce, for clean drinking water, all of that.

Now [we are] to the very last degree in control of that, and I think we want to do the same thing. In my own home country, we had a lot of discussions about chemicals in feeding bottles. Huge discussions. If you’d say, “I’ve never ever have my baby have a feeding bottle,” but you have no second thoughts of giving them an iPad.

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Plenty to chew on in the full interview. Vestager will leave office in November; be interesting to see if her replacement has the same sort of feel for trustbusting, or will be relatively ineffectual on this as her predecessor, Joaquin Almunia, was.
link to this extract


Facebook axes age, gender and other targeting for some sensitive ads • WSJ

Nat Ives:

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Facebook is removing age, gender and ZIP Code targeting for housing, employment and credit-related ads as part of a settlement with advocacy groups and other plaintiffs.

The new actions—and just under $5m in payments—settle five discrimination lawsuits filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Communications Workers of America and others, the company said.

“There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a blog post that will be published on Tuesday afternoon, according to a spokesman.

Facebook has faced pressure on targeting around such ads for years, sparked by a 2016 report from investigative-news site ProPublica, which said it had been able to buy ads targeted to house hunters that excluded certain groups based on ethnicity. While Facebook didn’t allow targeting specifically by race, it lets advertisers seek consumers by criteria it calls “ethnic affinity.”

Soon after that report, Facebook said it would no longer let marketers target housing, employment and credit-related ads by ethnic affinity.

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Sure, that harmful behaviour shouldn’t happen, through Facebook ads or other. But ProPublica pointed this out more than two years ago. It’s frustrating that everyone else has to point out to Facebook how it enables bad actors in so many ways.
link to this extract


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