Start Up No.1873: Google cuts more projects, Patreon cuts staff, Apple’s silicon struggle, why seek dirt on Mudge?, and more

China AI blocks political content prompts
The new Chinese AI illustrator blocks prompts for “political” content such as “Tiananmen Square”. (Illustration* by Diffusion Bee.)

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A selection of 9 links for you. Sufficient unto the day. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


No Tiananmen Square in ERNIE-ViLG, the new Chinese image-making AI • MIT Technology Review

Zeyi Yang:

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There’s a new text-to-image AI in town. With ERNIE-ViLG, a new AI developed by the Chinese tech company Baidu, you can generate images that capture the cultural specificity of China. It also makes better anime art than DALL-E 2 or other Western image-making AIs.

But there are many things—like Tiananmen Square, the country’s second-largest city square and a symbolic political center—that the AI refuses to show you.  

When a demo of the software was released in late August, users quickly found that certain words—both explicit mentions of political leaders’ names and words that are potentially controversial only in political contexts—were labeled as “sensitive” and blocked from generating any result. China’s sophisticated system of online censorship, it seems, has extended to the latest trend in AI.

It’s not rare for similar AIs to limit users from generating certain types of content. DALL-E 2 prohibits sexual content, faces of public figures, or medical treatment images. But the case of ERNIE-ViLG underlines the question of where exactly the line between moderation and political censorship lies.

The ERNIE-ViLG model is part of Wenxin, a large-scale project in natural-language processing from China’s leading AI company, Baidu. It was trained on a data set of 145 million image-text pairs and contains 10 billion parameters—the values that a neural network adjusts as it learns, which the AI uses to discern the subtle differences between concepts and art styles.

That means ERNIE-ViLG has a smaller training data set than DALL-E 2 (650 million pairs) and Stable Diffusion (2.3 billion pairs) but more parameters than either one (DALL-E 2 has 3.5 billion parameters and Stable Diffusion has 890 million). Baidu released a demo version on its own platform in late August and then later on Hugging Face, the popular international AI community. 

The main difference between ERNIE-ViLG and Western models is that the Baidu-developed one understands prompts written in Chinese and is less likely to make mistakes when it comes to culturally specific words.

…When the ERNIE-ViLG demo was first released on Hugging Face, users inputting certain words would receive the message “Sensitive words found. Please enter again (存在敏感词,请重新输入),” which was a surprisingly honest admission about the filtering mechanism. However, since at least September 12, the message has read “The content entered doesn’t meet relevant rules. Please try again after adjusting it. (输入内容不符合相关规则,请调整后再试!)” .

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The technology changes, but the CCP remains intractably the same.
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Google cancels half the projects at its internal R&D group Area 120 • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai, speaking at the Code Conference last week, suggested the tech company needed to become 20% more efficient — a comment some in the industry took to mean headcount reductions could soon be on the table. Now, it seems that prediction may be coming true. TechCrunch has learned, and Google confirmed, the company is slashing projects at its in-house R&D division known as Area 120.

The company on Tuesday informed staff of a “reduction in force” that will see the incubator halved in size, as half the teams working on new product innovations heard their projects were being canceled. Previously, there were 14 projects housed in Area 120, and this has been cut down to just seven. Employees whose projects will not continue were told they’ll need to find a new job within Google by the end of January 2023, or they’ll be terminated. It’s not clear that everyone will be able to do so.

According to Area 120 lead Elias Roman, the division aims to sharpen its focus to only AI-first projects, as opposed to its earlier mandate to fuel product incubation across all of Google.

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A more focussed Google has to be a good thing. Tough on the people who have been part of its untrammeled recent growth, of course.
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Patreon is laying off 17% of its workforce and closing offices • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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Patreon is laying off 80 people, around 17% of its workforce, and closing offices in Dublin and Berlin. A post from CEO and co-founder Jack Conte says that the cuts are happening because the company is changing its plans after trying to rapidly grow during the pandemic. It’s reducing the size of its teams in charge of “operations, recruiting, and other internal support functions” as well as its budget for sales and marketing.

The layoffs are hitting Patreon’s go-to-market, operations, finance, and people teams. Workers in the US will receive three months’ severance pay as well as two extra weeks per half year of tenure they have beyond their first year at the company. European workers get a similar deal, with three months of healthcare coverage, whereas Americans will get COBRA through the end of 2022. Conte says he’ll be hosting “multiple Q&A sessions” to address the decision.

Part of a larger trend of companies laying off employees they hired during the pandemic
In addition to the layoffs, Patreon is closing two of its European offices and giving nine engineers in Ireland the option to relocate to the US.

Tuesday’s changes come after Patreon laid off its five-person security team last week. At the time, the company’s US policy head Ellen Satterwhite told The Verge the change would “have no impact on our ability to continue providing a secure and safe platform for our creators and patrons.”

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Another Peloton/Zoom? When everyone was sitting at home they signed up for Patreon stuff, and now they’re cancelling? Either that, or Patreon has done everything it needs to do and all its systems are tickety-boo.
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The iPhone 14 and Apple Watch Series 8 expose Apple’s surprising silicon struggles • Macworld

Jason Snell:

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How do you market new products that aren’t so new?

Last year, Apple started focusing its iPhone speed claims by comparing their phones to “the competition” rather than the previous year’s iPhone models. From a marketing standpoint, this was a brilliant move. Why compete with yourself when you don’t have to? Apple’s processors are years ahead of the competition, so disqualifying older iPhone processors gives Apple much larger numbers to crow about.

This year’s iPhone 14 announcement was extra tricky because there was no “last year’s model” to compare it to. The iPhone 14 uses the same A15 processor Apple used in the iPhone 13–albeit the variant from the iPhone 13 Pro that had an extra GPU core enabled. A casual observer would assume that the announcement was normal, but it was anything but–instead, Apple had to do a lot of sleight of hand in order to make it seem like the iPhone 14 revision was business as usual.

Now, next year things will resume their normal pattern. The iPhone 15 will presumably get this year’s A16 processor, and the iPhone 15 Pro will get next year’s A17. This year, Apple’s going to have to take its lumps–but it’s not going to welcome comparisons to last year’s iPhone if it can avoid it.

The pace of advancement on the Apple Watch has also slowed. Though its system-in-package got updated to the S8, including some fancy new sensors, the CPU at the core of the latest watch models hasn’t changed in three generations. So rather than claim speed boosts, Apple focuses on other areas.

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Snell’s suggestion is that Apple has been held up by TSMC not being able to come up with its 3nm process. I suspect it’s more that it’s trying to do chip development on multiple fronts: Watch, iPhone, Mac, AirPods all demand slightly different chips. Not to mention the unannounced products, such as the augmented reality headset. So the chip team must be stretched to breaking point.
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The search for dirt on the Twitter whistleblower • The New Yorker

Ronan Farrow:

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As the inquiries proliferated, the group of ex-Stripe employees began to believe, Wasserman told me, “that multiple different sources, multiple different people, multiple different companies, were all basically trying to dig up dirt on [former Twitter head of computer security] Mudge, all seemingly at the same time.” The firms, Provos surmised, were “trying to get information that could further discredit Mudge,” an effort that “seemed incredibly shady.” Jonathan Kaltwasser, Stripe’s former chief information security officer and a member of the Slack group, quickly alerted Zatko.

“My family and I are disturbed by what appears to be a campaign to approach our friends and former colleagues under apparently false pretenses with offers of money in exchange for information about us,” Zatko told me. “These tactics should be beneath whoever is behind them.”

On Tuesday, Zatko is expected to did testify before Congress and may reveal new details about what he has said are glaring data-security lapses by Twitter. [He didn’t, to be honest.]

He is also expected to play a key role in a trial set to begin next month in a Delaware courtroom, during which Musk will seek to be released from his agreement to acquire Twitter. Musk’s attorneys have subpoenaed Zatko, and a judge ruled last week that Musk could amend his countersuit to include Zatko’s allegations. A Twitter spokesperson, Rebecca Hahn, told me, “We look forward to presenting our case in Court beginning on October 17th and intend to close the transaction on the price and terms agreed upon with Mr. Musk.”

Sources close to three of the firms—Farallon, Mosaic, and G.L.G.—suggested that they were simply trying to obtain information about Zatko to guide stock trades involving Twitter and maximize profits.

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It really seems like there’s some smart money trying to figure out what’s going to happen to Twitter’s stock. There was an abrupt selloff on the morning of the 13th – quickly balanced by an equally big rise after Mudge had testified. That passed, and now it’s back where it was a day ago. All that effort, for nothing.
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US PC shipments fell 23% in Q2 2022 amid waning consumer demand • Canalys

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US shipments of desktops, notebooks and workstations fell by 23% year on year in Q2 2022 to 19.8m units. Notebook shipments declined 27% following the unprecedented success of the Chromebook market a year ago and the further weakening of consumer demand.

Desktops continued to perform well, growing 10% as the category has returned to shipment levels comparable to before the pandemic. Meanwhile, tablet shipments faced a relatively modest decline of 4%, reaching 10.9m shipments. The overall market avoided a larger decline thanks to a resilient commercial sector, which maintained demand despite the looming threat of recession and high inflation figures, growing 11% in Q2. 

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After briefly discovering a new growth spurt, the market has settled back in its long-saturated state. Chromebooks in particular haven’t continued their growth, instead falling back (though there must now be a bigger installed base of them to be replaced over time).

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Asda limits sales of Just Essentials budget range • BBC News

Daniel Thomas:

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Asda has temporarily limited purchases of its new budget range Just Essentials, blaming soaring demand.

The supermarket said customers would be limited to buying three items at most of each product until further notice. It launched Just Essentials in May, promising an expanded line of low-cost products to help shoppers with the cost of living. That came after food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe criticised Asda for cutting back its budget ranges in some stores.

But on Wednesday, the supermarket said demand was outstripping availability, with sales growing almost 20% faster than the market average. “Just Essentials is proving very popular with customers and we are working hard to improve availability across the range,” a spokesman said. “To ensure as many customers as possible can buy these products, we are temporarily limiting purchases to a maximum of three of each product for a short period of time. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.”

It comes as the price of food soars, with consumers paying a record £571 more on average for their groceries than last year, according to data from research firm Kantar.

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Does this count as rationing? It certainly feels a bit like it, though it’s because of demand rather than supply.
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Patagonia founder gives away the company to fight climate change • The New York Times

David Gelles:

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A half century after founding the outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, the eccentric rock climber who became a reluctant billionaire with his unconventional spin on capitalism, has given the company away.

Rather than selling the company or taking it public, Mr. Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3bn, to a specially designed set of trusts and nonprofit organizations. They were created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits — some $100m a year — are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.

The unusual move comes at a moment of growing scrutiny for billionaires and corporations, whose rhetoric about making the world a better place is often overshadowed by their contributions to the very problems they claim to want to solve.

At the same time, Mr. Chouinard’s relinquishment of the family fortune is in keeping with his longstanding disregard for business norms, and his lifelong love for the environment.
“Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” Mr. Chouinard, 83, said in an exclusive interview. “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet.”

Patagonia will continue to operate as a private, for-profit corporation based in Ventura, Calif., selling more than $1bn worth of jackets, hats and ski pants each year. But the Chouinards, who controlled Patagonia until last month, no longer own the company.

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Amazing. The main intent seems to be on “nature-based climate solutions”, not technology. Though it was climbing technology that really got him started: first, steel pitons, then (because they damaged the cracks in the rock) aluminium chocks that could be placed and removed, thus not harming the rock. Environmentalism at the small scale and the big scale.
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Microsoft was right all along • The Verge

Monica Chin:

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If you’ve been following the laptop space over the past two or so years, you’ve probably noticed that the detachable laptop is on the rise. Several high-profile models that were previously traditional 2-in-1s (that is, an old-school-looking laptop that can also bend backward) have slowly but surely been converted to detachable keyboard form factors.

This is in no way a new idea — the Surface Pro has been a thing for years on end. But as more and more companies add the form factor to their premium lines, it seems like the space in general is warming up to the idea that Microsoft was right all along.

…I’ve asked a couple companies about this decision over the past year, and the answers have all been variations of what you might expect: customers just aren’t really interested in traditional 2-in-1s. And as someone who’s used a ton of them, it’s not hard to see why.

There are traits inherent to the laptop form factor — especially with the direction it’s going these days — that run contrary to what you’d want from a good tablet. One example: weight. In general, laptops that are over three pounds or so are just too heavy to comfortably hold and carry around as a tablet. (I suspect this is part of the reason that 15-inch convertibles, which some companies were pushing in the late 2010s, have largely petered out.) There’s also the fact that holding a convertible as a tablet often means holding the keyboard (which feels a bit weird) or pressing the keyboard into the ground (which can lead to scratches and dirty it in general).

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Have to say, the bend-it-backward design always struck me as a bit bonkers, even when it was brand new in 2001.
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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: * the prompt used was “China’s most advanced AI image generator already blocks political content”. 30 steps, guidance 7.5.

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