Start Up No.1986: AI infiltrates pop culture (and storms Reddit), how bacteria can beat cancer, Ford commits to CarPlay, and more

Does nobody remember Ananova, the first AI newsreader, launched 23 years ago this month? CC-licensed photo by Nick Richards on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. See today’s corrections! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

A.I. pop culture is already here • The New Yorker

Kyle Chayka:


In a 2022 interview, David Holz, the founder of Midjourney, used the phrase “aesthetic accelerationism” to describe the profusion of generated imagery enabled by public AI tools. It evokes a world in which every style, every idea, and every possible remix is generated as fast and frictionlessly as possible, and the successful ones stick and get attention, like “Harry Potter by Balenciaga” and the swagged-out Pope.

It may be less because they are artistically great than because they solved some formula of attention. Perhaps the successful creation is unimaginably bizarre, the seamless merging of two unrelated things. Or it’s driven by the fascination of the perfect replica, something that we know isn’t real but which is easy to see or briefly perceive as such, like a trompe-l’oeil painting.

For the past few days, I’ve been looping a new hip-hop track over and over. It’s called “Savages,” by the French outfit AllttA. The song is sweetly nostalgic, with synthesized strings and a snare backbeat; it features what sounds like Jay-Z trading verses with AllttA’s Mr. J. Medeiros in a throwback style.

But, of course, it’s not Jay-Z; it’s an AI model of his voice, used, presumably, without the artist’s permission. It’s another example of illusory realism. The human-written song is good on its own, and would be perfectly fine without the fake Jay-Z, but the familiar voice adds something ineffably compelling to the track, making it sound like an unreleased B-side from the nineteen-nineties. It has more than two hundred thousand plays on YouTube. “The thought of enjoying this and it’s AI is beyond me,” one user wrote in the comments. I feel the same kind of existential confusion. It sticks in my brain like an unsolved puzzle. I don’t care that it’s not actually Jay-Z, in large part because the AI quality is good enough that I, a non-expert, can barely tell the difference.


More recently there’s the AI “Drake vs The Weeknd” song (sorry, not my bag). But this is what I meant by the AI tsunami, which I wrote, good grief, back in August last year, before ChatGPT was a thing and when the AI illustrators were still using crayons: for now, the creation is being prompted in the first place by humans (on shrooms, in the case of the swagged Pope), but give it just enough time – less than you might think – and the human will just be the gatekeeper, and then the person standing in the face of the tsunami.
unique link to this extract

Reddit moderators brace for a ChatGPT spam apocalypse • Vice

Laurie Clarke:


The two-million-strong AskHistorians forum allows non-expert Redditors to submit questions about history topics, and receive in-depth answers from historians. Recent popular posts have probed the hive mind on whether the stress of being “on time” is a modern concept; what a medieval scribe would’ve done if the monastery cat left an inky paw print on their vellum; and how Genghis Khan got fiber in his diet. 

Shortly after ChatGPT launched, the forum was experiencing five to 10 ChatGPT posts per day, says [forum moderator and postdoc associate at Cornell University, Sarah] Gilbert, which soon ramped up as more people found out about the tool. The frequency has tapered off now, which the team believes may be a consequence of how rigorously they’ve dealt with AI-produced content: even if the posts aren’t being deleted for being written by ChatGPT, they tend to violate the sub’s standards for quality.

The moderators suspect some ChatGPT posts are aimed at “testing” the mods, or seeing what the user can get away with. Other comments are clearly part of astroturfing and spamming campaigns, or engaged in “karma farming,” where accounts are set up to accumulate upvotes over time, giving them the appearance of being authentic, so that they can be deployed for more nefarious purposes later on.

But it’s not just one well-moderated forum encountering the issue. In fact, Reddit’s ChatGPT-powered bot problem is “pretty bad” right now, according to a Reddit moderator with knowledge of the platform’s wider moderation systems, who wished to remain anonymous. Several hundred accounts have already been removed from the site, and more are being discovered daily, they said, adding that most of the removals are being done manually because Reddit’s automated systems struggle with AI-created content. Reddit declined to offer any comment on this. 


Predictable. We’re going to need really sophisticated CAPTCHAs to defeat this.
unique link to this extract

The fascinating and evolving story of bacteria and cancer • Ground Truths

Eric Topol:


It was medical dogma: cancer tissue is sterile. That’s what we had learned and taught in medical school for decades even though bacteria were detected in tumours more than 100 years ago. When studies were reported asserting that bacteria were present in tumour tissue, they were consistently debunked as representing contaminants.

Then came new tools that include single-cell sequencing and sophisticated spatial profiling (I’ll describe more on this later) providing high-resolution portraits of tumours. The new dogma is that bacteria have a pervasive (yet variable) presence within and across solid tumours—the ”presence of intratumoural bacteria being designated a hallmark of cancer.” Furthermore, where bacteria are more apt to be found within tumour regions, T cell recruitment and function is suppressed. These regions of tumour are micro-niches exhibiting immune evasion.

Just as that had been determined, there was a new twist this week: engineering bacteria to induce a potent T cell immune response to kill the tumour. This can be viewed as the polar opposite. Instead of bacteria improving a tumour’s ability to duck our immune response and spread, this represents clever ways to genetically manipulate bacteria (aka “designer bugs”) to make it considerably more antigenic, a new route to immunotherapy.


This is indeed fascinating, and really new: the presence of bacteria not being contamination, but something else, was only confirmed in 2020. Now they’re being used against the tumours. It also shows how deeply enmeshed our cells and bodies are with bacteria.
unique link to this extract

Ford commits to continued CarPlay support as GM, Tesla, and Rivian face backlash for holding out • 9to5Mac

Chance Miller:


As companies like GM and Rivian face a backlash for failing to adopt Apple’s CarPlay platform, Ford is doing the exact opposite. In a statement to 9to5Mac, Ford explained its reasoning for supporting CarPlay…and it has us pondering the future of Ford’s relationship with Apple and next-gen CarPlay.

Ford is using its commitment to CarPlay as a selling point over other EVs [electric vehicles] from the likes of GM, Tesla, and Rivian. In the last two weeks, GM revealed that it will no longer support CarPlay in its EVs, starting with 2024 model-year vehicles, while Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe doubled down on his company’s resistance to CarPlay.

GM’s decision and Scaringe’s comments have faced widespread backlash from CarPlay fans. Tesla, of course, also continues to be a CarPlay holdout, and there’s no indication that it will ever change.
In a statement to 9to5Mac on Thursday, Ford made it clear that it has no plans to abandon CarPlay, unlike some of its counterparts.

“We continue to offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto because customers love the capability that enables easy access and control of their smartphone apps – especially our EV customers because some EVs currently do not offer the features,” a spokesperson said.


This does raise the question of whether CarPlay and Android Auto are really essential to the experience, or whether the EV makers such as Rivian and Tesla can nail the software stack so well that nobody will worry about using their phone for messages, maps, or music/podcasts – and will find Bluetooth does the job well enough. Far from a “backlash”, I think it’s all still to play for: possibly if enough people become acquainted with CarPlay/Android Auto in their present cars, they’ll demand it in the EVs. But I wouldn’t take that as absolutely given.
unique link to this extract

Kuwait unveiled its first AI-powered news presenter. Could it be an ethics nightmare? • AFP/Euronews

Sophia Khatsenkova :


A media outlet in Kuwait is launching its first virtual news presenter using artificial intelligence (AI). Named “Fedha,” the AI anchor made her debut on the Twitter account of Kuwait News.

The deputy editor-in-chief for Kuwait News told AFP the move tested AI’s potential to offer “new and innovative content” and the virtual anchor might be used to present news bulletins.

The presenter’s blonde hair and light-coloured eyes reflect the country’s diverse population of Kuwaitis and expats, according to the editor.

…But the rapid rise of AI globally has also sparked fears over its potential to spread disinformation and erode trust in mainstream media, according to Brandi Geurkink, strategy and technology advisor at Reset.

Kuwait ranked 158 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index. 

Experts are raising questions about whether replacing humans with AI could lead to less freedom of expression for reporters in the country. 

“I think that news broadcasting was of last bastion of truth for a lot of people to be able to see a person’s face, hear their voice and understand who this person is and whether I trust them, is important,” said Geurkink in an interview with Euronews.


Oh suuuure they chose the blonde hair to fit in with the “diverse population”. The idea that you need humans to discern whether something’s true is a strange one. People on TV (politicians) lie to you all the time.

Also, does nobody remember Ananova? An AI newsreader wayyy back in the day: 23 years ago this month. (Went nowhere.)
unique link to this extract

More than half of journalists could be set to leave Twitter, survey says • Press Gazette

Dominic Ponsford:


According to a Semrush ranking, Twitter is only the 16th most popular social media network generally with 436 million users – some way behind Facebook, Youtube, Whatsapp, Instagram, Wechat, Tiktok and Youtube which all have ore than one billion active monthly users.

And when asked if they have considered leaving Twitter in the last year some 50% of the journalist respondents said yes versus 44% who said no and 7% who were not sure.

The utility of Twitter for journalists is made clear in the survey. Of those who use the platform, some 83% use it to follow the news, 78% use it to promote their work and 69% use it to find sources.

Before Elon Musk bought Twitter in October journalists were already concerned about safety on the platform. Female journalists in particular have been subjected to threats and abuse on social media, with Twitter among the most challenging platforms – largely due to the presence of anonymous “trolls”.

Concerns about the future of Twitter have been ramped up by the platform’s plan to charge journalists and news organisations for “verified” status. Previously, blue-tick verifications were seen as a way of curbing fake news and promoting genuine sources.

But news publishers are now being issued with a bill for more than £1,000 a month to retain their verified status on the platform.


Journalists who were surveyed cited “follow the news” (83%), “promote my work” (78%), “find sources” (69%), “connect with other journalists” (67%), “connect with my audience/readers” (61%), plus “discover new voices” (48%) and “share my opinion” (43%). I think “considered leaving” is about as reliable as those celebrities who, before elections, say they’ll leave the country if X gets in, and are found still there when X has been in charge for years.
unique link to this extract

Dumping iron nanoparticles into the oceans might save the planet

Kristin Houser:


We know from natural events in the past that increasing the amount of iron in these seas can dramatically increase the growth of phytoplankton. When iron-rich ash from volcanic eruptions has fallen on the ocean’s surface, it has triggered phytoplankton blooms large enough to see from space.

This knowledge led oceanographer John Martin to put forth something called the “iron hypothesis,” which suggests that “fertilizing” the ocean with iron could increase the amount of carbon-sucking phytoplankton — theoretically enough to cool the entire Earth. “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age,” he famously quipped during a lecture in 1988.

In 1993, shortly after Martin’s death, his colleagues at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories tested the hypothesis by increasing the concentration of iron over 64 square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. They then observed the area for 10 days and saw the amount of plant biomass double.

“All biological indicators confirmed an increased rate of phytoplankton production in response to the addition of iron,” they wrote in a paper detailing the experiment.

…In 2009, researchers from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory tracked the impact of a major ocean fertilization experiment in the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica by measuring carbon particles 800 meters below the surface of the water in the area for a year — and their findings were less than encouraging.

“Just adding iron to the ocean hasn’t been demonstrated as a good plan for storing atmospheric carbon,” said researcher Jim Bishop. “What counts is the carbon that reaches the deep sea, and a lot of the carbon tied up in plankton blooms appears not to sink very fast or very far.”

While researchers are still trying to figure out why that is, there are a number of theories, including ones centered on the feeding habits of creatures that live off phytoplankton and the presence of iron-binding organic compounds in ocean water. 

Some climate scientists aren’t ready to give up on the idea of ocean fertilization just yet, though.


When you read what their plans are, though – specially coated nanoparticles! – you realise that they should. “Boil-the-ocean” plans abound. The oceans remain unboiled.
unique link to this extract

Israeli spyware maker Quadream closes, fires all employees • Haaretz

Omer Benjakob:


The cyberoffensive company QuaDream, which operates from Israel and specializes in hacking iPhones on behalf of government clients, called its employees in for a pre-termination hearing on Sunday.

For several months, the company has been undergoing significant downsizing, even losing entire teams to competitors, as Israel continues to curtail the sale of local spyware in wake of U.S. pressure.

Last week, Citizen Lab, which focuses on human rights and technology, published a report revealing that QuaDream’s spy software was used against journalists and dissidents around the world. According to people familiar with the local cyber arms industry, the report, as well as lack of sales and Israeli regulations, caused the company to halt its operations in Israel.


“Lack of sales” for a spyware company that hacks iPhones? Either Apple is getting better all the time, or they weren’t that good at it. Coin flip between them.
unique link to this extract

Russia claims bots are caught only 1% of the time, Discord leak says • The Washington Post

Joseph Menn:


The Russian government has become far more successful at manipulating social media and search engine rankings than previously known, boosting lies about Ukraine’s military and the side effects of vaccines with hundreds of thousands of fake online accounts, according to documents recently leaked on the chat app Discord.

The Russian operators of those accounts boast that they are detected by social networks only about 1% of the time, one document says.

That claim, described here for the first time, drew alarm from former government officials and experts inside and outside social media companies contacted for this article.

“Google and Meta and others are trying to stop this, and Russia is trying to get better. The figure that you are citing suggests that Russia is winning,” said Thomas Rid, a disinformation scholar and professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He added that the 1% claim was probably exaggerated or misleading.

Many of the 10 current and former intelligence and tech safety specialists interviewed for this article cautioned that the Russian agency whose claims helped form the basis for the leaked document may have exaggerated its success rate.

But even if Russia’s fake accounts escaped detection only 90% of the time instead of 99%, that would indicate Russia has become far more proficient at disseminating its views to unknowing consumers than in 2016, when it combined bot accounts with human propagandists and hacking to try to influence the course of the U.S. presidential election, the experts said.


(Thanks Matthew for the link.)
unique link to this extract

• 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: one short, one long.
Short: “rodomontade” means “boastful or inflated talk/behaviour”; it is not synonymous with “quotidian” (everyday or mundane, which is the meaning I was reaching for. Thanks Jason.)

Longer: Rodrigo from Brazil writes re the Brazil/Twitter article yesterday: “Last Monday, Ministry of Justice met with social platforms. A Mexican lawyer from Twitter (because Brazil’s Twitter was closed) shocked everyone by saying pictures of users glorying school shooters weren’t violating its terms of use. (Flávio Dino’s quote from Bloomberg was a response to this.)

Article here (please use an online translator).

“Twitter is a cesspool of hatred since ever, but it got worse with Musk. A few days before Santa Catarina shooting, a teenage from São Paulo killed a teacher. He announced and was incentivized on Twitter. Here’s a good report on this.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.