Start Up No.1940: Microsoft and OpenAI fight code copyright claim, Musk’s capricious Twitter, smartphone shipments drop, and more

The Moon may need its own GPS-style universal timing system as more expeditions head there together. CC-licensed photo by Serhio Magpie on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Meta embraces AI as Facebook, Instagram help drive a rebound • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Salvador Rodriguez:


Days before Meta Platforms’s first ever mass layoffs in November, a senior executive shared some good news. The company’s short-form video product, Reels, was getting traction with users, and the threat posed by rival TikTok appeared to be easing.

“Facebook engagement is stronger than people expected,” Tom Alison, head of Facebook, wrote in a memo to his staff. “Our internal data indicates that Meta has grown to a meaningful share of short-form video.”

After the roughest year in Meta’s history, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram is starting to see a path to recovery, internal documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with people familiar with the matter show.

Heavy investment in artificial intelligence tools has enabled the company to improve ad-targeting systems to make better predictions based on less data, according to the interviews and documents. Though Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg declared last year that the company would be “metaverse-first, not Facebook-first,” most of the effort involves optimizing its traditional social-media platforms, especially Facebook.

…for all of Meta’s efforts to rebrand itself, the core Facebook “Blue” app remains its workhorse. While outside financial analysts have generally estimated that Instagram accounts for between 40% to 50% of the company’s ad revenue, internal statistics viewed by the Journal show that Instagram generates a little more than 30%—and it isn’t rapidly catching up.

That leaves Meta’s near-term financial future dependent on the aging Blue app, which accounts for more than two-thirds of total revenue. Meta’s internal statistics show that business has been relatively resilient. Data gathered in the middle of the fourth quarter showed that time spent on the Blue app was up worldwide, including in developed markets, over the course of a year. Time spent on the company’s products overall was up more than 5% to more than 230 million hours a day in the US, which accounts for 40% of Meta’s worldwide revenue.

Much of that increase is due to the growth of Reels. While Reels is often publicly associated with young users and Instagram, Facebook users appear to be the more avid consumers of the short videos.


The article link should be free to read. There’s a lot of detail about the AI stuff, which is principally around ad formats. But Reels seems, sort of, to be some sort of success.
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Facepalm Pilot: where technology meets stupidity: an interactive guide to ambiguous grammar • McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Vijith Assar:


Depending on whom you ask, the use of the active voice over the passive is arguably the most fundamental writer’s maxim, thought to lend weight, truth, and power to declarative statements. This absolutist view is flawed, however, because language is an art of nuance. From time to time, writers may well find illustrative value in the lightest of phrases, sentences so weightless and feathery that they scarcely even seem to exist at all. These can convey details well beyond the crude thrust of the hulking active voice, and when used strictly as ornamentation, they needn’t actually convey anything at all.

As a thought experiment, let’s examine in extremely close detail a set of iterative changes that can be made to a single simple grammatical structure, turning it from a statement taken at face value into one loaded with unrealized implication. This makes for rich writing which rewards – or even demands – close scrutiny.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.


By the end, it’s Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown.

But it’s McSweeney’s, so there is a point, and a bite, to this “guide”. It’s from 2015, yet still turns out true again and again.
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Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI ask court to throw out AI copyright lawsuit • The Verge

Emma Roth:


programmer and lawyer, Matthew Butterick, teamed up with the legal team at Joseph Saveri Law Firm to file a proposed class action lawsuit last November, alleging the tool relies on “software piracy on an unprecedented scale.” Butterick and his legal team later filed a second proposed class action lawsuit on the behalf of two anonymous software developers on similar grounds, which is the suit Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI want dismissed.

As noted in the filing, Microsoft and GitHub say the complaint “fails on two intrinsic defects: lack of injury and lack of an otherwise viable claim,” while OpenAI similarly says the plaintiffs “allege a grab bag of claims that fail to plead violations of cognizable legal rights.” The companies argue that the plaintiffs rely on “hypothetical events” to make their claim, and say they don’t describe how they were personally harmed by the tool.

“Copilot withdraws nothing from the body of open source code available to the public,” Microsoft and GitHub claim in the filing. “Rather, Copilot helps developers write code by generating suggestions based on what it has learned from the entire body of knowledge gleaned from public code.”

Additionally, Microsoft and GitHub go on to claim that the plaintiffs are the ones who “undermine open source principles” by asking for “an injunction and a multi-billion dollar windfall” in relation to the “software that they willingly share as open source.”


There’s a lot at stake here for Microsoft in particular, because it’s investing all that money in ChatGPT. If it loses here, people will come after ChatGPT for something or other too. Equally, if Microsoft wins, that makes the other lawsuits against generative AI systems tougher to win.
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Twitter’s Trust and Safety head ditches protocol for Musk whims • BNN Bloomberg

Davey Alba and Kurt Wagner:


Being the head of trust and safety at Twitter has long been a crucial and closely scrutinized job, given the potential impact that person has over speech on one of the world’s most influential platforms. Previous leaders have been tasked with making complicated and controversial decisions, including when to ban accounts when they cross a line, be it by jeopardizing public health in the midst of a pandemic, or by threatening the safety of democratic elections around the world. Twitter’s decisions are often later probed by politicians and regulators, and so they are typically made with careful documentation pointing to specific policy justifications for the action, the current and former employees say. 

But now, internal documentation shows a decision-making process amounting to little more than unilateral directives issued by Twitter’s new owner. In late November, an account belonging to the leftist activist Chad Loder was banned from the platform. In Twitter’s internal system, a note read, “Suspension: direct request from Elon Musk,” according to a screenshot viewed by Bloomberg. On Dec. 11, Jack Sweeney, the creator of a bot tracking Musk’s private plane, posted a screenshot showing [new head of Trust and Safety, Ella] Irwin had sent a Slack message directing employees to restrict visibility to Sweeney’s bot account, @elonjet. On Dec. 15, when Twitter suspended prominent journalists covering Twitter and Musk, the action was accompanied by an internal note: “direction of Ella.” 

Twitter used to have a group called the Global Escalations Team that could be a check on power at the top of the company, overruling executives based on existing policy. Employees say that group has folded, and Irwin and Musk can no longer be challenged through a formal process. In her emailed response, Irwin said that was “not accurate at all,” declining to elaborate.

Still, this month Irwin confirmed more cuts to teams handling global content moderation, hate speech, misinformation policy, global appeals and state media. Nine days later, two Taliban officials briefly gained access to blue checkmarks through Twitter Blue, the platform’s paid subscription tier. Twitter’s moderation research consortium, introduced in late 2021, is now effectively defunct, with no program managers left to oversee the work.

…As Irwin prioritizes supporting Musk, a former company executive said they believed that the platform is on a path to primarily serving the interests of the already-powerful, and those whose ideologies align with him.

“Twitter’s policies and practices in the trust and safety space were built around defending the rights of users around the world, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized communities,” the former executive said. “Since the acquisition, the company’s only actions have been to silence critics of Elon, to expose journalists and others to harm, and to violate basic ethical standards and privacy laws.”


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Smartphone shipments suffer the largest-ever decline with 18.3% drop in the holiday quarter and a 11.3% decline in 2022 • IDC


Worldwide smartphone shipments declined 18.3% year over year to 300.3m units in the fourth quarter of 2022 (4Q22), according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. The drop marks the largest-ever decline in a single quarter and contributed to a steep 11.3% decline for the year. 2022 ended with shipments of 1.21bn units, which represents the lowest annual shipment total since 2013 due to significantly dampened consumer demand, inflation, and economic uncertainties.

“We have never seen shipments in the holiday quarter come in lower than the previous quarter. However, weakened demand and high inventory caused vendors to cut back drastically on shipments,” said Nabila Popal, research director with IDC’s Worldwide Tracker team.

…”What this holiday quarter tells us is that rising inflation and growing macro concerns continue to stunt consumer spending even more than expected and push out any possible recovery to the very end of 2023.”

“We continue to witness consumer demand dwindle as refresh rates climb past 40 months in most major markets,” said Anthony Scarsella, research director with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker.

“With 2022 declining more than 11% for the year, 2023 is set up to be a year of caution as vendors will rethink their portfolio of devices while channels will think twice before taking on excess inventory. However, on a positive note, consumers may find even more generous trade-in offers and promotions continuing well into 2023 as the market will think of new methods to drive upgrades and sell more devices, specifically high-end models.”


40-month average replacement rates? That’s heading towards three and a half years. (Personally I’m on a three-year replacement rate.)
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Deepfakes for scrawl: with handwriting synthesis, no pen is necessary • Ars Technica

Benj Edwards:

» “draws” each letter as if it were written by a human hand, guided by statistical weights. Those weights come from a recurrent neural network (RNN) that has been trained on the IAM On-Line Handwriting Database, which contains samples of handwriting from 221 individuals digitized from a whiteboard over time. As a result, the handwriting synthesis model is heavily tuned toward English-language writing, and people on Hacker News have reported trouble reproducing diacritical marks that are commonly found in other languages.

Since the algorithm producing the handwriting is statistical in nature, its properties, such as “legibility,” can be adjusted dynamically. Vasquez described how the legibility slider works in a comment on Hacker News in 2020: “Outputs are sampled from a probability distribution, and increasing the legibility effectively concentrates probability density around more likely outcomes. So you’re correct that it’s just altering variation. The general technique is referred to as ‘adjusting the temperature of the sampling distribution.'”

With neural networks now tackling text, speech, pictures, video, and now handwriting, it seems like no corner of human creative output is beyond the reach of generative AI.


Maybe we can hook it up to ChatGPT and get it to write the output driven by prompts of “compose a letter sacking Nadim Zahawi for his tax affairs while not referring to precisely what he did.
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Heat pumps: the ‘geeks’ obsessing over their new heating systems • BBC News

Chris Baraniuk:


He’s got heat meters fixed to the pipework. Room temperature monitors. And gadgets tracking how much electricity his solar panels are generating.

The jewel in the crown of this system, though, is a recently installed heat pump.

“It’s like a geek’s paradise, really,” says Mick Wall of his 1930s semi-detached house in Sheffield.

Mr Wall, who works in IT, has made a hobby out of monitoring his household energy consumption and honing his heat pump’s performance in a dogged pursuit of maximum efficiency.

The UK government has set a target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028.

Builders are moving towards the technology as well. Redrow, which builds more than 5,000 homes in the UK a year, announced that it will fit heat pumps as standard in upcoming housing developments – the first UK builder to make that commitment.

But currently, fewer than 50,000 are fitted in British homes annually and the UK is bottom of the heat pump installation league table in Europe.

There is, however, an intrepid band of pioneers out there. Eager adopters who say the country is ready to go heat pump crazy – and that they can prove it with their own hard data. These are the heat pump geeks.
Mr Wall is one of a small number of enthusiasts who regularly publish data online about how their heat pumps are doing. “I’m putting myself out there to say, ‘This stuff does work, here’s the evidence,'” he says.


The European heat pump league currently shows Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia miles ahead. It shows Hungary (113 per 100k people) is actually behind the UK (412 per 100k). Since you ask, Norway has over 24,000 pumps per 100,000 people.

Also it’s claimed now to be cheaper to run a heat pump than a gas boiler.
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MusicLM • Google Research

Andrea Agostinelli et al:


We introduce MusicLM, a model generating high-fidelity music from text descriptions such as “a calming violin melody backed by a distorted guitar riff“. MusicLM casts the process of conditional music generation as a hierarchical sequence-to-sequence modeling task, and it generates music at 24 kHz that remains consistent over several minutes.

Our experiments show that MusicLM outperforms previous systems both in audio quality and adherence to the text description. Moreover, we demonstrate that MusicLM can be conditioned on both text and a melody in that it can transform whistled and hummed melodies according to the style described in a text caption. To support future research, we publicly release MusicCaps, a dataset composed of 5.5k music-text pairs, with rich text descriptions provided by human experts.


It also produces audio from paintings such as Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Can’t be long before AI is writing all the Muzak in the world.

Note that the page is very data-heavy and, for me, takes forever to load. So you might not be able to hear the samples.
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What time is it on the Moon? • Nature

Elizabeth Gibney:


It’s not obvious what form a universal lunar time would take. Clocks on Earth and the Moon naturally tick at different speeds, because of the differing gravitational fields of the two bodies. Official lunar time could be based on a clock system designed to synchronize with UTC, or it could be independent of Earth time.

Representatives of space agencies and academic organizations worldwide met in November 2022 to start drafting recommendations on how to define lunar time at the European Space Research and Technology Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Decisions must be made soon, says Patrizia Tavella, who leads the time department at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France. If an official lunar time is not established, space agencies and private companies will come up with their own solutions, she says. “This is why we want to raise an alert now, saying let’s work together to take a common decision.”

The most pressing need for lunar time comes from plans to create a dedicated global satellite navigation system (GNSS) for the Moon, similar to how GPS and other satellite navigation networks enable precise location tracking on Earth. Space agencies plan to install this lunar GNSS from around 2030. ESA approved a lunar satellite navigation project called Moonlight at its ministerial council meeting on 22 and 23 November 2022 in Paris, and NASA established a similar project, called Lunar Communications Relay and Navigation Systems, last January.

Until now, Moon missions have pinpointed their locations using radio signals sent to large antennas on Earth at scheduled times. But with dozens of missions planned, “there’s just not enough resources to cover everybody”, says Joel Parker, an engineer who works on lunar navigation at the Goddard Center.


Filed under: problems you didn’t think would ever arise, but actually need dealing with.
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The AirPods Pro 2nd gen as smart hearables puts a smile on my face • Stacey on IoT

Kevin Tofel:


In 2020, I bought a set of Nuheara IQ Buds Max earbuds. Like the Apple AirPods Pro, the Nuheara product isn’t FDA classified as a hearing aid. Instead, these are PSAPs, or personal sound amplification products. Although they helped improve my hearing, I eventually stopped using the Nuheara’s. The main issue was unexpected, ear-splitting feedback at times, particularly when charging.

So, are the Apple AirPods Pro a better choice? For me, so far, yes. I’ve only had a handful of minor feedback issues and none of them were as jarring as what I used to experience. I also have many more controls to fine tune my sound based on different scenarios.

That’s likely due to more modern technology in Apple’s newer product.

For example, the custom Apple H2 headphone chip, samples external sounds 48,000 times per second (compared to 700 times per second for Phonak’s certified hearing aids) and supports Bluetooth 5.3. This second generation hearable also improves upon the first version by adding sound augmentation for media playback; a feature not available in the original model when tested. And the sound processing, all done lightning fast locally on the earbuds, is customized for my mild to moderate hearing loss.

Using a third-party hearing test app, I was able to upload my audiogram to my iPhone and have the sound tailored based on my test results.

The Mimi app shows how much hearing loss I’ve experienced and at which frequencies. In my case, the upper frequencies are a challenge. Since my wife doesn’t have a low-range voice like Morgan Freeman, that explains why I often struggle to hear her.

Armed with my audiogram, I shared it with my iPhone and then hit the Accessibility settings in iOS. There’s an entire section here for the AirPods Pro that’s chock full o’ options and features…


The dividing line between consumer tech and specialist tech gets narrower all the time.
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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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