Start Up No.1856: Google’s CSA missteps, AI-generated music video, UK faces winter blackouts, Twitter’s lost city?, and more

Suddenly, solar panel payback times are plummeting – but supply chains can’t keep up with the new excess demand. CC-licensed photo by Ken Bosma on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Autopresent and autocorrect? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A dad took photos of his naked toddler for the doctor. Google flagged him as a criminal • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:


Mark noticed something amiss with his toddler. His son’s penis looked swollen and was hurting him. Mark, a stay-at-home dad in San Francisco, grabbed his Android smartphone and took photos to document the problem so he could track its progression.

It was a Friday night in February 2021. His wife called an advice nurse at their health care provider to schedule an emergency consultation for the next morning, by video because it was a Saturday and there was a pandemic going on. The nurse said to send photos so the doctor could review them in advance.

Mark’s wife grabbed her husband’s phone and texted a few high-quality close-ups of their son’s groin area to her iPhone so she could upload them to the health care provider’s messaging system. In one, Mark’s hand was visible, helping to better display the swelling. Mark and his wife gave no thought to the tech giants that made this quick capture and exchange of digital data possible, or what those giants might think of the images.

With help from the photos, the doctor diagnosed the issue and prescribed antibiotics, which quickly cleared it up. But the episode left Mark with a much larger problem, one that would cost him more than a decade of contacts, emails and photos, and make him the target of a police investigation. Mark, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of potential reputational harm, had been caught in an algorithmic net designed to snare people exchanging child sexual abuse material.

Because technology companies routinely capture so much data, they have been pressured to act as sentinels, examining what passes through their servers to detect and prevent criminal behavior. Child advocates say the companies’ cooperation is essential to combat the rampant online spread of sexual abuse imagery. But it can entail peering into private archives, such as digital photo albums — an intrusion users may not expect — that has cast innocent behaviour in a sinister light in at least two cases The Times has unearthed.


As Hill reports, this led to Mark – and in a separate case, another person who did similar – getting their accounts banned and being reported to the police. That’s the downside of false positives, and they’re very substantial. And very likely to stymie Apple’s plans for on-device scanning permanently, suggests G, who provided the link. (Ta.) It also reveals a sort of mission creep: Google is guessing at what is abuse content, and not being careful enough in its review.
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Phoenix – Alpha Zulu (Official Video) • YouTube

Funky tune. But, more than that, the (very enjoyable) video is generated by AI. See? The content tsunami is coming our way. Now all you need is a GAN that produces different versions and pushes them at people in an A/B test and refines it more and more. AI can produce the music too. (Thanks Victor Z for the link.)
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AI power consumption is exploding • Semi Engineering

Brian Bailey:


Why is energy consumption going up so fast? “The compute demand of neural networks is insatiable,” says Ian Bratt, fellow and senior director of technology at Arm. “The larger the network, the better the results, and the more problems you can solve. Energy usage is proportional to the size of the network. Therefore, energy efficient inference is absolutely essential to enable the adoption of more and more sophisticated neural networks and enhanced use-cases, such as real-time voice and vision applications.”

Unfortunately, not everyone cares about efficiency. “When you look at what the hyperscaler companies are trying to do, they’re trying to get better and more accurate voice recognition, speech recognition, recommendation engines,” says Tim Vehling, senior vice president for product and business development at Mythic. “It’s a monetary thing. The higher accuracy they can get, the more clients they can service, and they can generate more profitability. You look at data center training and inference of these very large NLP models, that is where a lot of power is consumed. And I don’t know if there’s any real motivation to optimize power in those applications.”

But some people do care. “There is some commercial pressure to reduce the carbon impact of these companies, not direct monetary, but more that the consumer will only accept a carbon-neutral solution,” says Alexander Wakefield, scientist at Synopsys. “This is the pressure from the green energy side, and if one of these vendors were to say they are carbon neutral, more people will be likely to use them.”

But not all energy is being consumed in the cloud. There are a growing number of smart edge devices that are contributing to the problem, as well.


This is based on a single slide from a talk by AMD’s chief technology officer talking about ML systems’ power consumption compared to world energy production. It seems a bit overdone, to be honest.
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Faltering French connection leaves UK fearing winter blackouts • POLITICO

Graham Lanktree:


The UK government has already drawn up a “reasonable worst-case scenario,” for organized blackouts in the months ahead, Bloomberg reported recently. Over four days in January, the scenario envisages the UK’s capacity to supply energy could slump to just a sixth of peak demand, as cold weather combines with gas shortages to make organized blackouts a necessity.

Yet even this doomsday Whitehall planning downplays the increasing risk of uncontrolled blackouts if energy imports are cut off, a figure from one major, energy-intensive British manufacturing industry warned. “We do think that there’s a much higher risk than the government perhaps is recognising in public,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Uncontrolled blackouts would be far more damaging to heavy industry than the organized shutdowns envisaged in the government’s worst-case scenario planning, due to “the risk to life and assets and damage,” the person added, if industrial equipment is shut off unexpectedly. Even a slightly increased risk of this happening is “intolerable,” they said.

The industrialist warned that the UK’s National Grid power network assumes in its winter outlook that “even on the coldest day, or the day with the highest demand,” Britain can always rely on “an influx of electricity via interconnectors on the continent.”

Yet these interconnectors link the UK to France — which, like much of Europe, is currently suffering its own large-scale energy crisis — along with the Netherlands and Belgium.

“We think that is a very brave assumption to make at the moment,” the person said, citing the disastrous outages in France’s nuclear fleet and the “potential risks that Russia could significantly reduce gas supply over the winter period to mainland Europe.”

A spokesperson for the National Grid defended its forecast as an “early view” to “help the industry prepare for this winter.”


What everyone is quietly hoping for now is a warm winter.
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Chipmakers caught in crossfire of rising US-China geopolitical tensions • Financial Times

Christian Davies and Song Jung-a:


Samsung and SK Hynix have boosted investments in US production facilities even as they remain heavily exposed to the Chinese market. South Korea exported $50bn of chips to China last year, up 26% from 2020 and accounting for nearly 40% of the country’s total chip exports, according to the Korea International Trade Association.

But they share a near-total dependence on a small number of US, Japanese and European chip designers and equipment makers for the technology required to produce advanced chips, giving Washington leverage over what [author of “Chip War: The Fight For The World’s Most Critical Technology” Chris] Miller described as the “main choke points in the semiconductor production process”.

Those companies include US chip design software providers Cadence, Synopsys and Mentor Graphics, now Siemens EDA, American equipment makers Applied Materials and Lam Research and ASML in the Netherlands, which makes the extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) tools needed to produce cutting-edge Dram memory chips.

“China has the market, but the US has the technology,” said Yeo Han-koo, who served as South Korea’s trade minister until May. “Without technology, you have no product. Without a market, at least you can find a way to diversify and identify alternatives.”

Neither Samsung nor SK Hynix, which both specialise in Dram and Nand memory chip production, manufacture their most advanced semiconductors in China.

China’s largest chipmaker Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp announced last month that it had started shipping advanced 7-nanometre semiconductors. However, analysts said that without access to the world’s most sophisticated equipment, SMIC would struggle to close the gap with Samsung and TSMC, which are major global suppliers of 5nm and 4nm chips.

A person close to TSMC, which dominates the global market for foundry chips, said the US bill was unlikely to have a dramatic effect as the Taiwanese government already had restrictions on producing advanced chips in mainland China.


As the author of Digital Wars and Cyber Wars, I feel like I missed a trick in letting Miller grab that title.
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Learn all about any London postcode’s affluence, crime, demographics and more • CrystalRoof

Victoria Varzinova and Vlad Suharukov:


In 2016, Victoria and Vlad made the huge decision to relocate to London.

As you know, London is a pretty big place and finding the right spot proved challenging…

They went on their search with an open mind, but like most of us, they didn’t know much about how the real estate industry worked and how it was so focused on Landlords and Investors.

They were new to the city and didn’t have any special local knowledge about the many residential areas of Greater London. They did not understand the different properties and the many potential ‘warning signs’ you need to be aware of when viewing!

Despite their open minds and willingness to find a place to call home, they ended up being unhappy and unsuccessful in their search. They had to move on four separate occasions until they eventually found somewhere right for them.

Every time they thought they found the right property for them, an issue made the residence unlivable.

Whether it was: poor insulation in an old Victorian property, inconsiderate neighbours, noise pollution from aircraft despite the property being far from Heathrow airport… something wasn’t right.

If they’d had access to the information they needed, they would have been able to save nearly 30 hours of wasted time viewing unsuitable properties.


So they’ve set up a company that lets you stick in a postcode and it’ll tell you all the relevant information. Not quite down to individual properties, but impressive in its use of open data.
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Solar panels: how to fix your energy bills while the sun shines • The Guardian

Patrick Collinson:


British households are racing to install roof-top solar electricity panels amid huge energy price rises, with installers saying demand has “exploded”.

Simon Dudson, the chief executive of the Little Green Energy Company, which serves London and south-east England, says: “It’s absolutely crazy times. It’s unprecedented. We have had a 400-500% increase in business.”

The soaring price of electricity means a domestic solar panel system can now pay for itself in as little as seven years, and the way things are going, that could go down to five years. About a year ago, installers were saying the “payback” period was 15 years or more. Then there are the environmental benefits of solar panels.

But don’t expect to have a system installed by your first-choice company this side of winter. The increase in demand, plus supply problems – about 90% of panels are made in China – mean some installers are warning customers of delays stretching out 10 months or more.

Sussex Solar, like many installers across the UK, this week had a blunt message on its website. “We are very sorry but due to an unprecedented level of interest in solar panels and heat pumps, we are unable to accept any new inquiries for the time being. We will reopen our contact page towards the end of August …”

Sussex Solar’s director, Amanda Baxter, adds: “It’s absolutely mad at the moment.”


Not just demand; the supply chain is all over the place. Used to be labour. The penny has dropped for a huge number of people, all at the same time.
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Twitter is becoming a lost city • Buttondown

Annaleee Newitz:


there are a few growing communities on Twitter, like the Zack Snyder fans who lobbied for the “Snyder cut” of the Justice League movie and descended in howling troll maelstroms on anyone who dared question them. Unfortunately, a WarnerMedia investigation has just revealed that Snyder paid at least two consulting firms to create a bot army of shitposters for him. So I would take any report on the growth of certain segments on Twitter with a major grain of salt. At this point, the platform seems as if it’s optimized for paid trolls and automated “movements.”

And it’s not as if there is some new, different community arriving to pick up the pieces. I know because I’ve witnessed that happen, too. I was once, long ago, very into Orkut. It was a pre-Facebook social network created by product manager Orkut Büyükkökten at Google, with all the typical first-gen social media shit: you got a cute little personal page, where you posted pics, updates, quotes, links to your friends and websites. At first, its users were mostly English-speaking. But then more and more Portuguese-language memes flooded in. Every tenth new friend request came from someone in São Paulo. It was not the same Orkut, but the social network was bigger than ever, and arguably more fun. It just wasn’t a useful social platform for people who didn’t live in Brazil or read Portuguese.

This is not what’s happening on Twitter. I’m not seeing a flood of new people arriving, spouting memes I don’t understand. I’m just seeing less of everything. The point is, Twitter isn’t becoming a vibrant but different social space that belongs to a new group of people; it’s being abandoned. 


That Twitter isn’t attracting new users is a truism. But it also seems to have reached a steady state: not shrinking either. It’s still the place where people put news to get it noticed. Abandonment is a difficult thing to perceive, even more difficult to prove.
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Sony’s racing car AI just destroyed its human competitors—by being nice (and fast) • MIT Technology Review

Will Douglas Heaven:


Sony soon learned that speed alone wasn’t enough to make [its AI racing program] GT Sophy a winner. The program outpaced all human drivers on an empty track, setting superhuman lap times on three different virtual courses. Yet when Sony tested GT Sophy in a race against multiple human drivers, where intelligence as well as speed is needed, GT Sophy lost. The program was at times too aggressive, racking up penalties for reckless driving, and at other times too timid, giving way when it didn’t need to.

Sony regrouped, retrained its AI, and set up a rematch in October. This time GT Sophy won with ease. What made the difference? It’s true that Sony came back with a larger neural network, giving its program more capabilities to draw from on the fly. But ultimately, the difference came down to giving GT Sophy something that Peter Wurman, head of Sony AI America, calls “etiquette”: the ability to balance its aggression and timidity, picking the most appropriate behavior for the situation at hand.

This is also what makes GT Sophy relevant beyond Gran Turismo. Etiquette between drivers on a track is a specific example of the kind of dynamic, context-aware behavior that robots will be expected to have when they interact with people, says Wurman.

An awareness of when to take risks and when to play it safe would be useful for AI that is better at interacting with people, whether it be on the manufacturing floor, in home robots, or in driverless cars. 

“I don’t think we’ve learned general principles yet about how to deal with human norms that you have to respect,” says Wurman. “But it’s a start and hopefully gives us some insight into this problem in general.”


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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

1 thought on “Start Up No.1856: Google’s CSA missteps, AI-generated music video, UK faces winter blackouts, Twitter’s lost city?, and more

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