Start Up No.1889: Google shows off AI HD video generator, Royal Mail goes for barcodes, streaming services churn rises, and more

The boss of Peloton is cutting hundreds more jobs and warns the company has six more months before it’s in serious trouble. CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

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It’s Friday, so there’s another post due at the Social Warming Substack at about 0845 UK time.

A selection of 9 links for you. Beyond Move target. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s newest AI generator creates HD video from text prompts • Ars Technica

Benj Edwards:


Google announced the development of Imagen Video, a text-to-video AI mode capable of producing 1280×768 videos at 24 frames per second from a written prompt. Currently, it’s in a research phase, but its appearance five months after Google Imagen points to the rapid development of video synthesis models.

Only six months after the launch of OpenAI’s DALLE-2 text-to-image generator, progress in the field of AI diffusion models has been heating up rapidly. Google’s Imagen Video announcement comes less than a week after Meta unveiled its text-to-video AI tool, Make-A-Video.

According to Google’s research paper, Imagen Video includes several notable stylistic abilities, such as generating videos based on the work of famous painters (the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, for example), generating 3D rotating objects while preserving object structure, and rendering text in a variety of animation styles. Google is hopeful that general-purpose video synthesis models can “significantly decrease the difficulty of high-quality content generation.”

The key to Imagen Video’s abilities is a “cascade” of seven diffusion models that transform the initial text prompt (such as “a bear washing the dishes”) into a low-resolution video (16 frames, 24×48 pixels, at 3 fps), then upscales it into progressively higher resolutions with higher frame rates with each step. The final output video is 5.3 seconds long.

Video examples presented on the Imagen Video website range from the mundane (“Melting ice cream dripping down the cone”) to the more fantastic (“Flying through an intense battle between pirate ships on a stormy ocean.”) They contain obvious artefacts, but show more fluidity and detail than earlier text-to-image models such as CogVideo that debuted five months ago.


The videos are remarkable; the artefacts are indeed visible, but when run small you don’t notice them particularly. This space is advancing so, so quickly.
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Know where your old stamps are? Use them soon or they won’t be valid • Royal Mail Group Ltd


We’re adding barcodes to our regular stamps. After 31 January 2023, regular stamps without a barcode* will no longer be valid. You can either use up these stamps before this deadline or swap them for the new barcoded ones.

The stamps that are changing are the stamps (pictured below) that will be very familiar to you. They feature the profile of Her Late Majesty The Queen on a plain coloured background. The barcodes will enable exciting new services by connecting physical stamps to the digital world through the Royal Mail app which you can download.

Note: Special Stamps with pictures on and Christmas Stamps without a barcode will continue to be valid and don’t need to be swapped out.


Interesting move which will enable “operational efficiencies” and “security features” and “innovative services”.
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Almost two-thirds of video streaming service subscribers cancelled a service in the past year • Newswire


Video streaming service providers have been feeling the effects of “streaming fatigue,” with nearly two out of three people cancelling services because of price and nonuse.

The industry study published by Blue Label Labs surveyed 1005 people in North America between the ages of 15 and 67, revealing which services households subscribe to and what has been cancelled in the last year. It further examines the total amount each household spends on services and their sentiments as well as attitudes toward ads.

The survey conducted over the web between May 2022 and August 2022 also analyzes other dynamics between subscribers and providers.

• The most canceled streaming service reported in the last year is Amazon Prime at 9.46%, followed by Netflix at 8.55% and Disney+ at 8.33%
• Most subscribers (37.42%) report canceling because a service goes unused, and the next most popular reason to cancel (25.88%) is because a service is too expensive
• Regarding ads, 51.98% will deal with ads to enjoy a lower price point, 18.81% will pay to remove ads, and 19.40% report deleting apps with ads
• Rather than use a paid streaming service, 22.42% of respondents report spending more time with YouTube’s free version, 17.49% spend more time on Instagram, and 14.16% use TikTok more frequently.


“Subscription fatigue” might be a better word for it. And speaking of subscriptions…
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Peloton to cut 500 more jobs in last bid for turnaround • WSJ

Sharon Terlep:


Peloton Interactive said it plans to cut about 500 jobs, roughly 12% of its remaining workforce, in the company’s fourth round of layoffs this year as the connected fitness-equipment maker tries to reverse mounting losses.

Chief executive Barry McCarthy, who took over in February, said he is giving the unprofitable company about another six months to significantly turn itself around and, if that fails, Peloton likely isn’t viable as a standalone company. 

The job reductions, announced to staff on Thursday, will leave Peloton with roughly 3,800 employees globally, less than half the number of people the company employed at its peak last year. It also has eliminated about 600 more jobs since June than previously disclosed through retail store closings, attrition and other moves, Peloton said.

Mr. McCarthy said that the latest cuts mark Peloton’s final significant move to reduce its operating footprint and that executives would now focus on increasing revenue. He said the cuts are companywide but would be heaviest in its marketing operation, which he said is too big for a company of Peloton’s size.

“There comes a point in time when we’ve either been successful or we have not,” Mr. McCarthy said in an interview.

“If we don’t grow,” he said, before pausing. “We need to grow to get the business to a sustainable level.”

The company has reported six straight quarterly losses, culminating in a $1.2bn loss in the most recent quarter. Demand for Peloton’s bikes and treadmills has plunged and the number of people who subscribe to its fitness classes has stagnated as Americans return to pre-Covid routines and, more recently, confront decades-high inflation.


If the best time to launch a company is during a recession (because you can only succeed in the teeth of tough economic times), perhaps the worst time to launch – or rapidly grow – a company is during the best possible economic and social conditions for its business model, because they’ll eventually end.

Next question: who’ll want to buy it? (No, Apple won’t.) Amazon? Google? Under Armour? Nike? Answers on a postcard/email/Twitter DM.
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Gas crisis set to worsen after Europe burns through winter stocks • Reuters

Essi Lehto and Kate Abnett:


Europe may face an even more acute energy crunch next year after draining its natural gas tanks to get through the cold of this winter, the head of the International Energy Agency said on Wednesday, as the EU looks for ways to ease the crisis.

European countries have filled storage tanks to around 90% of their capacity after Russia cut gas supplies in response to Western sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine.

Gas prices, which surged in the months after the invasion in February, have retreated. But that could be short-lived as countries compete to buy liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other alternatives to Russian pipeline deliveries.

To help tackle the pain, the European Union is considering a gas price cap, an issue that has divided the 27-nation bloc as some countries worry it could make securing supplies harder.

“With gas storages almost at 90%, Europe will survive the coming winter with just some bruises as long as there are no political or technical surprises,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the Paris-based IEA.

The real challenges facing Europe, which had historically relied on Russia for around 40% of its natural gas, will begin in February or March when storage needs to be refilled after high winter demand has drained them to 25%-30%.

“This winter is difficult but next winter may also be very difficult,” Birol told journalists in Finland.

European governments have moved to cushion consumers from the impact of higher prices and on Wednesday, Germany said it will subsidise power bills next year by paying just under €13bn ($12.8bn) towards the usage fees charged by the four high-voltage transmission grid companies (TSOs).

The fees form part of electricity bills, accounting for around 10% of overall costs for retail customers and a third for industrial companies in sectors such as steel or chemicals.


The workings of the electricity market are many and varied, but it feels like there are lots of people skimming people off all the way down the line.

Also: pray for mild winter, I guess.
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Heat pumps: The super-efficient appliance that could save you thousands on home energy costs • CNN

Ella Nilsen:


When Maine Gov. Janet Mills took office, she pledged to install 100,000 heat pumps by 2025 to help wean her state off fossil fuel and meet her climate targets.

“We are definitely on track to hit that goal, or even hit it early,” Dan Burgess, the director of the Maine governor’s Energy Office, told CNN. “As the technology has gotten better, people have gotten used to having them or maybe know someone who has one. They’ve really taken off.”

Heat pumps have a leg up on traditional air conditioners and furnaces because they aren’t using energy to heat or cool air – a very inefficient process. Instead, they use energy to move heat in or out of the house.

In warm weather, heat pumps act as air conditioners by taking heat from indoors and pushing it outside. During a recent heat wave over 90ºF, the Hardys said they were cool in their home.

“I can’t tell you how comfortable we are,” Cathy said. “It’s not freezing like a window AC [that’s] harder to control the temperature. We don’t touch the thermostat.”

In cold weather, heat pumps consolidate heat from outside and push it indoors. And yes – there is still enough heat energy outside in the winter for the heat pump to warm your home, even when temperatures are very cold.

Heat pumps of the past always performed best in warm and moderate climates – ones that don’t get too cold. But the technology has advanced, making them more capable of heating homes in uber-cold temperatures.

“The American consumer’s perception is ‘heat pumps don’t work in cold climates, why would I want one?’” said Mark Kuntz, a CEO for Mitsubishi who oversees the companies US heat pump and HVAC operations. “The excitement in this is around a special type of heat pump that can produce an efficient heat – even in sub-zero temperatures.”


According to this Statista page (and who knows what its sources are), the UK has just shy of 240,000 heat pumps – ground source and air source – operating in 2019. Not bad.
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Google is trying to become a more visual, more exploratory search engine • The Verge

David Pierce:


Google is trying to blow up how you think about search. To say it’s pivoting to compete in a world where TikTok and Instagram are changing the way the internet works would be an overstatement… but not a big one. Google now exists on a more visual, more interactive internet, in which users want to be surprised and delighted as often as they just want an answer to their questions. In that world, what is a search engine even for? The Google you see tomorrow might not be completely different, but the change is already starting.

At its annual Search On event today, Google showed off a bunch of new ways for people to search the internet. Most of them continue the trend of Google’s last few years: trying to find more natural and more visual ways for people to input searches and get results. You can now ask Google a question by taking a picture or rambling into your phone’s microphone rather than trying to type the perfect set of keywords into the search bar. And Google is looking for more ways to present information you might care about without you even having to ask. 

It’s an interesting thought experiment, really: what would Google’s equivalent of TikTok’s For You page look like? Google’s search team doesn’t know exactly, but it’s working on it. And at least so far, it looks like the answer will start to appear on the homepage of Google’s iOS app. That’s where many of Google’s new features are getting their start and where lots of customers are already interacting with Google in new ways.

…advances in AI and computer vision are what power Google Lens and the new Multisearch feature with which you can search with a picture and then modify it with text. (Google always explains this with a dress — snap a photo of the green dress you like, type “in purple,” and you’re off to the races.) Multisearch has been available for a few months and is now rolling out globally. Google’s classic list of links is starting to change, too, to be replaced in some contexts by a mosaic of images and informational widgets. (Sometimes links are still the best answer, Google thinks, but not always. Not even usually.)


Every couple of years Google says that search is changing completely, though the shift tends to be difficult to spot. But it’s definitely there. The question is, will it be enough to catch up with an audience increasingly using TikTok for search?
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Truss cut the most popular taxes; this wasn’t an accident, but it may be a mistake • The Conversation

Lucy Barnes is an associate professor in comparative politics at University College London (UCL), and Benjamin Lauderdale is professor of political science, UCL:


For the purposes of our research, popular taxes are those that more of the respondents would choose to increase to raise revenues or at least wouldn’t decrease, given the choice. Unpopular taxes are those that more people would choose to cut and fewer would choose to increase.

We found that people were not keen on cuts to corporation tax, alcohol and tobacco duties, and the higher and additional rates of personal income tax.

But these were almost exactly the same as those the government chose to cut (or cancelled proposed raises for) in September’s mini-budget. The abolition of the 45p rate of income tax was the fourth most unpopular way to cut taxes out of the 23 options we presented.

Not all of the changes announced in the mini-budget were unappealing to our survey respondents, however. Reversing the changes to National Insurance and cutting the basic rate of income taxation have more support among the members of the public that we surveyed. But more of the public would prefer increases to the personal allowance and the higher rate threshold as ways to reduce the income tax burden.

The fact that the government chose otherwise is not simply a case of trying to appeal to Conservative voters either. The evidence indicates that these preferences are widely shared across the population, as well as among Conservative voters.

For example, we found that Corporation Tax is the second most popular way for generating public revenues among Conservative voters. Alcohol and tobacco duties are Conservative voters’ favourites, which aligns with the lukewarm reception for freezing them at the Conservative Party conference. Conservatives like the 45p rate of income tax less than their Labour counterparts, according to our survey, but they still see it as a reasonable way to raise the revenue.


Truss and Kwarteng are so astonishingly tin-eared politically that this comes as no surprise. But it’s helpful to have the data on it.
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Ten ways Liz Truss’s policies diverge from the 2019 Tory election manifesto on which the Government was elected • the i

Jane Merrick:


An extraordinary battle is raging at the top of the Conservative Party over whether Liz Truss has a mandate for her radical policy agenda.

Former Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries says the Prime Minister needs to call a General Election to secure a new mandate because she has undone many of the policies she had secured as Culture Secretary, while several ex-ministers and MPs have made clear their opposition to likely cuts to benefits and the now-shelved 45p tax rate cut.

Yet on Sunday, the Prime Minister insisted she was delivering on the pledges people had backed under Boris Johnson in 2019, telling the BBC Tory voters had “voted for a different future”.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has turned on the “45p-tax Tory rebels”, accusing them of staging a “coup” against the Prime Minister.

And on Tuesday, Ms Truss suggested her Government could start from scratch on all Government policy, telling Talk TV: “We are going to have to look at things differently as we move forward.”

Here are the 10 ways Ms Truss has diverged from the 2019 Conservative manifesto…


Tax (though the argument’s a bit marginal), debt (definitely), public spending (clearly), benefits payments (clearly), online safety (still not proceeding), fracking (complete reversal), net zero (lip service, with new licences for oil/gas), environment (unclear), NHS funding (possibly), NHS workforce (not growing as promised).
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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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