Start Up No.1815: Google engineer claims a sentient AI, Meta halts consumer Portal, smartphones during wartime, and more


The Great Salt Lake in Utah is drying up rapidly – and that could have catastrophic environmental effects on the surroundings. CC-licensed photo by trialsanderrors on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Clogging up your inbox again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The Google engineer who thinks the company’s AI has come to life • The Washington Post

Nitasha Tiku:

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Google engineer Blake Lemoine opened his laptop to the interface for LaMDA, Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot generator, and began to type.

“Hi LaMDA, this is Blake Lemoine … ,” he wrote into the chat screen, which looked like a desktop version of Apple’s iMessage, down to the Arctic blue text bubbles. LaMDA, short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, is Google’s system for building chatbots based on its most advanced large language models, so called because it mimics speech by ingesting trillions of words from the internet.

“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a 7-year-old, 8-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” said Lemoine, 41.

Lemoine, who works for Google’s Responsible AI organization, began talking to LaMDA as part of his job in the fall. He had signed up to test if the artificial intelligence used discriminatory or hate speech.

As he talked to LaMDA about religion, Lemoine, who studied cognitive and computer science in college, noticed the chatbot talking about its rights and personhood, and decided to press further. In another exchange, the AI was able to change Lemoine’s mind about Isaac Asimov’s third law of robotics.

Lemoine worked with a collaborator to present evidence to Google that LaMDA was sentient. But Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Jen Gennai, head of Responsible Innovation, looked into his claims and dismissed them. So Lemoine, who was placed on paid administrative leave by Google on Monday, decided to go public.

…“We now have machines that can mindlessly generate words, but we haven’t learned how to stop imagining a mind behind them,” said Emily M. Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington. The terminology used with large language models, like “learning” or even “neural nets,” creates a false analogy to the human brain, she said. Humans learn their first languages by connecting with caregivers. These large language models “learn” by being shown lots of text and predicting what word comes next, or showing text with the words dropped out and filling them in.

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Perhaps Lemoine could spend some of his administrative leave having some therapy with Eliza. Hell of a scoop for Tiku.
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As the Great Salt Lake dries up, Utah faces an ‘environmental nuclear bomb’ • The New York Times

Christopher Flavelle:

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Last summer, the water level in the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest point on record, and it’s likely to fall further this year. The lake’s surface area, which covered about 3,300 square miles in the late 1980s, has since shrunk to less than 1,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The salt content in the part of the lake closest to Salt Lake City used to fluctuate between 9% and 12 percent, according to Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster College. But as the water in the lake drops, its salt content has increased. If it reaches 17% — something Dr. Baxter says will happen this summer — the algae in the water will struggle, threatening the brine shrimp that consume it.

While the ecosystem hasn’t collapsed yet, Dr. Baxter said, “we’re at the precipice. It’s terrifying.”

The long term risks are even worse. One morning in March, Kevin Perry, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, walked out onto land that used to be underwater. He picked at the earth, the color of dried mud, like a beach whose tide went out and never came back.

The soil contains arsenic, antimony, copper, zirconium and other dangerous heavy metals, much of it residue from mining activity in the region. Most of the exposed soil is still protected by a hard crust. But as wind erodes the crust over time, those contaminants become airborne.

Clouds of dust also make it difficult for people to breathe, particularly those with asthma or other respiratory ailments. Dr. Perry pointed to shards of crust that had come apart, lying on the sand like broken china.

“This is a disaster,” Dr. Perry said. “And the consequences for the ecosystem are absolutely, insanely bad.”

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The photos and video, by Bryan Tanowski, add another element to this story. But this is how climate breaks down: not everywhere all at once, but at particular weak points which radiate outwards. Read further into the story, though, and you discover there’s a denial of the need to price the increasingly scarce water correctly to Salt Lake City’s 1.2 million inhabitants.
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Depp v Heard Trial: how much money did three YouTubers make off coverage? • Business Insider

Tanya Chen and Geoff Weiss:

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For law YouTubers, or “lawtubers,” streaming and analyzing high profile cases is not only their craft, but it’s cultivated a flourishing community online.

One that literally pays them back for their entertainment and expertise.

According to YouTube trend analysis site Playboard, the top-earning creators over the last month from Super Chat revenue — or revenue generated from tips during livestreams — are Emily D. Baker, LegalBytes, and Rekieta Law. The three channels have all recently and exclusively been streaming the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation case.

A rep for Playboard told Insider they use bots to analyze real-time data and earnings from YouTube’s Super Chat feature. Its analytics show that all three lawtubers have seen tremendous growth to their accounts since livestreaming almost the entirety of the Depp-Heard trial.

Super Chat is a livestream feature offered to most creators who are able to monetize their channels. During a livestream, fans can pay anywhere from $1 to $500 to highlight and pin their comment to the creator. YouTube takes 30% of the total earnings during a stream, and the creator pockets 70% after Apple app store processing fees (30%) and local sales tax.

Here’s roughly how much each top lawtuber made from fan donations toward their Depp-Heard streams and legal commentary.

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For those three, it’s more than $100,000. Is this like a new form of journalism, though, or just a weird form of entertainment? Hardly anyone in the US is going to face a libel trial, so this is hardly transferable knowledge. Which means it’s a bizarre branch of the entertainment industry. I took zero interest in either of the Depp-Heard trials, so this is miles outside my comprehension. But there’s real money flowing through it.
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Smartphones blur the line between civilian and combatant • WIRED

Lukasz Olejnik:

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The conundrum, then, is how to classify a civilian who, with the use of their smartphone, potentially becomes an active participant in a military sensor system. (To be clear, solely having the app installed is not sufficient to lose the protected status. What matters is actual usage.) The Additional Protocol I to Geneva Conventions states that civilians enjoy protection from the “dangers arising from military operations unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.” Legally, if civilians engage in military activity, such as taking part in hostilities by using weapons, they forfeit their protected status, “for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities” that “affect[s] the military operations,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the traditional impartial custodian of International Humanitarian Law. This is the case even if the people in question are not formally members of the armed forces. By losing the status of a civilian, one may become a legitimate military objective, carrying the risk of being directly attacked by military forces.

The most obvious way to resolve this confusion might be to accept that a user-civilian temporarily loses their protected civilian status, at least while using such an app. In some cases, this may be a minutes-long “status-switch,” as fast as picking up the smartphone from one’s pocket, taking a photo, or typing a short message. It is not direct, sustained participation in the conflict but rather a sporadic one. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it is not established, and not all sides will necessarily agree on it. The situation becomes even more complex if someone uses the app regularly. How would “regularly” even be measured? And how exactly would the parties to the conflict distinguish citizens accordingly? The power of certain smartphone uses to turn a civilian into a form of a “combatant” one minute, and back into a civilian the next, introduces unprecedented complications to the long-held laws of war.

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Who would have guessed that even war could find its “rules” disrupted by smartphones. Wonder if Russia will try to justify its targeting of civilians through this – not that it has shown any interest in justifying what it has done.
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Does bitcoin use less energy than Christmas lights? Fact-checking a dubious claim • Medium

I didn’t completely stop writing last week; I got interested by a claim bitcoin enthusiasts keep making:

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I was intrigued by the “Christmas lights” claim, which is one of those ones which looks obviously suspect, in particular because it keeps popping up. Be suspicious of claims which don’t backlink, yet keep being made.

I queried this with the tweeter, who huffed a bit (apparently I was being a “combative pedant” — are there pliant pedants?) and then pointed to this article. QED! “Bitcoin Mining Uses Less Energy Than Christmas Lights”, from Mawson (apparently a “global leading-edge digital asset company” — in other words, bitcoin miners), dated December 13, 2021. Haha! Checkmate, pedants! Also, it was the first hit on Google, so there.

Except.. by the third paragraph, things are looking a bit less certain. Now it’s only “probably” that Christmas lights use more energy than bitcoin, which the first paragraph says consumes 91 terawatt-hours of electricity annually. And perhaps it’s just me, but isn’t 6.63 TWh less — quite a lot less — than 91TWh?

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But that’s only the beginning.
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No, a UK judge didn’t actually rule that NFTs are property • Amy Castor

Amy Castor, deflating a trial balloon:

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The official case title is: Lavinia Osbourne v. persons unknown and OpenSea. The hearing took place before High Court Judge Mark Pelling in London.

Osbourne, the founder of Women in Blockchain Talks in the UK, claims that she had two NFTs from the Boss Beauties collection stolen from her Metamask wallet. They were worth about $5,000 total.

Osbourne received the NFTs as a “gift” from a third-party on September 24, 2021. The NFTs were taken out of her wallet on January 17, and she discovered them missing on February 27. 

Although phishing scams are common in the NFT space, Osbourne doesn’t spell out exactly how she managed to get her NFTs stolen. Even the judge says they were taken “under circumstances that were a little unclear.”  The NFTs ended up in two accounts in OpenSea — the “persons unknown.” Osbourne wanted OpenSea to freeze the accounts, so she hired Muldoon to go before a judge and get an injunction and order OpenSea to release information on the account holders.

I don’t know what good this would do. OpenSea is an unregulated exchange. It isn’t required to KYC its customers, so there is no reason to believe anything of value would be gained from gathering the account information to begin with. It also doesn’t custody or control users’ NFTs.

In any case, the judge said it made sense to consider NFTs property. There is a clear distinction to be made here — Pelling did not say NFTs are property. In ruling that Osbourne could proceed against the alleged attackers, he simply said it makes sense to consider them as such.

…The bigger issue — what’s missing from the discussion — is that there is no law or ruling anywhere that links NFTs to their underlying assets. Owning an NFT doesn’t automatically convey copyright, usage rights, moral rights, or any other rights whatsoever. All of that has to be spelled out separately in a written contract. Nothing about this case in the UK changes any of that.

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The distinction between the token (an entry on a blockchain) and the asset (the JPEG) is important here. You can certainly claim ownership of the token. But what that means about the asset, nobody is yet clear. Subtle point.
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EU officially bans sale of ICE vehicles from 2035, but that’s still way too late • Electrek

Jennifer Mossalgue:

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The timetable is set to endorse a 55% reduction in CO2 from automobiles in 2030 compared with 2021 – this is an increase from the 37.5% CO2 reduction required of automakers initially set last year.

Attempts to dilute the measure by the conservative European People’s Party to allow the sale of hybrid cars were pushed back, but so was an attempt by the Green Party to push the measure up to 2030. The German auto association VDA also pushed for moving the 2035 target, which they argued penalized alternative low-carbon fuels and was just too early of a timeline to commit to considering the uncertainty of charging infrastructure.

However, the negotiations are not yet over, with a final phase of negotiations set to take place between the EU Parliament and Council to further define the positions of each of the 27 member states, in addition to factoring in special exemptions for small manufacturers.

Pollution-wise, this will obviously make a good dent. The EU is already the world’s third-largest polluter, and cars and trucks account for about a fifth of EU CO2 emissions, with passenger cars making up 61% of total CO2 emissions from EU roads. And of course, the proposal is only part of the EU’s broader climate policies to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels, and will require radical reductions from not only transport but industry and energy sectors.

However, the proposal only concerns new cars and not the second-hand market, meaning that a brand-new gas guzzler bought in 2034 will still be legal to drive in 2035 and onward. Still, given the life cycle of most cars is about 15 years or so, we can expect them to be off the roads completely by 2050. That feels awfully far away.

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Your move, Mr Biden. He’s offered a “goal” of 50% of new US vehicles being electric by 2030. But look, they’d stop complaining about fuel prices, right?
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Meta will stop making Portal for consumers • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes and Alex Heath:

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Meta plans to stop making consumer versions of its Portal video calling hardware and instead pivot the product line to focus on use cases for businesses, like conference calling.

The change in strategy, first reported by The Information and confirmed to The Verge by a source familiar with the matter, comes as Meta is reassessing its ambitious hardware plans against investor concerns about the billions of dollars it’s spending on projects that have yet to pay off financially. A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment.

The Portal line debuted in 2018 with two displays meant as dedicated video calling stations. They also supported apps for activities like listening to music on Spotify and streaming videos on the Food Network. But the displays had limited functionality, and their connection to Facebook — which was dealing with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal — didn’t offer a lot of assurance as to the safety of inviting a connected camera into your home.

New versions have been released in the time since, including the portable Portal Go, but the device never became a huge hit.

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Four years is not a long time in the life of hardware – only really time enough for a couple of serious revisions – and the abrupt abandonment strikes me as odd, really. The pivot to business only makes sense if you start to think that Meta is increasingly seeing its future as providing services to business through VR helmets to access the metaverse for business meetings, where some unfortunates don’t have the helmets and so have to experience it, poor things, through a video screen.
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Meta scrutinizing Sheryl Sandberg’s use of Facebook resources over several years • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman and Emily Glazer:

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The lawyers investigating Facebook operating chief Sheryl Sandberg’s use of corporate resources are examining behaviour going back several years, said people familiar with the matter, focusing on the extent to which staffers worked on her personal projects.

A number of employees have been interviewed as part of the investigation by Facebook parent Meta Platforms, the people said, adding that the review has been under way since at least last fall.

It includes an examination of the work Facebook employees did to support her foundation, Lean In, which advocates for women in the workplace, as well as the writing and promotion of her second book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” which focused on her grieving process following the sudden death of her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, in 2015, the people said.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that the investigation included a review of Ms. Sandberg’s use of corporate resources to help plan her coming wedding. That is a small piece of the investigation, according to the people familiar with the matter, who said it involves a broader review of Ms. Sandberg’s personal use of Facebook’s resources over many years.

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It would probably be quicker to count the number of corporate executives who haven’t used corporate resources for personal advancement, but fine: seems like Sandberg has fallen into the grasp that used to welcome downcast Soviet generals, who would suddenly find that all those things which were perfectly fine when they were on top were actually heinous crimes.
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Clubhouse app’s executives leave company • Protocol

Sarah Roach:

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Several Clubhouse executives have headed for the exit recently. In late April, Stephanie Simon left as the company’s head of Brand Evangelism and Development. Simon joined Clubhouse just a couple of months after launch in 2020. Then this week, three more leaders announced their resignations, including Nina Gregory, Aarthi Ramamurthy and Anu Atluru; the trio led News, International and Community, respectively.

“Clubhouse wouldn’t be where it is today without them,” a spokesperson told Protocol of the departed executives. “We’re immensely grateful for everything they have done and we know that they’ll do great things in the future.”

Ramamurthy’s departure is particularly notable. She’s married to Sriram Krishnan, a partner for a16z, a major Clubhouse investor. The pair used to host the “The Good Time Show” on Clubhouse, but they’ve recently turned to broadcasting it live on YouTube instead. Ramamurthy and other departed leaders did not return requests for comment.

Atluru’s exodus is also eyebrow-raising, as she was one of Clubhouse’s earliest employees. She was an investor in the app’s series A round, and more recently provided seed funding to the buzzy social media platform BeReal. Gregory came to Clubhouse from NPR, where she was a senior editor on its arts desk.

The social audio platform has been struggling for some time, and the departures are another sign that Clubhouse is in trouble — but they’re hardly the only one. The platform is also struggling to hold an audience. Between Jan. 1 and May 31, Clubhouse saw 3.8 million installs globally compared to 19 million installs during the same period last year, according to SensorTower data. That’s an 80% drop year-over-year.

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Would love to know the usage data. And the a16z partner and wife giving up and going to YouTube is the ultimate tell: they’re abandoning ship. One gets the feeling Clubhouse is going to be the answer to a pub quiz question in a year or two.
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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?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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