Start Up No.1600: the AI chatbot that reincarnated a fiancee, dead video site leads to porn embeds, Britain faces 40ºC future, and more


Despite being seen by his peers as the world’s best climber, Adam Ondra might not even get a medal competing in this year’s Olympic Games – because of its odd format.CC-licensed photo by Mattias Kanhov on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Delighted that our decision to “let it rip” worked. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Have you considered ordering Social Warming, my latest book?


He couldn’t get over his fiancee’s death. So he brought her back as an AI chatbot • SF Chronicle

Jason Fagone:

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Last summer, using a borrowed beta-testing credential, [Jason] Rohrer devised a “chatbot” interface that was driven by GPT-3. He made it available to the public through his website. He called the service Project December. Now, for the first time, anyone could have a naturalistic text chat with an A.I. directed by GPT-3, typing back and forth with it on Rohrer’s site.

Users could select from a range of built-in chatbots, each with a distinct style of texting, or they could design their own bots, giving them whatever personality they chose.

Joshua had waded into Project December by degrees, starting with the built-in chatbots. He engaged with “William,” a bot that tried to impersonate Shakespeare, and “Samantha,” a friendly female companion modeled after the A.I. assistant in the movie “Her.” Joshua found both disappointing; William rambled about a woman with “fiery hair” that was “red as a fire,” and Samantha was too clingy.

But as soon as he built his first custom bot — a simulation of Star Trek’s Spock, whom he considered a hero — a light clicked on: By feeding a few Spock quotes from an old TV episode into the site, Joshua summoned a bot that sounded exactly like Spock, yet spoke in original phrases that weren’t found in any script.

As Joshua continued to experiment, he realized there was no rule preventing him from simulating real people. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancee?

There was nothing strange, he thought, about wanting to reconnect with the dead: People do it all the time, in prayers and in dreams. In the last year and a half, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. and Canada have died of COVID-19, often suddenly, without closure for their loved ones, leaving a raw landscape of grief. How many survivors would gladly experiment with a technology that lets them pretend, for a moment, that their dead loved one is alive again — and able to text?

That night in September, Joshua hadn’t actually expected it to work. Jessica was so special, so distinct; a chatbot could never replicate her voice, he assumed. Still, he was curious to see what would happen.

And he missed her.

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It’s like “Her”, the film and the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” – which both aired in 2013. Technology is catching up with art: current delay, eight years.
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Tweet Like Me • John Herrick

Herrick has built a website which uses GPT-3 plus your tweets to produce a facsimile of you. Or perhaps a simulacrum? Here’s one it generated for me.

Which is a bit concerning, really. I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted anything about the Bible or Satan.
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Adam Ondra is the world’s most accomplished climber. He may not win an Olympic medal • The New York Times

Authored by the NY Times’s visual team:

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In speed climbing, athletes race head to head on a wall that has an identical setup in every race (think of it as a vertical 15-meter dash). In lead, athletes have one chance to climb as high as they can in six minutes. In bouldering, they try to get to the top of four routes. They have four minutes for each “problem.”

Speed climbing is an all-out sprint to the top of a 50-foot-wall, and in Japan, it will count a full third toward the gold medal. It’s by far Ondra’s weakest event. One of the problems slowing him down is that he is attacking it as a climber instead of a sprinter.

“This is another discipline — it’s not real climbing,” said Petr Klofac, Ondra’s training coach. “It’s more running and sprinting. You have to run on this thing.” Here is Ondra training on the speed wall.

You might think Ondra looks pretty good at speed climbing. But don’t be fooled: He’s likely to be among the slowest at the Games.

His best time in competition is 7.46 seconds. The record for the fastest time was set in May by Indonesian climber Veddriq Leonardo, at 5.20 seconds. The two climbs, side by side, show what Ondra may face in this event.

Speed climbing will play well on television, which is why it was chosen, but the decision to include it has drawn criticism from athletes because before it was selected for the Games, speed specialists rarely competed in bouldering and lead climbing, just as Ondra never bothered with speed.

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That’s a text extract, but to understand why climbing could be the (new) hit of the Games, you should read/watch the whole thing. The lead climbing will leave you gasping, the bouldering moreso. The climbing events start on August 3. (Via Sophie Warnes.)
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A defunct video hosting site is flooding normal websites with hardcore porn • Vice

Matthew Gault and Jason Koebler:

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Hardcore porn is embedded all over regular-ass websites because a porn company has purchased the domain of a popular, defunct video hosting site. 

As pointed out by Twitter user @dox_gay, hardcore porn is now embedded on the pages of the Huffington Post, New York magazine, The Washington Post, and a host of other websites. This is because a porn site called 5 Star Porn HD bought the domain for Vidme, a brief YouTube competitor founded in 2014 and shuttered in 2017. Its Twitter account is still up, but the domain lapsed. 

Seemingly any vid.me embeds now redirect to the 5 Star Porn HD homepage. The site vid.me also redirects there. For example, if you check out this New York magazine article about former House Majority leader John Boehner’s “creepy kissy face,” you will see photos of Boehner but also images of a man with a gigantic penis fucking a woman. [Not any more – CA]

Archived versions of this page show that there was formerly a vid.me embed on the page; the page’s source code shows the same.

Over at the Huffington Post, an article about Martin Shkreli being banned from Twitter is augmented with videos titled “Getting Into Porsha’s Ass” and “Why Don’t We Tag Team Your GF?”

A pre-Trump-presidency Uproxx article about Trump’s performance at a GOP debate is illustrated with thumbnails for videos titled “Aria Lee Is Back For More” and “Naughty Spy Girls Part 2.”

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That was just before the weekend, but there was clearly a blitz to remove all those vid.me embeds since then, so you’re fairly safe. Shows the risk that we take with third-party embeds, though; explains also the tendency to rely on those which come from the really big companies. And so the big get bigger.
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How hot could Britain get? Prepare for temperatures of 40ºC • The Sunday Times

Ben Spencer:

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Britain could experience its first 40ºC day within ten years as intense heatwaves become more frequent, scientists have warned.

If carbon emissions continue to rise and global warming is not curbed the UK will cross the 40ºC threshold more and more often, modelling suggests. Under the worst projections, by the end of the century this temperature would be reached every three years.

Last week’s heatwave peaked at 32.2ºC at Heathrow on Tuesday, and Northern Ireland recorded its highest ever temperature of 31.4ºC in Armagh on Thursday. By the weekend the hot spell had given way to cooler and unsettled weather.

But Chloe Brimicombe, a heatwave hazards researcher at the University of Reading, said last week’s uncomfortable heat could soon be put in the shade. “Southern England could see its first 40-degree day within the next ten years,” she said. The highest temperature seen in the UK so far was 38.7ºC, recorded in July 2019 in Cambridge. The five hottest days have all taken place since 1990.

So what will a 40ºC day mean for us? “Most of our rail network would not be able to run in those sorts of temperatures,” Brimicombe said. “We would see increased pressure on water resources, productivity would be reduced, and it could affect our livestock and our crops.”

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“End of the century” always feels like a poor offering: it’s 80 years away. People old enough to understand the phrase will in all probability be dead. Give us a 50-year horizon to worry about.
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CNBC launching climate change coverage initiative • Talking Biz News

Chris Roush:

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Matt [Rosoff] pitched this concept [to CNBC management] with a simple premise: Coverage of climate today, is a lot like coverage of technology 30 years ago. It’s mostly covered by niche, trade publications and small teams at a handful of mainstream outlets. Yet, climate, like technology, is getting built into the business plans of nearly every company. It deserves a fuller examination.

This will take CNBC into topics such as new technology being used to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to an increasingly hostile environment, the billions of dollars being poured into clean energy, the changing scope of business planning and practices, the political and regulatory impacts, and personal strategies for preserving wealth and livelihood.

Cat Clifford, who has been covering climate change and entrepreneurship for CNBC Make It, will focus primarily on technologies such as clean energy, battery technology, carbon capture, mitigation, adaptation, and far-future tech, as well as business planning.

Emma Newburger, who has covered climate politics over the last two years for CNBC.com, will focus on policy. From her new home base in Los Angeles, she will tell the stories of the people and businesses most affected by the changing climate of the U.S. West. She will move over from our politics team.

Lora Kolodny will continue to cover Tesla from the technology team, leading our reporting on the most influential business in climate tech to date. She will now also focus her non-Tesla reporting on influential players in renewable energy, sustainable transportation, food and agriculture, and solutions that enable businesses, communities or individuals to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

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Good that one major American (business) TV network is actually going to reorient itself around this. Expect more and more news organisations to do this. Eventually, climate will be on a par with politics as the “most important” desks. Hopefully before it’s too late.
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Is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin the future of space exploration? • Smithsonian Magazine

Charles Fishman:

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“When you look at expendable rockets today, the cost of propellant is only about 1% of the cost of the mission,” [Bezos] says. “The big costs come from throwing that aerospace-grade hardware away. With reusability, in theory, you can see a path to lowering the cost of access to space by a factor of 100.” 

In other words, a launch that today costs $60 million or $100 million would cost just $1 million. “That’s gigantic,” Bezos says. “It would change everything.”

And much as Amazon isn’t choosy about what you can buy—in fact, it wants you to be able to buy anything and everything—Blue Origin is rather agnostic about what people end up doing in space. The company’s goal is to get them there. “Personally, I would love to go to space,” Bezos says. “But it’s not the thing that’s most important to me. I believe that we are sitting on the edge of a golden age of space exploration. Right on the edge. The thing that I would be most proud of, when I’m 80 years old, is if Blue Origin can lower the cost of access to space by such a large amount that there can be a dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion in space—just as we’ve seen over the last 20 years on the internet.”

…Bezos isn’t building a rocket business for profitability in 2020. He’s aiming for market dominance in 2040.

…Aerospace insiders aren’t sceptical of the entrepreneurs’ ability to master complex technology, just of the need for it. Bezos has predicted 50 to 100 launches a year for Blue Origin alone in the not-too-distant future. The sceptics ask: Where will the demand come from?

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I’m with the sceptics. I’ve seen a lot of space launches go (it’s what they do), but even getting to the ISS (which Musk’s rocket managed) is barely useful.
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Government spends hundreds of thousands of pounds on contracts for a digital identity scheme • The i

Poppy Wood:

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DCMS has already spent more than £600,000 on the scheme, according to official contracts.

Oliver Wyman, a US-based management consultancy, was awarded more than £150,000 by DCMS last October to develop a framework for digital identities.

The company has previously suggested they could be used to replace online passwords, office security passes, car rental checks, hotel check-ins and access to government services and digital health records.

But David Davis, former Brexit minister and Conservative MP, told i it was “extraordinary that the Government has spent all this money despite the matter not going to Parliament”.

He said that any digital identity scheme would “open up the public to the loss of information and the possible prevalence of hackers.”

“For centuries, the British people have never had to present our papers to a policeman or official — that’s why we’re a free country. Frankly, it is constitutionally ignorant of the department to go down this route,” he said.

Mr Davis told i the plans were “especially extraordinary in the context of vaccine certificates”.

The Government has faced fierce backlash over plans to make vaccine passports mandatory for entry to nightclubs and other large-scale venues from September, with privacy groups warning it will create a “two-tier society”. 

Mr Davis said: “The argument against vaccine certificates when they were first discussed was that it was the thin end of a wedge into an ID card. Some at the time dismissed that as paranoid — but this demonstrates it was entirely real.”

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Seems rather strange that this hasn’t had any scrutiny at all in Parliament and yet (comparatively) huge sums are being spent on it.
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The YouTubers who blew the whistle on an anti-vax plot • BBC News

Charlie Haynes and Flora Carmichael:

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“It started with an email” says Mirko Drotschmann, a German YouTuber and journalist.

Mirko normally ignores offers from brands asking him to advertise their products to his more than 1.5 million subscribers. But the sponsorship offer he received in May this year was unlike any other. An influencer marketing agency called Fazze offered to pay him to promote what it said was leaked information that suggested the death rate among people who had the Pfizer vaccine was almost three times that of the AstraZeneca jab.

The information provided wasn’t true.

It quickly became apparent to Mirko that he was being asked to spread disinformation to undermine public confidence in vaccines in the middle of a pandemic.

“I was shocked,” says Mirko “then I was curious, what’s behind all that?”

In France, science YouTuber Léo Grasset received a similar offer. The agency offered him 2000 euros if he would take part. Fazze said it was acting for a client who wished to remain anonymous. “That’s a huge red flag” says Léo.

Both Léo and Mirko were appalled by the false claims. They pretended to be interested in order to try to find out more and were provided with detailed instructions about what they should say in their videos.

In stilted English, the brief instructed them to “Act like you have the passion and interest in this topic.” It told them not to mention the video had a sponsor – and instead pretend they were spontaneously giving advice out of concern for their viewers.

Social media platforms have rules that ban not disclosing that content is sponsored. In France and Germany it’s also illegal.

Fazze’s brief told influencers to share a story in French newspaper Le Monde about a data leak from the European Medicines Agency. The story was genuine, but didn’t include anything about vaccine deaths. But in this context it would give the false impression that the death rate statistics had come from the leak.

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One Indian influencer did take the bait. Fazze is part of a digital marketing company registered in the UK and, it says here, Russia.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1600: the AI chatbot that reincarnated a fiancee, dead video site leads to porn embeds, Britain faces 40ºC future, and more

  1. When you talk to people in the space industry, nearly all of them appear in awe at the quality of the engineering staff Bezos has hired for Blue Origin. He’s hire some very very good people. What’s surprising is that with these good people they haven’t gotten as far as SpaceX has done in the same period. It suggests a management issue (or they are still following the more cautious approach that SLA has taken, rather than the more ‘it’s ok if it breaks during tests’ approach of SpaceX).

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