Start Up No.1648: Google reinvents search (again), YouTube to zap all vaccine misinfo, why gas prices spiked, OTP bots, and more


Beethoven never finished his Tenth symphony – but an AI has, and the first performance happens in October. CC-licensed photo by David Hall on Flickr.

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


Google search’s next phase: context is king • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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At its Search On event today, Google introduced several new features that, taken together, are its strongest attempts yet to get people to do more than type a few words into a search box. By leveraging its new Multitask Unified Model (MUM) machine learning technology in small ways, the company hopes to kick off a virtuous cycle: it will provide more detail and context-rich answers, and in return it hopes users will ask more detailed and context-rich questions. The end result, the company hopes, will be a richer and deeper search experience.

Google SVP Prabhakar Raghavan oversees search alongside Assistant, ads, and other products. He likes to say — and repeated in an interview this past Sunday — that “search is not a solved problem.” That may be true, but the problems he and his team are trying to solve now have less to do with wrangling the web and more to do with adding context to what they find there.

For its part, Google is going to begin flexing its ability to recognize constellations of related topics using machine learning and present them to you in an organized way. A coming redesign to Google search will begin showing “Things to know” boxes that send you off to different subtopics. When there’s a section of a video that’s relevant to the general topic — even when the video as a whole is not — it will send you there. Shopping results will begin to show inventory available in nearby stores, and even clothing in different styles associated with your search.

…We are very far from the so-called “ten blue links” of search results that Google provides. It has been showing information boxes, image results, and direct answers for a long time now. Today’s announcements are another step, one where the information Google provides is not just a ranking of relevant information but a distillation of what its machines understand by scraping the web.

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I understand that this is Bohn reporting what Google is (kind of) promising, but there’s an inherent naiveté in failing to realise that Google search does not understand, in a human sense, what it is reading and indexing. Its method rewards popularity, not accuracy. Search is so far from being a “solved problem” that in essence we’re still in 1996. If you want understanding, you use Wikipedia.
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YouTube to remove videos containing vaccine misinformation • WSJ

Dave Sebastian:

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YouTube said it would remove content that falsely alleges approved vaccines are dangerous and cause severe health effects, expanding the video platform’s efforts to curb Covid-19 misinformation to other vaccines.

Examples of content that would be taken down include false claims that approved vaccines cause autism, cancer or infertility or that they don’t reduce transmission or contraction of diseases, the Alphabet division said Wednesday.

The policies cover general statements about vaccines—not only those for Covid-19—and about specific routine immunizations such as those for measles and hepatitis B. YouTube said it has removed more than 130,000 videos for violating its Covid-19 vaccine policies since last year.

“We’ve steadily seen false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general,” YouTube said. “We’re now at a point where it’s more important than ever to expand the work we started with Covid-19 to other vaccines.”

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Typically what now happens (as we’ve seen on Facebook) is that the makers of the misinformation videos begin using different language to refer to the same things (perhaps calling vaccines “vitamins” or something). Will YouTube follow that too?

Also note how this is YouTube moving closer to choosing “authoritative” over “popular”, at least for information that could get you killed.
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Getting an AI to complete Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony • The Conversation

Ahmed Elgammal is Professor, Director of the Art & AI Lab, at Rutgers University:

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When Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, he was three years removed from the completion of his Ninth Symphony, a work heralded by many as his magnum opus. He had started work on his 10th Symphony but, due to deteriorating health, wasn’t able to make much headway: All he left behind were some musical sketches.

Ever since then, Beethoven fans and musicologists have puzzled and lamented over what could have been. His notes teased at some magnificent reward, albeit one that seemed forever out of reach.

Now, thanks to the work of a team of music historians, musicologists, composers and computer scientists, Beethoven’s vision will come to life.

I presided over the artificial intelligence side of the project, leading a group of scientists at the creative AI startup Playform AI that taught a machine both Beethoven’s entire body of work and his creative process.

A full recording of Beethoven’s 10th Symphony is set to be released on Oct. 9, 2021, the same day as the world premiere performance scheduled to take place in Bonn, Germany – the culmination of a two-year-plus effort.

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When he calls them “sketches” he’s not kidding – it’s basically a few squiggles on a stave. There’s going to be a lot of interest around this. If it’s at all convincing, then what’s to stop new Mozart or Bach work emerging? Then we’ll be in the realm, like art, of trying to figure out if something is legitimate or not.
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Natural-gas prices are spiking around the world • The Economist

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Across the world, a natural-gas shortage is starting to bite. Prices of power in Germany and France have soared by around 40% in the past two weeks. In many countries, including Britain and Spain, governments are rushing through emergency measures to protect consumers. Factories are being temporarily switched off, from aluminium smelters in Mexico to fertiliser plants in Britain. Markets are frantic. One trader says it is like the global financial crisis for commodities. Even in America, the world’s biggest natural-gas producer, lobby groups are calling on the government to limit exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the price of which has climbed to $25 per million British thermal units (mBTU), up by two-thirds in the past month.

In one sense the crisis has fiendishly complex causes, with a mosaic of factors from geopolitics to precautionary hoarding in Asia sending prices higher. Viewed from a different perspective, however, its causes are simple: an energy market with only thin safety buffers has become acutely sensitive to disruptions. And subdued investment in fossil fuels may mean higher volatility is here to stay.

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Simple part of the fiendishly complex cause: longer-than-expected winter, storage facilities reduced in many countries. That last sentence isn’t encouraging, though. It feels very possible that as fossil fuels that we rely on are tapered out in favour of slightly less reliable renewables (🎶 so build more nuclear 🎵), that effect will happen more regularly. (Same effect visible with coal prices, as noted yesterday.)
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A $23.7m Ethereum transaction fee post mortem…

You might recall a few days ago that some trivial blockchain transaction also turned out to have an astronomically high transaction fee. This is the “explanation”, which is written using English words as if to prove a Wittgenstein theorem about the non-inevitability of meaning.

I’m still not convinced there wasn’t some quiet money laundering going on. It’s amazing in particular how the people who perfectly legally get $23.7m arriving in their account, apparently through no malicious action on their part, are perfectly happy to give it back. It’s as if this wasn’t about money, and the transactions weren’t irreversible.

As a sort of “finder’s fee” they gave them 50 ETH, equivalent to 3.43BTC, equivalent (if you can do it) to about $140,000.
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Telegram bots are trying to steal your one-time passwords • ZDNet

Charlie Osborne:

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Telegram-powered bots are being utilized to steal the one-time passwords required in two-factor authentication (2FA) security. 

The ransomware threat is growing: What needs to happen to stop attacks getting worse? (ZDNet YouTube)
On Wednesday, researchers from Intel 471 said that they have seen an “uptick” in the number of these services provided in the web’s underground, and over the past few months, it appears the variety of 2FA circumvention solutions is expanding — with bots becoming a firm favorite. 

Two-factor authentication (2FA) can take the form of one-time password (OTP) tokens, codes, links, biometric markers, or by tapping a physical dongle to confirm an account owner’s identity. Most often, 2FA tokens are sent through a text message to a handset or an email address. 

While 2FA can improve upon the use of passwords alone to protect our accounts, threat actors were quick to develop methods to intercept OTP, such as through malware or social engineering. 

According to Intel 471, since June, a number of 2FA-circumventing services are abusing the Telegram messaging service. Telegram is either being used to create and manage bots or as a ‘customer support’ channel host for cybercriminals running these types of operations. 

“In these support channels, users often share their success while using the bot, often walking away with thousands of dollars from victim accounts,” the researchers say. 

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Which is why, wherever humanly possible, you shouldn’t use SMS-sent OTPs, but instead have a code generator (such as Authy, which is great) on your device(s).

Though it’s not just bots – one of my children, attempting to sell an item on an exchange, had the other person demanding she send her the Paypal OTP for the transaction (which would have let the other person hack her account). Luckily she had a mistrustful parent to ask for advice.
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Facebook grew Marketplace to one billion users. Now scammers are using it to target people around the world • ProPublica

Craig Silverman, A.C. Thompson and Peter Elkind:

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For years, Carman Alfonsi relied upon Facebook Marketplace to buy and sell used pool tables for his Michigan billiards business. He banked a steady stream of income from the wildly popular online bazaar.

But this July, Alfonsi’s Facebook account was hacked and used to post roughly 100 scam listings for cell phones and vehicles. The Marketplace posts directed buyers to contact an email address controlled by the scammers. When customers were left empty-handed, they sent enraged messages to Alfonsi by phone and Facebook Messenger.

Alfonsi repeatedly contacted Facebook to warn that his account had been hijacked by fraudsters. Instead of fixing the problem, the social media giant banned him from using Marketplace, at one point removing his profile from its platform.

Now Alfonsi carries a gun in his own home. He’s concerned that an angry Marketplace customer might show up at his front door.

“I’m thinking I’m in trouble and someone’s going to come to my house and kick my ass,” Alfonsi said.

Facebook’s Marketplace is unquestionably a business success. It hit 1 billion users a month this spring, and the company recently told investors that it’s one of its most promising new sources of revenue. That growth has been built, in part, on the company’s assurances about the safety of its platform.

“Marketplace lets you see what real people in your own community are selling. You can see their public Facebook profile, mutual friends and seller ratings so you can feel confident in your purchase,” the company says.

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Or.. not. As ever, Facebook lets things scale much faster than it scales its moderation.
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It seems almost unnecessary to suggest you buy my book Social Warming, but this might be your first rodeo


The supply-chain mystery • The New Yorker

Amy Davidson Sorkin:

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What’s often at the heart of a supply-chain issue is a labor issue. Last week, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were approaching a crisis state because more than seventy container ships were idling offshore, in what had become a maritime parking lot; there aren’t enough dockworkers to unload their cargo, or enough truck drivers to move it out of the ports. (Shipping rates have spiked, too.) Labor shortages are the reason that so many things just seem to be in the wrong place—the prime symptom of a supply-chain squeeze. “Just in time” delivery works only if you can deliver.

The labor situation, too, is no doubt related to covid-19, but there is wide disagreement about exactly how. A significant number of people who were laid off early in the pandemic because of closures haven’t gone back to work, even as more businesses reopen. The factors cited include a fear of infection and an aversion to dealing with customers who are angry about policies, or the lack of them, requiring masks and proof of vaccination—a particular concern for restaurant workers, who are also in short supply. Some essential workers, such as health aides and delivery drivers, who were hit hard by the pandemic, may be reassessing their jobs; and many of the more than six hundred thousand people who have died of covid were members of the workforce.

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Good to know that it’s not only Brexit and Britain that’s having weird issues due to supply-chain labour shortages. Something to read between fights in the queue for fuel.
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The melting face emoji has already won us over • The New York Times

Anna Kambhampaty:

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There are times when words feel inadequate — when one’s dread, shame, exhaustion or discomfort seems too immense to be captured in written language.

That’s where the melting face emoji comes in.

The face, fixed with a content half-smile even as it dissolves into a puddle, is one of 37 new emojis approved this year by the Unicode Consortium, the organization that maintains the standards for digital text. Other emojis that made the cut include saluting face, dotted line face [invisibility] and a disco ball.

These new emojis will roll out over the course of the next year. But already the melting face has found fans on social media, who see it as a clear representation of the coronavirus pandemic’s vast psychological toll.

“This melting smiley face is quite the pandemic mood,” one Twitter user said.

Others viewed the new emoji as a visual proxy for climate anxiety. “Something tells me that in this climate change apocalypse era, we’re going to be using the new melting face emoji a lot,” another user wrote.

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If it’s going to be for climate anxiety, shouldn’t there be a drowning face emoji too? (There isn’t, I checked.) At least the disco ball one is nicely timed for Abba’s return.
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Something weird is happening on Facebook • Political Orphans

Chris Ladd:

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How this works is murky, but it’s clear that someone has found a way to gain absolutely stellar reach for these apparent spam posts. What they have in common is help from affiliate networks.

If you spend any time on Facebook you’ve probably noticed a blizzard of question memes coming from clickbait accounts. You’ve likely either commented on them yourself or seen comments from close friends. Many of these posts look like they’re probing for answers to security/verification questions, but the ugly reality is that your passwords are nearly worthless. Chances are your passwords are already circulating on the dark web, sold in batches of millions for as little as a few thousand dollars. Unless you hold the password to something wildly valuable, like major corporate or government assets, nobody cares except kids playing around.

By contrast, what could I learn about someone by knowing their answers to these questions?
[screenshots of Facebook posts asking: “What was your first car?” “How old were you when you got your first job?” “First celebrity crush?” “What do your grandchildren call you?”]

How valuable would it be to build up profiles of millions of social media accounts based on these answers, while also learning the contours of their social networks? Feed that kind of sentiment data through a machine learning algorithm and I could build a dataset on which to build a powerful disinformation campaign. Someone seems to think there’s value here, investing significant time and money by recruiting affiliate networks to distribute this content and gather results.

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Ladd reckons someone – or lots of someones – are trying to do personality profiling that makes Cambridge Analytica’s effort look piddling, which in many ways it was, relatively. Ladd’s advice:

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Don’t take candy from strangers and don’t feed your personal information to bots. If that mommy blog is jammed with ads and promotions, leave immediately.

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Or just, you know, delete your Facebook account.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: I wondered how much power might be lost in the 10.5GW link between Morocco and the UK over a 3,800km subsea link. According to @magnayn, it’s about 15%. So that’s ~8.9GW arriving in the UK.

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