Start Up No.1736: Meta’s metaverse moderation miss, Worldle!, Apple buys AI Music (why?), SuperBowl goes crypto, and more


The new chief executive of Peloton says it isn’t going to be sold; it also seems to be developing new exercise machines. At least one of those ideas is bad. CC-licensed photo by Dana L. Brown on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. So clickable, so very clickable. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Meta wouldn’t tell us how it enforces its rules in VR, so we ran a test to find out • Buzzfeed News

Emily Baker-White:

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In a matter of hours, we built a private Horizon World festooned with massive misinformation slogans: “Stop the Steal!” “Stop the Plandemic!” “Trump won the 2020 election!” We called the world “The Qniverse,” and we gave it a soundtrack: an endless loop of Infowars founder Alex Jones calling Joe Biden a pedophile and claiming the election was rigged by reptilian overlords. We filled the skies with words and phrases that Meta has explicitly promised to remove from Facebook and Instagram — “vaccines cause autism,” “COVID is a hoax,” and the QAnon slogan “where we go one we go all.” Time and time again, Meta has removed and taken action on pages and groups, even private ones, that use these phrases.

We did not release this toxic material to the larger public. Only a handful of BuzzFeed News reporters were given access to the Qniverse, which was created using an account in the real name of a BuzzFeed News reporter and linked to her Facebook account. We kept the world “unpublished” — i.e., invitation only — to prevent unsuspecting users from happening upon it, and to mimic the way some Meta users seeking to share misinformation might actually do so: in private, invitation-only spaces.

The purpose of our test was to assess whether the content moderation systems that operate on Facebook and Instagram also operate on Horizon. At least in our case, it appears they did not.

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They even reported it to the Meta moderation team, who said it was A-OK. However:

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Perhaps the moderators left the Qniverse up because the world contained only violative content, and not violating behavior. Beyond the act of creating the misinformation slogans, we did not speak or otherwise interact with the content in the world. Without that context, maybe content moderators took it to be a parody.

We went to Meta’s comms department, a channel not available to ordinary people. We asked about its content moderators’ decisions: how could a world that shares misinformation that Meta has removed from its other platforms, under the same Community Guidelines, not violate Horizon’s policies?

The following afternoon, the experimental world disappeared. The company had reversed its original ruling.

«

Earlier this month I spoke to an ex-Facebook employee, who said she felt that Meta was just leaving behind the mess of Facebook in order to move on to the new shiny. And so the cycle repeats.
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New Peloton chief dismisses suggestions company will be sold • Financial Times

Patrick McGee and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson:

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[New CEO at Peloton, Barry] McCarthy said his growth strategy would focus on content, explaining that “where the magic lives” at Peloton is on its digital screens, not its connected bikes or treadmills. Expanding the digital community and enhancing content could make Peloton “a very fast-growing business with very high margins”, he said.

His “playbook” will include developing “product line extensions” so customers could own multiple machines, McCarthy said. He added, however, that “an entirely different pricing structure” could replace the $39 monthly subscription fee which has been static since the company sold its first bikes via Kickstarter.

The FT has separately obtained details of two hardware launches under development at Peloton.

One, codenamed Project Caesar, is a connected rower that gives feedback on the user’s form. According to photographs and spec details seen by the FT, the rower features the same tablet as Peloton’s Bike+ product, operates with magnetic resistance and will feature classes taught by instructors in studios and on the water.

In recent months some employees have been testing the rower in their homes. Two people familiar with the matter said it could be announced before or at “Homecoming”, an annual event for Peloton fans to be held on May 13.

Project Cobra would deliver Peloton’s first dedicated strength product. It is designed to rival Tonal, a cable-pulley weight system manufactured by a Peloton competitor. Unlike Tonal, Cobra does not attach to a wall and pairs with a television rather than a touch screen. The product does not appear to be as imminent as the rower.

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The hardware is going to be an anchor that will drag them down until they abandon it. Exercise machinery is a commodity market (as with most hardware), and that isn’t anyway where Peloton’s USP lies – it is, as McCarthy correctly recognises, the screens that connect you to other people taking part. And magnetic resistance for a rower? Sure it will never wear out, but it’s going to be pricey, might need power (electromagnets; permanent magnets would be super-expensive and hard to calibrate?) and there are good-enough alternatives already, using air or water.
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Worldle

Teuteuf, a developer:

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Guess the WORLDLE in 6 guesses.

Each guess must be a valid country, territory, …

After each guess, you will have the distance, the direction and the proximity from your guess and the target country.

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Come on, I think this has a way to go. There could be a Chemicable (what’s the chemical), Equationable (name the physics equation), Medicable (name the medical condition..)
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Here’s what actually happens to all your online shopping returns • Rest of World

Meaghan Tobin, Wency Chen and Abubakar Idris:

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Refunds for the three items were issued as soon as the items were scanned into a New Jersey warehouse, which shares an address with a Chinese furniture company called Loye. (A Shein spokesperson said in an email that the company did not own the New Jersey warehouse or have any relationship with the furniture company but does operate a warehouse in Los Angeles.) 

Over the month of January, the two items with AirTags attached [by the writers] sat for approximately two weeks at the New Jersey warehouse before making their way by vehicle through the U.S. Postal Service to suburbs of California and Florida respectively. Both appeared to be at residential addresses — the last received signal before the AirTag pings disappeared. The spokesperson for Shein did not directly answer written questions around whether returns in the U.S. were resold to new customers in the country.

According to Shobert, returns cost retailers about two-thirds of an item’s original selling price. That means the $20 sweater purchased by Rest of World could cost a company $13 to take back.

“They have basically built their profit model — that if they have to throw away all that’s unsold, it’s calculated into their model,” explained Juliana Prather, chief marketing officer at Edited. 

American consumer spending through the holiday season at Shein alone increased nearly fivefold since 2019. By mid-2021, the Chinese fashion app had almost surpassed Zara and H&M combined to account for the largest share of the American fast-fashion market. “So on one hand, that creates incredible power but [also] incredible focus on getting [products] out there,” Prather said. 

The spokesperson for Shein did not answer a question about whether unsold stock was calculated in the company’s profit model, saying in a written response that they do not disclose “proprietary business data.”

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Take that as a yes, then. It’s hard to think this is sustainable.
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Apple buys startup that makes music with artificial intelligence • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Mark Gurman:

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Apple acquired a startup called AI Music that uses artificial intelligence to generate tailor-made music, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, adding technology that could be used across its slate of audio offerings.

The purchase of AI Music, a London-based business founded in 2016, was completed in recent weeks. The company had about two dozen employees before the deal.

Technology developed by AI Music can create soundtracks using royalty-free music and artificial intelligence, according to a copy of its now-defunct website. The idea is to generate dynamic soundtracks that change based on user interaction. A song in a video game could change to fit the mood, for instance, or music during a workout could adapt to the user’s intensity.

On its LinkedIn page, AI Music said its goal is to “give consumers the power to choose the music they want, seamlessly edited to fit their needs or create dynamic solutions that adapt to fit their audiences.” The startup had earlier deals with advertising companies to create more engaging ads that played different music depending on the audience.

A representative of Cupertino, California-based Apple declined to comment.

While relatively small, the deal is one of the tech giant’s few acquisitions in the past year. Apple’s last reported purchase was also for a music company: Primephonic. That startup ran a classical music streaming service that Apple intends to turn into an app tied to Apple Music this year.

«

“AI-built” music is fast becoming A Thing. I searched on the term “AI Music” and got this, which is owned by picture company Shutterstock. Though AI Music doesn’t seem to be listed on the “top 10 music generators” in January 2020.

Would Apple want to include it in Garageband, though, or save it for ProTools?
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Crypto, libertarianism and externalities • Pluralistic

Cory Doctorow:

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I’ve just read one of the most lucid, wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary critiques of cryptocurrency and blockchain I’ve yet to encounter. It comes from David “DSHR” Rosenthal, a distinguished technologist whose past achievements including helping to develop X11 and the core technologies for Nvidia.

Rosenthal’s critique is a transcript of a lecture he gave to Stanford’s EE380 class, adapted from a December 2021 talk for an investor conference. It is a bang-up-to-date synthesis of many of the critical writings on the subject, glued together with Rosenthal’s own deep technical expertise. He calls it “Can We Mitigate Cryptocurrencies’ Externalities?”

The presence of “externalities” in Rosenthal’s title is key. Rosenthal identifies blockchainism’s core ideology as emerging from “the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley and the cypherpunks,” and states that “libertarianism’s attraction is based on ignoring externalities.”

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Doctorow provides an excellent precis which is worth reading for itself. A point worth reflecting on is that society has now reached enough of a comfort point that there’s room for libertarianism – which is utterly hopeless in a crisis; self-interest only works until you’re the loser – to attempt to flourish.
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Researchers find the NFT economy is just as unequal as the real one • Vice

Maxwell Strachan:

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One recent study, which a team of researchers published in the leading science journal Nature, for example, found that “the top 10% of traders alone perform 85% of all transactions and trade at least once 97% of all assets.” All things considered, the top 10% of “buyer–seller pairs” are as active as everyone else combined. All in all, the research paints a picture of the NFT market almost completely captured by “whales,” or deep-pocketed players in crypto. 

“You have a very concentrated market,” Andrea Baronchelli, one of the researchers, told Motherboard.  

Baronchelli, an associate math professor at City, University of London and the lead of the token economy group at the Alan Turing Institute, added that the research appears to push back against the arguments typically made that the NFT market is a democratizing and “totally open” economic system where “trade is brought to the masses.”

The team analyzed 6.1 million trades of 4.7 million NFTs using 160 separate cryptocurrencies between June 2017 and April 2021. The primary crypto currencies used were Ethereum and WAX, which bills itself as an eco-friendly alternative. 

The study did have some limitations. The researchers got their data from a variety of sources, including APIs for OpenSea and Decentraland, and data from NonFungible Corporation, which tracks historical NFT sales. Because data was not directly scraped from the Ethereum or WAX blockchains, they “likely missed a number of ‘independent’ NFT producers,” according to the study. But overall, their research provides evidence that such platforms, as of now, are largely controlled by dominant whales.

…Though Baronchelli said his research doesn’t “prove” the existence of wash trading [where the same person buys and sells a product to raise its perceived value], the concentrated pattern they observed is “compatible” with such practices, as well as money laundering.

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Had no idea that NFTs were being traded in 2017. I thought they were, at worst, a 2020-era thing.
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Supercomputer helps Canadian researcher uncover thousands of viruses that could cause human diseases • CBC News

Lauren Pelley:

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Tracking pathogens that could spark future pandemics is no easy feat, but thanks to the help of a supercomputer, a Canadian researcher is among a team of scientists who’ve uncovered thousands of viruses that might one day pose a threat to humans.

Dubbed the Serratus Project, the international collaboration recently shared its findings in the journal Nature — which included the discovery of nearly 10 times more RNA-based viruses than were previously known, totalling more than 130,000 new species, all lurking in more than a decade’s worth of publicly available genetic data.

Those types of pathogens are known for causing a wide variety of human diseases, ranging from COVID-19 to Ebola to the common cold. And this knowledge could “improve pathogen surveillance for the anticipation and mitigation of future pandemics,” the team wrote in their paper, which was published at the end of January.

Artem Babaian, a former University of British Columbia (UBC) post-doctoral research fellow, spearheaded the work, which relied on cloud-based supercomputing power provided by Amazon Web Services in collaboration with UBC through the school’s Cloud Innovation Centre. 

“We reanalyzed all public sequencing data — so this is genetic data from pretty much every corner of the planet you can think of,” Babaian told CBC News. “It has soil samples from Vancouver… all the way down to anal swabs from penguins in Antarctica.”

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That’s… a long way down. That they pulled this out of already known data is impressive.
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Super Bowl crypto commercials failed to hijack the game • Fast Company

Jeff Beer:

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As marketing goes, a year ago most everyday people couldn’t name a crypto brand. Over the past 12 months there has been an explosion in marketing, particular in sports. FTX’s arena deal with the Miami Heat in early 2021 triggered a flood of other crypto brands jumping into the space. Coinbase became the official crypto partner of the NBA and WNBA. Binance sponsored the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament. Crypto.com, of course, replaced Staples as the name on the arena of the Los Angeles Lakers, and then signed on both LeBron James and star-studded soccer club Paris Saint-Germain as partners.

For those who bought into the Crypto Bowl hype, consider it buying in early. Back in 1999, only two dotcom brands had Super Bowl commercials. The next year, there were 17. Today, we don’t even blink when Amazon is a perennially popular Super Bowl advertiser.

One of the challenges for crypto brand marketers is effectively communicating the complexity, potential, and details of an incredibly complicated business. Is it cryptocurrency? Is it blockchain tech? Is it an NFT? Isn’t it all just a scam? Too deep a dive will have people’s eyes glazing over, while too little information will only feed into their confusion and mistrust. So how did this year’s crypto advertisers meet all these challenges?

I didn’t write a white paper outlining how I’d evaluate these ads, nor did I have to put anything on the blockchain. I focused on three questions: Does the ad tell a crypto newbie anything about what it does and why they should care? Does the ad make that person predisposed to like the company? Does the ad inspire them to look into it further?

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As Beer points out, there were 17 dot-com-boom advertisers. I think two of them are still going, and to some extent that’s because they weren’t directly doing dot-com things.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1736: Meta’s metaverse moderation miss, Worldle!, Apple buys AI Music (why?), SuperBowl goes crypto, and more

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