Start Up No.1247: India’s election gets deepfake-friendly, the 101-year-old bug, decoupling arguments, Razr folds (oops), and more


Voting in Wisconsin might look quaint, but yesterday it tested a new system that lets voters check their ballot was counted. CC-licensed photo by GPA Photo Archive on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. So there. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

We’ve just seen the first use of deepfakes in an Indian election campaign • VICE

Nilesh Christopher:

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On February 7, a day ahead of the Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, two videos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Manoj Tiwari criticising the incumbent Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal went viral on WhatsApp. While one video had Tiwari speak in English, the other was him speaking in the Hindi dialect of Haryanvi. “[Kejriwal] cheated us on the basis of promises. But now Delhi has a chance to change it all. Press the lotus button on February 8 to form the Modi-led government,” he said.

One may think that this 44-second monologue might be a part of standard political outreach, but there is one thing that’s not standard: these videos were not real. This is what the original video was.

It’s 2020, and deepfakes have become a powerful and concerning, tool that allows humans to manipulate or fabricate visual and audio content on the internet to make it seem very real. They are like the face animations in Hollywood films, though not nearly as expensive, and with a dark side. Since its introduction in 2017, A-list celebrities have seen their faces pushed onto existing pornographic videos, making deepfakes an infamous tool for misuse.

When the Delhi BJP IT Cell partnered with political communications firm The Ideaz Factory to create “positive campaigns” using deepfakes to reach different linguistic voter bases, it marked the debut of deepfakes in election campaigns in India. “Deepfake technology has helped us scale campaign efforts like never before,” Neelkant Bakshi, co-incharge of social media and IT for BJP Delhi, tells VICE.

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This seems like a legitimate use – it’s not deceptive, apart perhaps from the question of whether the politician speaks the language. But good dubbing could do the same. (Thanks Nilesh for the link! And yes, writers are allowed to suggest links to their own stories. Don’t be shy. My DMs are open on Twitter.)
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Home Office tells man, 101, his parents must confirm ID • The Guardian

Lisa O’Carroll:

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A 101-year-old Italian man who has been in London since 1966 was asked to get his parents to confirm his identity by the Home Office after he applied to stay in the country post-Brexit.

In what appears to be a computer glitch the Home Office thought he was a one-year-old child.

Giovanni Palmiero was told that he needed the presence of his mother and father when he made his application for the EU settlement scheme at an advice centre in Islington, north London.

When the volunteer who helped Palmiero, a great-grandfather, scanned his passport into the EU settled status app to share the biometric data with the Home Office, the system misinterpreted his birth year as 2019 instead of 1919.

“I immediately noticed that something was wrong because when I scanned in his passport, it imported his biometric data not as 1919 but as 2019. It then skipped the face recognition section which is what it does with under-12s,” said Dimitri Scarlato, an activist with the campaign group the3million who also works for Inca Cgil, an organisation that helps those of Italian descent.

He was then asked whether he wanted to put in the residence details of Palmiero’s parents or proceed independently of them. “I was surprised. I phoned the Home Office and it took two calls and a half an hour for them to understand it was the app’s fault not mine,” Scarlato said.

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Ah yes, the Y1919 bug. (Though it’s an almost perfect version of the old joke from pub signs saying “free drinks for all pensioners accompanied by their parents”. Though these days, that’s almost possible.)
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Coronavirus: largest study suggests elderly and sick are most at risk • BBC News

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Health officials in China have published the first details of more than 44,000 cases of Covid-19, in the biggest study since the outbreak began.

Data from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) finds that more than 80% of the cases have been mild, with the sick and elderly most at risk.

The research also points to the high risk to medical staff.

A hospital director in the city of Wuhan died from the virus on Tuesday.

Liu Zhiming, 51, was the director of the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan – one of the leading hospitals in the virus epicentre. He is one of the most senior health officials to die so far.

Hubei, whose capital is Wuhan, is the worst affected province in the country. The report by the CCDC shows the province’s death rate is 2.9% compared with 0.4% in the rest of the country.

The findings put the overall death rate of the Covid-19 virus at 2.3%.

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A fabulous piece of untrue news that’s being spread around is that Covid-19 is like the 1918 Spanish flu, having the worst effects on the young and fit. Nope – like normal flu, it’s worse for the elderly (and, I’d imagine, immunocompromised).
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Qanon deploys ‘information warfare’ to influence the 2020 election • WIRED

Elise Thomas:

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The number of Qanon adherents is unknown, but believed to be small. But Qanon followers wield outsized influence because of their presence on other social media, particularly Twitter. According to Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University, there were 22,232,285 tweets using #Qanon and related hashtags such as #Q, #Qpatriot, and #TheGreatAwakening in 2019—an average of 60,910 per day. The total exceeded other popular hashtags such as #MeToo (5,231,928 tweets in 2019) or #climatechange (7,510,311 tweets).

The movement also is important because of its influence on Trump and his allies. “I doubt that President Trump believes that there’s someone in his inner circle leaking stories as ‘Q-Clearance Patriot’”, says Ethan Zuckerman, Director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, who has previously written about the impact of Qanon on politics and society. “But anyone who’s worked with Trump—in his business as well as presidential contexts—knows that Trump needs constant praise and soothing, and I suspect many Q-related memes make it to the president’s attention as his aides try to stroke his ego.”

“I don’t see this as an intentional or instrumental relationship, but it’s easy to see how it could benefit both sides,” Zuckerman says.

The confluence of interests enables Qanon conspiracists to launder ideas into the mainstream in potentially dangerous ways. Like many other social movements born on the chan boards, the Qanon movement has had undertones of violence.

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And overtones of stupid. The question of how many people are involved does seem important; the question of whether they could have any real influence on how people (other than themselves) vote follows on from that.
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Wisconsin partners with Microsoft and VotingWorks for pilot test of new voting technology • Wisconsin Elections Commission

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The Wisconsin Elections Commission, Rock County and the Town of Fulton are partnering with Microsoft and VotingWorks to test new voting technology at the Spring Primary on Tuesday, February 18.

Voters in the Town of Fulton will test a voting system that uses Microsoft’s new ElectionGuard software that allows voters to verify that their ballot was counted.  And because this is a test, local election officials will be hand counting all paper ballots voters cast to verify the winners. 

“Wisconsin is a leader in developing technology for election administration and security, so we’re eager to see this new technology in a polling place being used by real voters,” said Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “We hope this pilot test will give us further insights into how the system works and whether voters like it. We can use this data as we try to make elections in Wisconsin even more secure, usable and accessible.”

Microsoft’s ElectionGuard is open-source software which any voting equipment maker is free to use in its existing products.  ElectionGuard generates a ballot tracking code which voters can use to verify their vote counted in the final tally.  Each vote is recorded and encrypted on a touchscreen ballot marking device as well as printed on a paper ballot.  Anyone may download the software and test its security. Technical information about ElectionGuard is available on Microsoft’s website.

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So, yesterday. Wonder how many excited voters there will be checking that their vote was counted, and whether the system for checking will crash under the load. Note – since you might hear it elsewhere – this is *not* online voting.
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‘Eugenics is possible’ is not the same as ‘eugenics is good’ • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:

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The analyst John Nerst, who writes a fascinating blog called “Everything Studies”, is very interested in how and why we disagree. And one thing he says is that for a certain kind of nerdy, “rational” thinker, there is a magic ritual you can perform. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y.”

Having performed that ritual, you ward off the evil spirits. You isolate the thing you’re talking about from all the concepts attached to it. So you can say things like “if we accept that IQ is heritable, then”, and so on, following the implications of the hypothetical without endorsing them. Nerst uses the term “decoupling”, and says that some people are “high-decouplers”, who are comfortable separating and isolating ideas like that.

Other people are low-decouplers, who see ideas as inextricable from their contexts. For them, the ritual lacks magic power. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y,” but when you say X, they will still hear Y. The context in which Nerst was discussing it was a big row that broke out a year or two ago between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris after Harris interviewed Charles Murray about race and IQ.

As a high-decoupler, Harris thought that it was OK to talk about what-ifs; if there are genetic components to racial differences, then we still need to treat everyone with equal dignity, etc: “I’m not saying there are, but if there are…” He thought he’d performed the ritual.

But for Klein, the editor of Vox, the ritual was not strong enough.

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This is a fabulous piece, which goes over the high/low decoupling concept and then goes into the Andrew Sabisky row, which emerges from it: Sabisky’s complaint about being misquoted arises, in part (but only in part) from the media’s (intentional?) failure to decouple.
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The messy, secretive reality behind OpenAI’s bid to save the world • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

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There are two prevailing technical theories about what it will take to reach AGI [artificial general intelligence]. In one, all the necessary techniques already exist; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to scale and assemble them. In the other, there needs to be an entirely new paradigm; deep learning, the current dominant technique in AI, won’t be enough.

Most researchers fall somewhere between these extremes, but OpenAI has consistently sat almost exclusively on the scale-and-assemble end of the spectrum. Most of its breakthroughs have been the product of sinking dramatically greater computational resources into technical innovations developed in other labs.

Brockman and Sutskever deny that this is their sole strategy, but the lab’s tightly guarded research suggests otherwise. A team called “Foresight” runs experiments to test how far they can push AI capabilities forward by training existing algorithms with increasingly large amounts of data and computing power. For the leadership, the results of these experiments have confirmed its instincts that the lab’s all-in, compute-driven strategy is the best approach.

For roughly six months, these results were hidden from the public because OpenAI sees this knowledge as its primary competitive advantage. Employees and interns were explicitly instructed not to reveal them, and those who left signed nondisclosure agreements. It was only in January that the team, without the usual fanfare, quietly posted a paper on one of the primary open-source databases for AI research. People who experienced the intense secrecy around the effort didn’t know what to make of this change. Notably, another paper with similar results from different researchers had been posted a month earlier.

In the beginning, this level of secrecy was never the intention, but it has since become habitual. Over time, the leadership has moved away from its original belief that openness is the best way to build beneficial AGI.

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Can you solve the “Hanging Cable” problem, used as an Amazon interview question? • Boing Boing

Mark Frauenfelder:

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A cable of 80 meters is hanging from the top of two poles that are both 50 meters off the ground. What is the distance between the two poles (to one decimal point) if the center cable is (a) 20 meters off the ground and (b) 10 meters off the ground?

Presh Talwalker of Mind Your Decisions says the above riddle was used as an Amazon interview question. His video has the answer.

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Talwalker points out that it’s the second of these two questions which was asked in the Amazon interview, not the first. That turns out to be important.
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Our Motorola Razr’s display is already breaking and peeling at the fold • Input Mag

Raymond Wong:

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The Motorola Razr nightmare continues. A week after we purchased and reviewed the foldable phone, the plastic OLED display on our $1,500 device is now peeling apart… at the fold. We always try our best to not be alarmist, but when a giant horizontal air bubble appears literally out of nowhere and starts separating the top lamination and the display panel, we have to wonder why anyone would be optimistic about foldable phones.

Let’s recap what happened. My boss, Input editor-in-chief Josh, got the Razr a little over a week ago and has been using it on and off since. I picked up the phone yesterday afternoon and only used it to take 23 photos yesterday evening. I brought it home, set up my own Google accounts, and took a few pics of the phone’s retro mode.

As far as I could tell, the Razr’s display was in perfect condition this morning and afternoon. I even took a photo of the Razr for a friend at 12:18 p.m. ET and there was no damage at the fold.

And then I saw it…

…The screen’s damage isn’t just cosmetic. The touchscreen is semi-broken; the warped surface makes touches and taps virtually unresponsive, especially when tapping things in a list like inside the Settings app.

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Gotta know when to hold ’em, gotta know when to fold ’em, gotta know when not to buy ’em.
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US weighs new move to limit China’s access to chip technology • WSJ

Asa Fitch and Bob Davis:

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The Trump administration is weighing new trade restrictions on China that would limit the use of American chip-making equipment, as it seeks to cut off Chinese access to key semiconductor technology, according to people familiar with the plan.

The Commerce Department is drafting changes to the so-called foreign direct product rule, which restricts foreign companies’ use of U.S. technology for military or national-security products. The changes could allow the agency to require chip factories worldwide to get licenses if they intend to use American equipment to produce chips for Huawei Technologies Co., according to the people familiar with the discussions. Chinese companies are bound to see the action as a threat to them too, which is a goal of the proposed rule, said the people briefed on the effort.

The move is aimed at slowing China’s technological advancement but could risk disrupting the global supply chain for semiconductors and dent growth for many U.S. companies, U.S. industry participants said.

The changes have been under discussion for weeks, according to the people, but were only recently proposed, and would come in addition to a separate rule that would limit the ability of U.S. companies to supply Huawei from their overseas facilities.

Not everyone within the administration supports the idea, and the changes haven’t been reviewed by President Trump, several of the people said.

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The requirement on chip foundries sounds bizarre; it’s like telling someone where they can drive in the car you sold them. It’s extraterritorial, and would surely come under judicial review in whichever country (TSMC, which operates in China, is the obvious target). And if the US government stopped exports of that equipment, China would surely step into the breach and make it itself – if it isn’t already.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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