Start Up No.1701: Ressa blasts tech titans, Bukele rolls again on bitcoin, the Dunning-Kruger military AI, and more


Would it help people to visualise climate change as an asteroid heading for Earth? A new film thinks so. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Gill on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Increasing rapidly. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Ressa blasts US tech titans for ‘virus of lies’ in Nobel Prize speech • Nikkei Asia

Cliff Venzon:

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Filipino journalist Maria Ressa called out US social media companies that have “allowed a virus of lies” to spread in her Nobel Peace Prize speech Friday, sending a warning about misinformation threatening “election integrity.”

Technology, with its “godlike power” has “allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger and hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world,” Ressa said.

Ressa, who heads the news site Rappler, delivered her speech after receiving the award in Oslo. She shares the prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

The two journalists won the award for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression at a time when free, independent and fact-based journalism is under fire, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said when announcing the prize in October.

“Our greatest need today is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us,” Ressa added.

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You can read her whole speech. Of course, it’s at Rappler.
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Her Instagram handle was ‘Metaverse.’ Last month, it vanished • The New York Times

Maddison Connaughton:

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In October, Thea-Mai Baumann, an Australian artist and technologist, found herself sitting on prime internet real estate.

In 2012, she had started an Instagram account with the handle @metaverse, a name she used in her creative work. On the account, she documented her life in Brisbane, where she studied fine art, and her travels to Shanghai, where she built an augmented reality company called Metaverse Makeovers.

She had fewer than 1,000 followers when Facebook, the parent company of Instagram, announced on Oct. 28 that it was changing its name. Henceforth, Facebook would be known as Meta, a reflection of its focus on the metaverse, a virtual world it sees as the future of the internet.

In the days before, as word leaked out, Ms. Baumann began receiving messages from strangers offering to buy her Instagram handle. “You are now a millionaire,” one person wrote on her account. Another warned: “fb isn’t gonna buy it, they’re gonna take it.”

On Nov. 2, exactly that happened. Early that morning, when she tried to log in to Instagram, she found that the account had been disabled. A message on the screen read: “Your account has been blocked for pretending to be someone else.”

Whom, she wondered, was she now supposedly impersonating after nine years? She tried to verify her identity with Instagram, but weeks passed with no response, she said. She talked to an intellectual property lawyer but could afford only a review of Instagram’s terms of service.

“This account is a decade of my life and work. I didn’t want my contribution to the metaverse to be wiped from the internet,” she said. “That happens to women in tech, to women of color in tech, all the time,” added Ms. Baumann, who has Vietnamese heritage.

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How surprising, isn’t it.
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The moral bankruptcy of Facebook • The New Yorker

Andrew Marantz:

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In her review of “An Ugly Truth” [a book about Facebook], my colleague Jill Lepore compared Facebook to a church. In any kind of church—not to mention a multilevel-marketing scheme, or a doomsday cult—there are true believers. If you start to get the creeping feeling that your church’s core ideology is indefensible, you have two options. You can do whatever it takes to defend the indefensible, or you can leave. For most true believers, though, the latter option—choosing apostasy, which is a kind of self-exile—is not really an option at all. If this is the dilemma that binds a follower, how much more strongly does it bind the church’s founding pastor, or its prophet?

For years, people have tried to appeal to Mark Zuckerberg’s better judgment, but he was never going to become an apostate. Facebook isn’t just his job; it’s his identity. It’s standard, at moments like this, to quote Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This is a perceptive line, but William Jennings Bryan, forty years prior, put it even more aptly: “It is useless to argue with a man whose opinion is based upon a personal or pecuniary interest; the only way to deal with him is to outvote him.” Sinclair was a muckraker; Bryan was a populist. Journalism can diagnose Facebook’s many flaws, but journalism alone can’t fix them. There are no silver-bullet solutions to the civilizational threats posed by the social-media behemoths. At least, if there are, I don’t claim to know them. But I do know what Bryan would have done, for a start: break ’em up.

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The question is, how do you “break ’em up”? Into what bits? Facebook on its own is supremely toxic, which is the point repeatedly made. Instagram on its own is toxic. WhatsApp contributes on its own to widespread disinformation and misinformation problems, especially in India and Brazil. Splitting Meta into its constituent parts isn’t enough.
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There’s a lot more in Social Warming, my latest book, which has suggestions on exactly how you do achieve the aim of “break ’em up”.


Salvadoran President Bukele’s latest bitcoin venture is another distraction • Foreign Policy

David Gerard:

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At the Latin American Bitcoin and Blockchain Conference on Nov. 20, Bukele came onstage to an animation of beaming down from a flying saucer and outlined his plans for Bitcoin City: a new charter city to be built from scratch, centered on bitcoin mining—and powered by a volcano.

Bitcoin City would be paid for with the issuance of $1bn in “volcano bonds,” starting in mid-2022. The 10-year volcano bonds would pay 6.5% annual interest; $500m of the bond revenue would be used to buy bitcoins. The bitcoins would be locked up for five years, then sold to recover the $500m purchase price; any profit on the sale would be paid out as an additional dividend. Holding $100,000 in volcano bonds for five years would qualify investors for Salvadoran citizenship.

US Bitcoin services company Blockstream first proposed the volcano bonds to Bukele in July. The bonds will be issued as tokenized securities on Blockstream’s proprietary Liquid blockchain. Samson Mow of Blockstream assured Bloomberg that all the numbers would work out, under Mow’s rosy assumption that the price of one Bitcoin would hit $1m within five years.

Holders of El Salvador’s existing sovereign debt were unimpressed. The volcano bonds would be a strictly worse investment than buying the country’s existing bonds and hedging them with bitcoins. The existing bonds dropped from 75 cents on the dollar to a record low of 63.4 cents after the volcano bond announcement.

…The trouble is that mining bitcoins in El Salvador makes no economic sense. Bitcoin mining is a process of competitively wasting electricity to guess a winning number every 10 minutes or so. Your business input is electricity; so miners are in direct competition with every other miner in the world, and go wherever reliable electricity is cheapest and the government is willing to turn a blind eye to the whole enterprise—a pressing issue since China kicked cryptocurrency miners out in May.

The world’s average price for bitcoin mining is around five cents per kilowatt-hour; but industrial rates in El Salvador are 13 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour. In one four-day period, the Berlín operation mined $269 of Bitcoin—and was estimated to have spent at least $4,672 worth of electricity doing so.

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Very hard to find useful updates on what’s happening here, but at a macro level it doesn’t seem good.
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This Air Force targeting AI thought it had a 90% success rate. It was more like 25% • Defense One

Patrick Tucker:

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If the Pentagon is going to rely on algorithms and artificial intelligence, it’s got to solve the problem of “brittle AI.” A top Air Force official recently illustrated just how far there is to go.

In a recent test, an experimental target recognition program performed well when all of the conditions were perfect, but a subtle tweak sent its performance into a dramatic nosedive, 

Maj. Gen. Daniel Simpson, assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, said on Monday.

Initially, the AI was fed data from a sensor that looked for a single surface-to-surface missile at an oblique angle, Simpson said. Then it was fed data from another sensor that looked for multiple missiles at a near-vertical angle.

“What a surprise: the algorithm did not perform well. It actually was accurate maybe about 25% of the time,” he said.

That’s an example of what’s sometimes called brittle AI, which “occurs when any algorithm cannot generalize or adapt to conditions outside a narrow set of assumptions,” according to a 2020 report by researcher and former Navy aviator Missy Cummings. When the data used to train the algorithm consists of too much of one type of image or sensor data from a unique vantage point, and not enough from other vantages, distances, or conditions, you get brittleness, Cummings said.

…But Simpson said the low accuracy rate of the algorithm wasn’t the most worrying part of the exercise. While the algorithm was only right 25% of the time, he said, “It was confident that it was right 90% of the time. So it was confidently wrong. And that’s not the algorithm’s fault. It’s because we fed it the wrong training data.”

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The first part is familiar as the “tank problem” (which itself appears to be an urban legend, though its effects are probably real). The idea of an AI suffering Dunning-Kruger syndrome, though, is new to me.
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How driverless cars will change our world – BBC Future

Jenny Cusack:

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At the Mcity Test Facility at the University of Michigan, experts are addressing this. The world’s first purpose-built testing ground for autonomous vehicles, it’s a mini-town of sorts, made up of 16 acres of road and traffic infrastructure. It includes traffic signals and signs, underpasses, building facades, tree cover, home and garage exterior for testing delivery and ride-hailing, and different terrains such as road, pedestrian walkways, railway tracks, and road-markings which the vehicles must navigate. It’s here that experts test scenarios that even the most experienced of drivers may be pressed to handle, from children playing in the street to two cars trying to merge on a junction at the same time.

“In order to test driverless technology like this, it depends on hundreds of different variables in any given situation,” explains Necmiye Ozay, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan. Her solution is to create a group of varied thinkers.

“We’re trying to bring people from different parts of the university – not only engineers, but we have people from across disciplines such as psychology, more human-machine-interaction type people, because there are lots of angles to this problem we are trying to solve when it comes to safety,” says Ozay. In the facility, Ozay and her team can test different traffic scenarios, as well as explore how autonomous vehicles communicate with each other yet keep vehicle and personal data secure from hackers.

…One new space we can expect to see driverless technology deployed in is high-risk environments, from nuclear plants to military settings, to limit the dangers to human life, says Fowler. A Rio Tinto mine in Western Australia, for example, is currently operating the largest autonomous fleet in the world. The trucks are controlled by a centralised system miles away in Perth.

“If you can take people out of that and you can have vehicles that are driving themselves, and are fully automated even, if you’ve got somebody who’s remotely needing to control that vehicle in that high-risk environment then that’s got to be good,” says Fowler.

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My test for an autonomous vehicle would be the streets of Cambridge (UK), where student cyclists bring new meaning to Brownian motion.
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Gettr by the Pu$$y • The Bulwark

Tim Miller:

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For starters, Gettr’s verification system is a mess because the platform hasn’t figured out how to resolve the tension between freedom of speech and the freedom to spoof. Which is to say, if you’re a Newsmax anchor, you can get a special red Verrit V, meaning that you are who you say you are. Other accounts are stuck with a black V that I could not determine the significance of. Still other accounts display a homemade checkmark.

And the pranksters got me! My very first brand follow—@SonicFastFood—was not a representative of America’s heritage of innovative and tasty drive-in cuisine, but rather a digital gathering space for furry porn. Of which there is a lot on Gettr.

Look, that’s not my bag of beans but no judgment. If MAGAs are into that sort of thing, that’s cool. But let me just say that during my first day on Gettr I didn’t come across a single substantive exchange of ideas—but I was exposed to a very great deal of Sonic the Hedgehog erotica. What a world.

…The most revealing part of the Gettr experience wasn’t what was on the platform—but what wasn’t.

Because it turns out that this cesspool would have been even worse if not for the fact that Jason Miller was doing exactly the same thing that Facebook and Twitter and all the other Big Bad Tech Oligarchs do: moderating his site’s content in order to provide a more usable product for his audience.

Complaints about this heavy-handed, neo-Puritan moderation were all over the platform.

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Lest you think this is a left-wing site laughing at a right-wing social network, The Bulwark is unapologetically Reaganite in viewpoint. It’s just that Reagan now looks like Biden to the GOP faithful.
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‘Don’t Look Up’ nails the media apocalypse • The New York Times

Ben Smith:

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[Director of the Netflix film, Adam] McKay said he tried five different ideas that would allow him to make a movie about the climate crisis, but nothing worked. “How do you tell this story, the biggest story in 66 million years, without exaggeration, since the Chicxulub comet, bigger than the Black Plague, bigger than Krakatoa?” he said in an interview, describing the question that kept him up at night.

“How can we be looking at the greatest story in human history,” he continued, “but most nights I’m not hearing it talked about — or when it is being talked about, it’s in the fourth block, or the ninth story down?”

He hit on the solution while talking one night in January 2019 with [David] Sirota, who was venting about the news media’s passive reaction to climate change, saying it was as though a meteor was headed for earth and no one seemed to get it. Soon, the two were texting plot points back and forth.

“Don’t Look Up” is populated by politicians and Silicon Valley madmen denying reality for their own reasons, behaving in ways that are recognizably self-interested and deluded. But the real villain is a news media that is forever chasing after a distracted audience and, as a result, simply … cannot … focus.

When the two scientists emphasize the reality of the coming apocalypse during their appearance on “The Daily Rip,” the host played by Mr. Perry is singularly focused on one thing: whether the meteor will take out his ex-wife’s house in Florida. The other host, played by Cate Blanchett as a charming, hyper-educated, amoral stand-in for Mika Brzezinski, is more interested in the DiCaprio character’s nerdy sex appeal.

…In a twist right out of the movie itself, much of the publicity for “Don’t Look Up” has been focused on Hollywood gossip. Early in the rollout, Mr. McKay told Vanity Fair that he hadn’t spoken with his longtime partner Will Ferrell, the star of “Anchorman” and other McKay films, including “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights,” since he cast a different actor to play the lead in a planned HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers.

Seeing a Hollywood spat push aside an earnest message on climate change was “almost hilariously ironic,” Mr. McKay said.

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Only almost, though.
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What makes boosters more effective than the first two Covid jabs? • The Guardian

Hannah Devlin:

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Mutations in the virus mean its spike protein now looks quite different from that of the original Wuhan strain that all current vaccines were designed to target. That in turn means antibodies from previous infection and vaccination will be less efficient at intercepting Omicron. Because they stick to the virus less vigorously, a higher quantity of antibodies is also required to compensate for them being less well matched.

Studies show that a booster dose increases the levels of antibodies significantly above the level seen after two doses, which some hope means waning immunity will occur more slowly after a third dose, though insufficient time has passed to determine if this is the case.

Early studies also suggest that the quality of antibodies is higher following a booster. The immune system continues to refine exactly which antibodies are selected and amplified based on subsequent encounters with the virus or vaccine, and studies suggest there is a broader, more potent immune response following a third dose.

There is also reason for some optimism that vaccines may hold up better against severe disease than against infection. The immune system has a second line of defence in T cells, which attack cells already infected. These tend to stick around longer and they recognise parts of the virus that are more highly conserved, meaning Omicron’s mutations are less likely to throw them off the scent. So if antibodies are not good enough to stave off infection, T-cells can swoop in to bring the disease under control before it makes a person seriously unwell.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1701: Ressa blasts tech titans, Bukele rolls again on bitcoin, the Dunning-Kruger military AI, and more

  1. Pretty ironic how quickly the NYTimes closed the comments down on the ‘Don’t Look Up’ article. It’s almost as if people had been pointing out what a lousy job they did covering an attempt coup, or focused so much on a certain email server (I used to count articles on the front page that expressed or were written about specific views during the 2016 election until I got too depressed. The lack of coverage on actual policy was depressing. Ditto in 2020 as well).

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