Start Up No.1522: how India used to message with missed calls, Sweden v Covid: who won?, see if your Facebook data was hacked, and more


A new music project has created a new Jimi Hendrix track (and some by other artists) using Google’s AI. They’re good!CC-licensed photo by Dana on Flickr.

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

A booming industry based entirely on missed calls helped bring India online — and vanished overnight • Rest of World

Atul Bhattarai:

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just as the missed call [used to send an agreed message without actually spending any time on the call] became ubiquitous — The Times of India wrote in 2009 of Indians’ marked fondness “for hanging up swiftly” — a company in Bangalore called ZipDial took the tool and transformed it. With a couple of rings to the appropriate ZipDial hotline, customers received automated texts and callbacks that delivered live cricket scores for a big match, a deal on an affordable shampoo, rudimentary on-demand radio for Bollywood songs, or celebrity tweets — content supplied by brands that were struggling to reach offline consumers. In exchange, companies learned about their customers’ preferences and created viral offline marketing campaigns for their products.

At a time when less than a tenth of India’s population was online — smartphones were prohibitively expensive, and buying a gigabyte of mobile data, which was glitchy and agonizingly slow outside of major cities, cost the average rural Indian two to three days’ wages — missed calls made information from an otherwise unreachable digital world available with a single dial. Users needed only a feature phone: the kind with a number pad, preloaded with a game of Snake. “For many people, ZipDial was the first connection to the internet,” says Sanjay Swamy, one of the company’s founders and board members.

With the frantic pace of technological change over the past five years, the internet paywall in India has largely come down. Budget smartphones and dirt-cheap data rates have ensured that half of Indians are online. And missed calls are just about obsolete, their function better served by WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and a welter of e-commerce apps.

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In a similar vein: remember paid-for ringtones?
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Lost Tapes of the 27 Club • Over The Bridge

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As long as there’s been popular music, musicians and crews have struggled with mental health at a rate far exceeding the general adult population. And this issue hasn’t just been ignored. It’s been romanticized, by things like the 27 Club—a group of musicians whose lives were all lost at just 27 years old.

To show the world what’s been lost to this mental health crisis, we’ve used artificial intelligence to create the album the 27 Club never had the chance to. Through this album, we’re encouraging more music industry insiders to get the mental health support they need, so they can continue making the music we all love for years to come.

Because even AI will never replace the real thing.

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So they fed the music of, respectively, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Nirvana and Amy Winehouse into Google’s Magenta AI system, and it produced these songs. And they are really good. (I think the singing is by professional humans.) The set is also on Spotify.

The idea that AI can do this is utterly mindboggling.
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Sweden’s pandemic experiment • The New Yorker

Mallory Pickett:

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[Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders] Tegnell’s prediction of a tapering epidemic curve and quickly-attained immunity never came to pass. Sweden’s per-capita case counts and death rates have been many times higher than any of its Nordic neighbors, all of which imposed lockdowns, travel bans, and limited gatherings early on.

Overall in Sweden, 13,000 people have died from Covid-19. In Norway, which has a population that is half the size of Sweden’s, and where stricter lockdowns were enforced, about 700 people have died. It’s likely that some simple policy changes—especially shutting down visitations to nursing homes sooner, and providing more P.P.E. and testing to nursing-home staff—would have saved lives. And the strategy doesn’t seem to have helped the economy much: the Swedish G.D.P. fell by around 3%, better than the European average, but similar to the drop in other Nordic countries.

Fredrik Elgh, a virologist at Umeå University and one of Tegnell’s former bosses, wishes that Sweden had implemented restrictions like those used by other countries in the region. “Why don’t they go the same route as our neighbors that have been so successful?” he said. “We could have done that, too, if we had followed their path.” The fatalities in the elder homes, which account for about 50% of the Covid-19 deaths in Sweden, seem especially needless; if visits to these facilities had been banned sooner, if their workers had been advised to wear masks and get tested frequently, it’s possible that thousands of lives could have been saved.

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Sweden keeps being held up as the example of “doing it right”, but it clearly isn’t. Only in comparison to countries in Europe (and the UK) does it look like it did OK. The difference, though, may be down to how many people cross borders more than other approaches such as lockdowns.
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Google AI research manager quits after two ousted from group • Bloomberg

Nico Grant, Josh Eidelson and Dina Bass:

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Google research manager Samy Bengio, who oversaw the company’s AI ethics group until a controversy led to the ouster of two female leaders, resigned on Tuesday to pursue other opportunities.

Bengio, who managed hundreds of researchers in the Google Brain team, announced his departure in an email to staff that was obtained by Bloomberg. His last day will be April 28. An expert in a type of AI known as machine learning, Bengio joined Google in 2007.

Ousted Ethical AI co-leads Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell had reported to Bengio and considered him an ally. In February, Google reorganized the research unit, placing the remaining Ethical AI group members under Marian Croak, cutting Bengio’s responsibilities.

“While I am looking forward to my next challenge, there’s no doubt that leaving this wonderful team is really difficult,” Bengio wrote in the email. He did not refer to Gebru, Mitchell or the disagreements that led to their departures. Google declined to comment.

In November, Bengio’s then-manager Megan Kacholia met with Gebru to demand she retract a paper co-written with Mitchell and other Google researchers that criticized an AI technology powering some of Google’s search results. In early December, Google dismissed Gebru in what she termed a firing and Google has called an acceptance of her resignation. In February, the company fired Mitchell.

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Are there many more in Google who are frustrated like Bengio? Or is this just a small localised problem? Google’s so big now that it could have lots of small localised problems and they’d look like a conflagration.
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Five years after the Oculus Rift, where do VR and AR go next? • WIRED

Peter Rubin does a deep dive (with interviews) on Facebook’s efforts, so it’s really “where does Facebook think its AR and VR goes next?”:

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Two weeks ago, Facebook Reality Labs held a media briefing to show off its North Star. You’ve likely read the stories by now, but if not, the magic word is “wristband.” Specifically, it’s an electromyography (EMG) neural interface wrist device, meaning it translates the electrical signals your muscles make as you move. The hope is that it unlocks the ability to manipulate the interfaces of your decade-hence AR world with tiny movements of your fingers—or none at all. The FRL briefing also included footage of an employee playing a simple video game without moving his hands; the EMG device read the nearly imperceptible signals his brain sent when he thought about pressing the spacebar. (Before you ask: Yes, Mark Zuckerberg has tried it. “I talk to the people on the Labs team every week,” he says. “They send me pelican cases of different gear—I’m sitting in my office right now, and I have two on the floor next to me, and one has the wrist device.”)

That may not be invasive technology in the traditional sense—again, let’s just leave that whole brain-implant thing alone—but it’s yet another reminder that AR and VR’s power depends on data. Lots and lots of data. Where you’re looking, how you’re looking at it, what your face and others’ faces are doing. In VR, that’s a fount of psychographic information that has in the past proven very attractive to companies like Cambridge Analytica. And when you can identify people by their movement patterns alone, anonymity dies.

In AR, the proposition gets even more fraught. When you leave a party or a store, you’re likely to forget many more details than you remember; your glasses are picking up everything you are, and quite possibly much more. The result, Katitza Rodriguez and Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote last year, can all too easily become a “global panopticon society of constant surveillance in public or semi-public spaces.” And when the company that’s building those systems is the same company that hasn’t exactly inspired trust in the past, and tech-ethics bugaboos like facial recognition are still on the table, that’s all the more reason to cast a skeptic’s eye at the future.

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Clarence Thomas’ attack on social media companies’ First Amendment rights is a delusion • Slate

Mark Joseph Stern:

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According to [right-wing Supreme Court justice Clarence] Thomas, there is “a fair argument that some digital platforms are sufficiently akin to common carriers or places of accommodation to be regulated in this manner.” Why? Thomas gives several reasons: These platforms “carry” information between users, they “hold themselves out as organizations that focus on distributing the speech of the broader public,” and, through the much-discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they receive immunity from lawsuits based on third-party content. He added that control of digital platforms is “highly concentrated,” giving them “enormous control over speech.” As an example, he wrote that “Amazon can impose cataclysmic consequences on authors by, among other things, blocking a listing.” This case in point may be an allusion to Amazon’s recent delisting of Ryan Anderson’s anti-trans book. (Anderson and Thomas are friends.)

Thomas also put forth a second theory to justify a ban on content moderation: Digital platforms have become “places of public accommodation,” like a hotel or restaurant. The government can bar these businesses from discriminating against customers. Perhaps, Thomas theorized, it can also call digital platforms “public accommodations” and bar them from discriminating against users’ speech.

Most of the justices’ opinion is meant to “give legislators strong arguments” for “regulating digital platforms” like common carriers or public accommodations. But in an especially zany aside, Thomas suggests that users may be able to combat content moderation right now through the courts. This section of the opinion verges on incoherence, but Thomas seems to think that users could sue the government for pressuring social media companies to remove certain speech.

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He’s an absolute fruitcake. As I pointed out, his dissent on the Oracle-Google case was off the wall as well. I wonder if the other justices give each other side-eye when he expounds on stuff at their meetings.
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Tesla owners are having a meltdown about Full Self Driving (FSD) reality on Reddit • Jalopnik

Jason Torchinsky:

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I wouldn’t call what’s happening a meltdown exactly, maybe more of a collective moment of clarity. Right now on Reddit’s r/teslamotors forum there’s an intense and very serious conversation about the now-$10,000 level 2 driver assist package that Tesla calls “Full Self-Driving” (FSD)—specifically, whether the features Tesla and Elon Musk started promising back in 2016 will ever actually exist, and what kind of legal exposure Tesla has if it fails to deliver. People have put down real money and haven’t yet gotten what they were expecting, which has led to these difficult conversations.

The original poster said they were motivated to start the thread because of Ford PR rep Mike Levine’s description of Tesla’s “FSD” system as “vaporware,” which had sparked a lot of debate about “FSD’s” status as vaporware or not within the Tesla community.

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Tesla has put itself in quite a bind. Elon Musk says that FSD (which costs about $10,000 as a software upgrade, purchaseable any time before or after taking delivery of the car) would let you just get into the car and not touch anything and be taken to your destination. Ah, but government regulators haven’t approved it yet. Except the regulators don’t have to approve it.

Which means there’s a lot of people who have paid for FSD who don’t have it despite Tesla promising they can have it. As Torchinsky says: “There’s so much going on here, and so many questions raised. Is “FSD” a genuinely earnest project with real goals and deliverables, or an elaborate scam to get a lot of money while delivering nothing?”
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The Facebook phone numbers are now searchable in Have I Been Pwned • Troy Hunt

Troy runs the fabulous service that lets you find out whether your details have been exposed in a hack:

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I’d never planned to make phone numbers searchable and indeed this idea sat there for over 5 and a half years without action. My position on this was that it didn’t make sense for a bunch of reasons:

• Phone numbers appear far less frequently than email addresses
• They’re much harder to parse out of most data sets (i.e. I can’t just regex them out like email addresses)
• They very often don’t adhere to a consistent format across breaches and countries of origin

Plus, when the whole modus operandi of HIBP is to literally answer that question – Have I Been Pwned? – so long as there are email addresses that can be searched, phone numbers don’t add a whole lot of additional value.

The Facebook data changed all that. There’s over 500m phone numbers but only a few million email addresses so >99% of people were getting a “miss” when they should have gotten a “hit”. The phone numbers were easy to parse out from (mostly) well-formatted files. They were also all normalised into a nice consistent format with a country code. In short, this data set completely turned all my reasons for not doing this on its head.

And finally, when I asked the masses, the responses were “for” rather than “against” by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.

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Facebook, meanwhile, has been very “nothing to see here” about the appearance of details about 500 million of its users in a hacking forum, saying that the leak actually happened in 2019. Not sure that’s very reassuring, really. (Fantastic news, though – my phone number’s not there. Not that it really needs to be leaked.)
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How much the [human] eye tells the brain • US NIH

Kristin Koch et al:

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In the classic “What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain,” Lettvin and colleagues showed that different types of retinal ganglion cell send specific kinds of information. For example, one type responds best to a dark, convex form moving centripetally (a fly). Here we consider a complementary question: how much information does the retina send and how is it apportioned among different cell types?

Recording from guinea pig retina on a multi-electrode array and presenting various types of motion in natural scenes, we measured information rates for seven types of ganglion cell. Mean rates varied across cell types (6–13 bits/s) more than across stimuli. Sluggish cells transmitted information at lower rates than brisk cells, but because of trade-offs between noise and temporal correlation, all types had the same coding efficiency.

Calculating the proportions of each cell type from receptive field size and coverage factor, we conclude (assuming independence) that the approximately 105 ganglion cells transmit on the order of 875,000 bits/s.

Because sluggish cells are equally efficient but more numerous, they account for most of the information. With approximately 106 ganglion cells, the human retina would transmit data at roughly the rate of an Ethernet connection.

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So does that make our brain… a router?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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