Start Up No.1271: Taiwan’s ‘electronic quarantine fence’, have a (distant) Netflix party!, the inevitable scams, goodbye Starsky Robotics, and more

Think hard enough, and you can turn it into a bird – if you’re an AI. CC-licensed photo by Derek Keats on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. I practise social distancing, you’re on lockdown. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Taiwan’s new ‘electronic fence’ for quarantines leads wave of virus monitoring • Reuters

Yimou Lee, Farah Master, Khanh Vu, Patpicha Tanakasemipipat and Ardhana Arivandan:


Taiwan, which has won global praise for its effective action against the coronavirus, is rolling out a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” that uses location-tracking to ensure people who are quarantined stay in their homes.

Governments around the world are combining technology and human efforts to enforce quarantines that require people who have been exposed to the virus to stay in their homes, but Taiwan’s system is believed to be the first to use mobile phone tracking for that purpose.

“The goal is to stop people from running around and spreading the infection,” said Jyan Hong-wei, head of Taiwan’s Department of Cyber Security, who leads efforts to work with telecom carriers to combat the virus.

The system monitors phone signals to alert police and local officials if those in home quarantine move away from their address or turn off their phones. Jyan said authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes.


Plus a quick tour of measures in other Asian countries. Again, the question becomes how far you’re prepared to let government intrude.
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Trump signals growing weariness with coronavirus social distancing as he grows concerned about the economy • The Washington Post

Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Jeff Stein and John Wagner :


President Trump is weighing calls from some Republican lawmakers and White House advisers to scale back steps to contain the coronavirus despite the advice of federal health officials as a growing number of conservatives argue that the impact on the economy has become too severe, according to several people with knowledge of the internal deliberations.

Loosening restrictions on social distancing would override the internal warnings of senior U.S. health officials, including Anthony S. Fauci, who have said that the United States has not yet felt the worst of the pandemic.


The 15-day period is set to end on March 30.


The Department of Bad Ideas is definitely in the ascendant. Ending quarantine will mean that hospitals are overwhelmed, key workers go sick, and people anyway avoid all the businesses they were told to stay away from. And a ton of Trump voters will die.

The UK just went into lockdown for at least three weeks.
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Here’s why we’ll never treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as the coronavirus • HuffPost UK

Amy Westervelt:


At this point, the coronavirus is directly benefiting almost no one. Vaccine manufacturers may see some profit eventually. Digital service providers like Zoom are seeing their value rocket, and the growth in demand for products and deliveries from Amazon looks set to further widen the gap between Jeff Bezos and the next-richest person on earth.

But in general, mobilizing to flatten the curve of this pandemic benefits every citizen and business ― literally everyone. 

The billions that federal and state governments are committing to measures ranging from direct payments to citizens to grants and interest-free loans for small businesses to even the bailouts for major industries (whatever you think of them), should eventually help get money flowing through the economy again, and stabilize cratering financial markets. At least that’s the idea.

Mobilizing on climate change also benefits the general public and provides stability to the economy in the long run. But in the short term, it hurts the bottom lines of some big and very powerful industries. And therein lies the rub. How exactly do you get a coronavirus-style mobilization when it threatens the profits of a historically powerful minority? 

Comparing coronavirus to climate change is like comparing apples to the whole idea of fruit. Climate change is not one single issue or threat. It’s the hill we’re all dying on, made steeper by each wrong step, each failure to move. It persists because it is the result of a system that benefits the powerful, and those in power have mostly proven desperate not to give up that system.


Not sure about the curve-flattening benefiting every citizen and business. Plenty will tell you right now that it has absolutely not, even if the effects that we can’t see are positive, especially when compared to how it would have been otherwise.

But the point about the powerful protecting their position in the face of challenges rings trues.
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New coronavirus test returns rapid results, but use may be limited • STAT News

Matthew Herper:


A new diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus will return results in just 45 minutes, four times faster than existing machines.

But the test, emergency use of which was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday, will likely be used in only the most urgent situations: triaging patients who are already in the hospital or the emergency room, and testing health care workers who might be infected to see if they can return to work.

“We don’t believe this technology should be used, at least initially, in a doctor’s office,” said David Persing, chief medical officer of Cepheid, the company that developed the test. “This is not a test for the worried well.”

Cepheid, of Silicon Valley, is a unit of Danaher, the Washington, D.C.-based medical conglomerate. The test will begin shipping by the end of the week.


Incremental improvement. What is it that South Korea has that the US doesn’t?
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Free app lets you watch Netflix with friends while you’re quarantined • BGR

Zach Epstein:


An awesome Chrome browser plugin called Netflix Party is definitely a must-have while we’re all hunkered down in our homes trying to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The browser extension is available for both Windows and macOS devices, and it’s completely free to download and use. In a nutshell, Netflix Party transforms any movie or show you might be streaming into a shared experience with any of your friends and family who join the party. Playback is synchronized so that you’re all watching the same thing at the same time, and there’s even a group chat box you can open on the side of the screen so everyone can discuss whatever movie or series you’re all streaming.


That’s a great idea. Back when Bill Gates was dating, he had a long-distance romance at one point, and he and his paramour would each rent a VHS tape of the same film, and settle down to watch it at the same time and discuss it over the phone. Technology has moved on a bit, but the principle is the same.
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Coronavirus scams are on the rise as panic over the virus spreads • BGR

Yoni Heisler:


In a sad but perhaps unsurprising development, scammers are using the panic surrounding the coronavirus to prey upon unsuspecting victims. The problem began a few short weeks ago when fraudsters began initiating robocalls informing people that they can gain access to coronavirus testing kits if they’re willing to pay for it. Recall, home testing kits for the coronavirus simply don’t exist at this time.

Additionally, there have been reports of similar schemes wherein scammers promise individuals fake cures, non-functional respiratory masks, and lucrative work-from-home opportunities, all in an effort to swindle people out of money at the very point in time when they likely need it the most.

There have even been reports of brazen criminals donning white lab coats — while claiming to be from the Department of Health — and knocking on individual doors in Florida in an effort to sell fake testing kits to users. Once an individual opens their front door, they’re bum-rushed and subsequently robbed.

There has also been a discernible rise in the number of reported cyberattacks, an umbrella term that includes traditional hacking efforts and phishing attempts.


Where there’s fear, there are scammers exploiting the fear.
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How to change a giraffe into a bird • AI Weirdness

Janelle Shane:


When people study the ways that AI generates and detects images, they have to use something as a test problem. Delightfully, a recent paper decided to train an AI to transform pictures of giraffes into pictures of birds.

Why? Apparently, just to see if they could do it. And it’s a worthy challenge – they’re different sizes, completely different shapes, and giraffes are almost never seen diving for fish off the coast of Antarctica.

What they did was give the AI a set of 2,546 giraffe pictures and another independent set of 9,414 bird pictures, each with the giraffe and bird outlined. The AI was divided into two dueling parts, one of which was supposed to transform giraffes into birds, and the other of which was supposed to decide whether the picture it was looking at was a real bird or a fake giraffe-bird.

It could check its work against some pictures that it knew in advance were giraffes or birds, and adjust itself so its answers were generally more correct.

At the end of three weeks of training, it could do this:


But read on for some of the more, well, challenging transformations.
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That Mitchell and Webb look: The Quiz Broadcast (all episodes) • YouTube



This has been a big hit on YouTube: a series of sketches from 2009 or so about a post-apocalyptic quiz show whose prescient imperative, flashed on the screen, is REMAIN INDOORS. (Sound familiar?) There’s also now a podcast in which the four writers (who worked in teams of two) discuss how they came to write it: “we were approaching the woodchipper of the age of 40,” as one says of the sketches’ despondent mood. (If you don’t get it on iTunes, it’s the latest episode of “Rule Of Three”.)

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The end of Starsky Robotics • Starsky Robotics 10–4 Labs on Medium

Stefan Seltz-Axmacher was its CEO and co-founder:


So what happened?

Timing, more than anything else, is what I think is to blame for our unfortunate fate. Our approach, I still believe, was the right one but the space was too overwhelmed with the unmet promise of AI to focus on a practical solution. As those breakthroughs failed to appear, the downpour of investor interest became a drizzle. It also didn’t help that last year’s tech IPOs took a lot of energy out of the tech industry, and that trucking has been in a recession for 18 or so months.

There are too many problems with the AV [autonomous vehicle] industry to detail here: the professorial pace at which most teams work, the lack of tangible deployment milestones, the open secret that there isn’t a robotaxi business model, etc. The biggest, however, is that supervised machine learning doesn’t live up to the hype. It isn’t actual artificial intelligence akin to C-3PO, it’s a sophisticated pattern-matching tool.

Back in 2015, everyone thought their kids wouldn’t need to learn how to drive. Supervised machine learning (under the auspices of being “AI”) was advancing so quickly — in just a few years it had gone from mostly recognizing cats to more-or-less driving. It seemed that AI was following a Moore’s Law Curve:

Source: TechTarget

Projecting that progress forward, all of humanity would certainly be economically uncompetitive in the near future. We would need basic income to cope, to connect with machines to stand a chance, etc.
Five years later and AV professionals are no longer promising Artificial General Intelligence after the next code commit. Instead, the consensus has become that we’re at least 10 years away from self-driving cars.


Had no idea that trucking had been in a recession. But this feels like it was coming a long time. And it can’t even be blamed on you-know-what.
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Justice Department files its first enforcement action against Covid-19 fraud • Department of Justice


The Department of Justice announced today that it has taken its first action in federal court to combat fraud related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  The enforcement action filed today in Austin against operators of a fraudulent website follows Attorney General William Barr’s recent direction for the department to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of illegal conduct related to the pandemic.

As detailed in the civil complaint and accompanying court papers filed on Saturday, March 21, 2020, the operators of the website “” are engaging in a wire fraud scheme seeking to profit from the confusion and widespread fear surrounding COVID-19.  Information published on the website claimed to offer consumers access to World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95, which consumers would pay by entering their credit card information on the website.  In fact, there are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine.  In response to the department’s request, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary restraining order requiring that the registrar of the fraudulent website immediately take action to block public access to it.

“The Department of Justice will not tolerate criminal exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.  “We will use every resource at the government’s disposal to act quickly to shut down these most despicable of scammers, whether they are defrauding consumers, committing identity theft, or delivering malware.”


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CAUCE spamfighters rally against corona health fraud affiliate programs • CyberCrime + Doing Time

Gary Warner:


My email box is full of Coronavirus / COVID-19 frauds and scams.  I have Corona malware disguised as product catalogs.  I have fake World Health Organization emails asking me to donate my Bitcoin to them.  I have more than 30 fake breathing mask selling websites that my friends at ScamSurvivors and AA419 are helping to track.  But you know what makes me REALLY MAD?

The monsters who are using the same fake news websites to drive their affiliate-marketing program scams to sell Immunity Oil to people who are desperate to protect their families and loved ones.  As a member of the CAUCE Board (the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email) I immediately reached out to Neil Schwartzman, my personal spam fighting hero and the founder of CAUCE.  Even though we both know these are the same snake oil charlatans who have been in the spam business for a decade, perhaps now that they are putting people’s lives in true danger someone will finally do something to shut these scammers and spammers down.  (Note, I’m not speaking for CAUCE here, I’m just mentioning that I’m proud to fight spammers with them.)


This goes into a lot of detail; it’s easy to forget that while snake oil has always been with us, there are now many more ways to sell it. Though if these efforts manage to shut down even a few of the scammers, that would be great.
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COVID-19 forces Samsung to shut down smartphone factory in India • SamMobile

Asif S:


The company will shut down its smartphone manufacturing facility, which is located in Noida in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The factory, which was inaugurated in 2018, will be closed from March 23 to 25. It is the South Korean firm’s largest smartphone factory in the world and produces over 120 million smartphones every year. The company has also directed its employees in the marketing, R&D, and sales teams to work from home.

According to the latest reports, India has over 425 active cases of Coronavirus and eight deaths as of now. A Samsung spokesperson told ZDNet, “Following the Indian government’s policy, we will temporarily halt operations of our Noida factory until the 25th. We will work hard to make sure there is no setback in supplying our products.”

The company had closed its smartphone plant in Gumi earlier this month after it had discovered that some of the workers contracted COVID-19. Samsung then decided to shift smartphone production to Vietnam temporarily.


It’s going to be whack-a-mole trying to stay ahead. But quite why Samsung thinks it’s going to find the same demand, I don’t know.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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