Start Up No.1907: Facebook’s AI negotiator, HP plans layoffs, Alexa’s billion-dollar miss, Instagram v police, FTX losers, and more

A study of top songs in the US charts shows that they’ve largely abandoned key changes. Is that because we now write songs “vertically” with apps like Pro Tools? CC-licensed photo by The Blackbird Academy on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Nice choice of clothes. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

CICERO: an AI agent that negotiates, persuades, and cooperates with people • Facebook AI

The Facebook AI team:


Games have long been a proving ground for new AI advancements — from Deep Blue’s victory over chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, to AlphaGo’s mastery of Go, to Pluribus out-bluffing the best humans in poker. But truly useful, versatile agents will need to go beyond just moving pieces on a board. Can we build more effective and flexible agents that can use language to negotiate, persuade, and work with people to achieve strategic goals similar to the way humans do?

Today, we’re announcing a breakthrough toward building AI that has mastered these skills. We’ve built an agent – CICERO – that is the first AI to achieve human-level performance in the popular strategy game Diplomacy*. CICERO demonstrated this by playing on, an online version of the game, where CICERO achieved more than double the average score of the human players and ranked in the top 10% of participants who played more than one game.

Diplomacy has been viewed for decades as a near-impossible grand challenge in AI because it requires players to master the art of understanding other people’s motivations and perspectives; make complex plans and adjust strategies; and then use natural language to reach agreements with other people, convince them to form partnerships and alliances, and more. CICERO is so effective at using natural language to negotiate with people in Diplomacy that they often favored working with CICERO over other human participants.

Unlike games like Chess and Go, Diplomacy is a game about people rather than pieces. If an agent can’t recognize that someone is likely bluffing or that another player would see a certain move as aggressive, it will quickly lose the game. Likewise, if it doesn’t talk like a real person — showing empathy, building relationships, and speaking knowledgeably about the game — it won’t find other players willing to work with it.

The key to our achievement was developing new techniques at the intersection of two completely different areas of AI research: strategic reasoning, as used in agents like AlphaGo and Pluribus, and natural language processing, as used in models like GPT-3, BlenderBot 3, LaMDA, and OPT-175B. CICERO can deduce, for example, that later in the game it will need the support of one particular player, and then craft a strategy to win that person’s favor – and even recognize the risks and opportunities that that player sees from their particular point of view.


“I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that, and let me point out why it’s also not in your interests for me to open the pod bay doors.” As the (human) world champion of the game points out, what Cicero does is play the situation that exists, rather than getting annoyed or emotional, or trying to arouse those emotions in its opponent.

There are all sorts of situations where you can imagine this being used. Hostage negotiation? Trade negotiation? Peace negotiation? If both sides were AI, would the outcome be better? Or would it boil down to who had set their targets better?
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China just announced a new social credit law. Here’s what it says • MIT Technology Review

Zeyi Yang:


When the Chinese government talks about social credit, the term covers two different things: traditional financial creditworthiness and “social creditworthiness,” which draws data from a larger variety of sectors.

The former is a familiar concept in the West: it documents individuals’ or businesses’ financial history and predicts their ability to pay back future loans. Because the market economy in modern China is much younger, the country lacks a reliable system to look up other people’s and companies’ financial records. Building such a system, aimed to help banks and other market players make business decisions, is an essential and not very controversial mission. Most Chinese policy documents refer to this type of credit with a specific word: “征信” (zhengxin, which some scholars have translated to “credit reporting”).

The latter—“social creditworthiness”—is what raises more eyebrows. Basically, the Chinese government is saying there needs to be a higher level of trust in society, and to nurture that trust, the government is fighting corruption, telecom scams, tax evasion, false advertising, academic plagiarism, product counterfeiting, pollution …almost everything. And not only will individuals and companies be held accountable, but legal institutions and government agencies will as well.

This is where things start to get confusing. The government seems to believe that all these problems are loosely tied to a lack of trust, and that building trust requires a one-size-fits-all solution. So just as financial credit scoring helps assess a person’s creditworthiness, it thinks, some form of “social credit” can help people assess others’ trustworthiness in other respects. 

As a result, so-called “social” credit scoring is often lumped together with financial credit scoring in policy discussions, even though it’s a much younger field with little precedent in other societies. 

What makes it extra confusing is that in practice, local governments have sometimes mixed up these two. So you may see a regulation talking about how non-financial activities will hurt your financial credit, or vice versa. (In just one example, the province of Liaoning said in August that it’s exploring how to reward blood donation in the financial credit system.) 


Soooo… seems it’s less like Black Mirror’s Nosedive than we all thought. Which.. is good?
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HP plans layoffs with PC demand slump stretching into next year • WSJ

Denny Jacob:


The computer and printer maker [HP Inc], which currently has around 61,000 employees, on Tuesday said it would part with 4,000 to 6,000 employees as part of a transformation plan that aims to achieve $1.4bn in annualised cost savings. The company had a payroll of about 51,000 people a year ago.

The cuts and other changes will come with about $1bn in upfront costs, HP said.

“We think that at this point it’s prudent not to assume that the market will turn during 2023,” Chief Executive Enrique Lores said.

HP announced the layoffs as it reported an 11.2% drop in quarterly revenue to $14.8bn. The company also posted a small net loss for the period, largely reflecting costs from a legal settlement.

A day earlier, HP rival Dell Technologies also suggested the lull in PC buying this year would continue after a surge early in the pandemic.

Dell late Monday reported a 6% drop in overall revenue for the company’s third quarter, including a 17% drop in the unit that includes sales of laptops and desktops to consumers and commercial clients.

Dell expects revenue from PC sales to fall at an even steeper rate in the fourth quarter from the same period a year earlier, chief financial officer Thomas Sweet said on a Monday earnings call.


Weird that HP has added 10,000 people over a year, but now is looking to get rid of half that number (almost surely not the same people). It seems like weirdly bad planning.
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How the Billboard Hot 100 lost interest in the key change •

Chris Dalla Riva listened to every No.1 song in the history of the (US) Billboard Hot 100: 1,143 songs from 1958 to 2022, and found something odd:


The act of shifting a song’s key up either a half step or a whole step (i.e. one or two notes on the keyboard) near the end of the song, was the most popular key change for decades. In fact, 52% of key changes found in number one hits between 1958 and 1990 employ this change. You can hear it on “My Girl,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” among many others.

What’s odd is that after 1990, key changes are employed much less frequently, if at all, in number one hits.

What’s doubly odd is that around the same time, the keys that number one hits are in change dramatically too. In fact, songwriters begin using all keys at comparable rates.

So what is going on? Both of the shifts can be tied back to two things: the rise of hip-hop and the growing popularity of digital music production, or recording on computers. First, let’s talk about hip-hop.

Though hip-hop grew in popularity throughout the 1980s, it didn’t become the cultural zeitgeist until the 1990s. Hip-hop stands in stark contrast to nearly all genres that came before because it puts more emphasis on rhythm and lyricism over melody and harmony. For example, while you might be able to tap out the percussion or recite some lyrics from “Juicy” by Biggie Smalls, you would likely not be able to hum the melody. That’s because the song doesn’t have a melody in the same way that something like “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland does.

Thus, if you changed the key of “Juicy,” Biggie wouldn’t necessarily have to change how he raps, but if you changed the key of “Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland would have to sing different pitches. If you picked the wrong key, those pitches might be outside of her vocal range. In short, key doesn’t matter as much in hip-hop.


He points out too that the use of “loops” in digital composition militates against key changes: he calls this “vertical” rather than “horizontal” songwriting, such as that used by Sting in The Police.
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Tumblr to add support for ActivityPub, the social protocol powering Mastodon and other apps • Techcrunch

Sarah Perez:


If Tumblr were to add ActivityPub support [as Tumblr chief Matt Mullenweg suggested it will.. on Twitter], it means users on Mastodon could follow Tumblr users’ posts from their own Mastodon instance — without having to use the Tumblr app. It could also provide Tumblr users with an entry point into the so-called fediverse without having to face some of the complexities that are involved with signing up for Mastodon for the first time.

Tumblr was already benefiting from the Twitter exodus, having grown its US app installs 7% week-over-week from the week prior to the acquisition and the 7 days after, had reported earlier this month. And, as of 12 days after Twitter’s acquisition, Tumblr’s worldwide downloads surged 77% to 301,000 up from 170,000 in the 12 days before the acquisition, Sensor Tower recently said.

Mullenweg later offered a glimpse into Tumblr’s metrics, noting to The Atlantic that iOS downloads of the Tumblr app were up 62% the week after Musk took over Twitter.


Big numbers.. if this were a new network. But Tumblr is already huge, and those figures – 301,000 – are 0.1% of Twitter’s daily active users. Be great if people could get a sense of proportion around this.
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Amazon is gutting its voice assistant, Alexa: employees describe a division in crisis and huge losses on ‘a wasted opportunity’ • Business Insider

Eugene Kim:


Four years after launch, the product was embroiled in controversy. Reports of Alexa mistakenly sending voice recordings to the wrong person or Amazon employees secretly listening to private conversations stoked privacy concerns.

And the first cracks in the products business model began to show. Internally, the team worried about the quality of user engagements. By then Alexa was getting a billion interactions a week, but most of those conversations were trivial, commands to play music or ask about the weather. That meant fewer opportunities to monetize. Amazon can’t make money from Alexa telling you the weather — and playing music through the Echo gives Amazon only a small piece of the proceeds.

By 2018, the division was already a money pit. That year, The New York Times reported that it lost roughly $5bn. This year, an employee familiar with the hardware team said, the company is on pace to lose about $10bn on Alexa and other devices.

At an all-hands meeting in 2019, Limp acknowledged those concerns. For Alexa to get to the “next level,” he said, it needed to improve both user engagement and security.

“We can do both things: increase engagement and make sure customers trust the interactions with her. It’s a very, very bright future as we move forward,” Limp said, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Insider.

Still, employees said Alexa continued to struggle financially. While the product ranked among the best-selling items on Amazon, most of the devices sold at cost.

By late 2019, the company effectively froze hiring for the team, three former employees said. Though they were backfilling roles, the company didn’t expand the group through new hires. Employee morale also began to tank as the once promising project was clearly losing steam.


A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. The business model of making it up on sales “through” the device never held together because voice assistants are so cryptic: what do or don’t they respond to? Or, as memorably lampooned in the sitcom Modern Family, “why is that coffee grinder trying to talk to me?”
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Instagram told to reinstate music video removed at request of Met police • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Meta’s oversight board, the quasi-independent “supreme court” of Facebook and Instagram, has forced the company to reinstate a clip of drill music originally removed from Instagram at the request of the Metropolitan police.

The clip, a short excerpt of the song Secrets Not Safe by Chinx (OS), was removed after the Met flagged the track to Meta, arguing that it could lead to “retaliatory violence” in the context of the London gang scene. The force told Meta it contained a “veiled threat”, referencing a shooting in 2017, and as a result the company manually removed 52 posts containing the track and automated systems removed it a further 112 times.

…As part of its investigation into the removal of the track, the oversight board filed multiple freedom of information requests with the Met police, finding that the force had filed 286 requests to take down or review posts about drill music in the 12 months from June 2021, and that 255 of those had resulted in the removal of content.

Over the same period, it had not made a single request to remove any other music genre, the force said. “This intensive focus on one music genre among many that include reference to violence raises serious concerns of potential over-policing of certain communities,” the board argued.

The board also asked the Met how it ensured that free speech rights were protected, and what its specific policies were about flagging content to social networks. The force said it was unable to answer, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis.

Crucially, the Met did not allege any of the drill music that it had asked Meta to take down had broken UK law. Instead, its argument was that the music had broken Facebook and Instagram’s community standards, since it was “potentially threatening or likely to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm”. The police did not provide public evidence to back up that claim. Because the internal Meta team that works with the police comprises senior specialists, users whose content is taken down also have no ability to appeal.


Tricky. The police are insistent that drill is essentially how gangs post threats to each other; Chinx (OS) appears in all his videos wearing a balaclava, because to be identified would be to be targeted, and he knows that. But nobody’s taking down Eminem’s videos, even though they contain what could be read as threats.
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Hedge funds left with billions stranded on FTX • Financial Times

Laurence Fletcher and Joshua Oliver:


The sudden failure this month of FTX, valued at $32bn this year, has shocked investors who backed it and traders who used it. Legal filings on Sunday revealed that FTX owes its 50 largest creditors, likely to include a wide variety of hedge funds, more traditional asset managers and other traders, more than $3bn.

“I lost my investors’ money after they put faith in me to manage risk and I am truly sorry for that,” tweeted Travis Kling, founder of Ikigai Asset Management, which has a “large majority” of its hedge fund’s assets stuck on FTX. “I have publicly endorsed FTX many times,” he added. “I was wrong.”

Crypto-focused hedge funds have direct exposure to FTX Group or to FTT, FTX’s own digital token which it promoted to incentivise more trading on its main exchange, of around $2bn, according to data group Crypto Fund Research.

Earlier this month the Financial Times revealed that Galois Capital, whose founder Kevin Zhou is credited with spotting the collapse of cryptocurrency luna, had around half its capital stuck on FTX.

Zhou admitted he was “deeply sorry” and that he had under-appreciated “the solvency risk with holding our funds at FTX”. He said it could take a few years to recover “some percentage of our assets”.

Crypto Fund Research estimates that between 100 and 150 crypto hedge funds, or around 25 to 40% of the total number of such specialist funds, have some direct exposure to FTX Group or to FTT.


Zhou was smart enough to figure out that luna was going belly-up and taking other people’s investments with it, yet not smart enough to figure out that the investments he had made in another cryptocurrency exchange issuing its own token wasn’t a safe haven? A fabulous example of motivated reasoning: as long as it didn’t involve his own decision-making, he could see it was wrong.

The psychological implications of the whole crypto bubble are going to be fascinating to untangle.
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Elon Musk wants every Twitter employee sending weekly updates about their work via email • The Verge

Alex Heath:


Elon Musk wants every Twitter employee sending weekly updates about their work via email now. Per an internal memo to employees that I obtained, every Friday all Twitter employees are required to send an email update on their work with the subject line structure: “Weekly Update, name, dept, and date.” Inside the email, they must include what project they are working on, “code samples” if relevant or summaries of work for non-technical work, and what they have been trying to accomplish. “Looking forward to making Twitter the highest performing tech software company in the world,” the internal memo ends. Hardcore!


The responses to this have been interesting: it’s a very Rorschach blot move. Steven Sinofsky, who pushed the concept of the internet to Bill Gates as a young engineer at Microsoft, and later led the Windows division, tweeted that “I had to send weekly mail for at least the first 5 years as an eng.”

Well, sure, but he joined Microsoft in July 1989. Nowadays we have code repositories and you can see when and how much code people write and check in and check out. But his tweet drew lots of supportive responses as well as people saying such practices might have been OK for boomers but not now. (Now I think about it, I did have to write a weekly email to my manager when I ran the Guardian’s Technology section explaining what was in the upcoming issue and thus made it thrilling. Some weeks this was easier than others.)
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Hacked Facebook accounts can take years to recover • The Washington Post

Tatum Hunter:


Help Desk, the personal technology section at The Washington Post, has received hundreds of emails from people locked out of their Facebook accounts with no idea how to get back in. Many lose their accounts to hackers, who take over Facebook pages to resell them or to game search-engine rankings.

In some cases, losing the account is an inconvenience. But in many others, it is a threat to the finances, relationships or well-being of the user. Groce, for instance, estimates she has lost $18,000 in income after waiting for months for her account to be unlocked.

“We have clients crying on Zoom calls, as they have lost their business and livelihood,” said Jonas Borchgrevink, founder of, which helps victims navigate the notoriously confusing process for recovering hacked Facebook accounts.

Facebook shot to global dominance by promising to be a central hub for our lives, introducing tools to help us run businesses, make payments and even keep track of loved ones during disasters. But once you hit a snag, like an account takeover, that support disappears, dozens of users say, leaving people to flounder in an automated system.

Despite reporting revenue of more than $27bn [and $4.4bn profit] in the third quarter, Facebook parent company Meta is a multinational technology giant without real customer support, users say. This month Meta announced it will lay off 11% of its workforce. It is unclear how these cuts will affect account security and customer support.

Last year Facebook told The Post it was working on new processes to solve these problems. A year later, not much appears to have changed. The company has no new initiatives for helping people recover their accounts.


The WaPo offers “take these steps to get back into your hacked Facebook account“, from September 2021, which offers how to attempt it about halfway down.

Really what’s needed (too) is for Meta to force 2FA on users, the same way Apple nags and nags you to turn it on for an iPhone or similar in your iCloud account. So many hacks wouldn’t happen.
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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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