Start Up No.1997: the fresh threat of AI, ChatGPT reads minds?, life in digital journalism, NYPD boosts AirTags, and more

You can now tour every Star Trek bridge via a web portal – you won’t even need to wear the clothes to fit in. But shouldn’t it be VR instead? CC-licensed photo by WarvanWarvan on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

Yuval Noah Harari argues that AI has hacked the operating system of human civilisation • The Economist

Yuval Noah Harari:


What would happen once a non-human intelligence becomes better than the average human at telling stories, composing melodies, drawing images, and writing laws and scriptures? When people think about ChatGPT and other new AI tools, they are often drawn to examples like school children using AI to write their essays. What will happen to the school system when kids do that? But this kind of question misses the big picture. Forget about school essays. Think of the next American presidential race in 2024, and try to imagine the impact of AI tools that can be made to mass-produce political content, fake-news stories and scriptures for new cults.

In recent years the qAnon cult has coalesced around anonymous online messages, known as “q drops”. Followers collected, revered and interpreted these q drops as a sacred text. While to the best of our knowledge all previous q drops were composed by humans, and bots merely helped disseminate them, in future we might see the first cults in history whose revered texts were written by a non-human intelligence. Religions throughout history have claimed a non-human source for their holy books. Soon that might be a reality.

On a more prosaic level, we might soon find ourselves conducting lengthy online discussions about abortion, climate change or the Russian invasion of Ukraine with entities that we think are humans—but are actually AI. The catch is that it is utterly pointless for us to spend time trying to change the declared opinions of an AI bot, while the AI could hone its messages so precisely that it stands a good chance of influencing us.


There’s also a (released in a rush) interview with Geoffrey Hinton, ex-Google, at MIT Tech Review:


“These things are totally different from us,” he says. “Sometimes I think it’s as if aliens had landed and people haven’t realized because they speak very good English.”


(YNH piece via John Naughton.)
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Scientists use GPT AI to passively read people’s thoughts in breakthrough • Vice

Becky Ferreira:


The breakthrough marks the first time that continuous language has been non-invasively reconstructed from human brain activities, which are read through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. 

The decoder was able to interpret the gist of stories that human subjects watched or listened to—or even simply imagined—using fMRI brain patterns, an achievement that essentially allows it to read peoples’ minds with unprecedented efficacy. While this technology is still in its early stages, scientists hope it might one day help people with neurological conditions that affect speech to clearly communicate with the outside world.

However, the team that made the decoder also warned that brain-reading platforms could eventually have nefarious applications, including as a means of surveillance for governments and employers. Though the researchers emphasized that their decoder requires the cooperation of human subjects to work, they argued that “brain–computer interfaces should respect mental privacy,” according to a study published on Monday in Nature Neuroscience.

“Currently, language-decoding is done using implanted devices that require neurosurgery, and our study is the first to decode continuous language, meaning more than full words or sentences, from non-invasive brain recordings, which we collect using functional MRI,” said Jerry Tang, a graduate student in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study, in a press briefing held last Thursday.

“The goal of language-decoding is to take recordings of a user’s brain activity and predict the words that the user was hearing or saying or imagining,” he noted. “Eventually, we hope that this technology can help people who have lost the ability to speak due to injuries like strokes, or diseases like ALS.”


It’s very dramatic, though fMRI is one of those Tinkerbell technologies – the more you believe in it, the better it works. But if you don’t…
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May 2 1997: Labour routs Tories in historic election • BBC On This Day

May 1997:


The Labour Party has won the general election in a landslide victory, leaving the Conservatives in tatters after 18 years in power, with Scotland and Wales left devoid of Tory representation.

Labour now has a formidable 419 seats (including the speaker) – the largest the party has ever taken. The Conservatives took just 165, their worst performance since 1906.

Tony Blair – at 43 the youngest British prime minister this century – promised he would deliver “unity and purpose for the future”.

John Major has resigned as Conservative leader, saying “When the curtain falls it’s time to get off the stage and that is what I propose to do.”


Major went to spend the May afternoon watching a cricket match, and stayed mostly quiet for more than a decade until the Brexit vote hove into view.

The next election is due some time before the end of 2024. Let’s see how that goes.
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Surviving (just about) the digital media carnage • The Fence

An anonymous insider (who I think worked at Buzzfeed) on the highs and lows:


Even when I arrived, there was a sense that the glory days were over. Staff complained loudly that there was no free swag bag at the Christmas party. (A few years back, everyone had been gifted wraps of coke.) Our company had recently secured mega-bucks investment from corporate investors, and over the coming years the pressure to make good on that investment became increasingly strained.

Redundancies crashed over the editorial team in waves. First our news division was laid off. Then the parts of the site that were trafficking badly were excised, then a wider round of lay-offs that seemed to cherry-pick people at random. One time, they forgot to lay off a colleague for the simple reason that they forgot he existed. Someone eventually remembered him, and got in touch to let him know his services would no longer be required – after he’d enjoyed the sweet relief of thinking he’d escaped.

So many talented people were laid off, and so many mediocre employees survived. There was no way the lay-offs could be performance-related. Executives crashed through strategies. We were pivoting to video, pivoting away from video, pivoting to a digital-first strategy, pivoting to a multi-platform strategy, consolidating our brands under one brand, unconsolidating them again.
I came to understand the vagaries of my employer in the same way that a child learns to study the rhythms and temper of an abusive parent. Typically, there would be an eight to twelve-month period of calm, before the sudden, stuttering shock of a round of Friday afternoon lay-offs. Colleagues were mourned on Twitter. We would mutter about unionising.

…But even the best managers would have been powerless to face down the Facebook and Google duopoly. It was like a suicide attempt, where the person realises too late that they don’t actually want to die and scrambles for a foothold – their toe hooked on an overturned chair – before succumbing to a slow, asphyxiating death.


To be honest, sounds like working on The Independent from 1995-2000, which was a constant round of layoffs and dwindling numbers. Except we were already unionised. Still, had an upside: met my future wife at one of the leaving dos.

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NYPD urges citizens to buy AirTags to fight surge in car thefts • Ars Technica

Scharon Harding:


The New York Police Department (NYPD) and New York City’s self-proclaimed computer geek of a mayor are urging resident car owners to equip their vehicles with an Apple AirTag. During a press conference on Sunday, Mayor Eric Adams announced the distribution of 500 free AirTags to New Yorkers, saying the technology would aid in reducing the city’s surging car theft numbers.

Adams held the press conference at the 43rd precinct in the Bronx, where he said there had been 200 instances of grand larceny of autos. An NYPD official said that in New York City, 966 Hyundais and Kias have been stolen this year thus far, already surpassing 2022’s 819 total. The NYPD’s public crime statistics tracker says there have been 4,492 vehicle thefts this year, a 13.3% increase compared to the same period last year and the largest increase among NYC’s seven major crime categories.

Adams, as the city did when announcing litigation against Kia and Hyundai on April 7, largely blamed the rise in car thefts on Kia and Hyundai, which he said are “leading the way” in stolen car brands.

Hyundais and Kias were the subjects of the Kia Challenge TikTok trend that encouraged people to jack said vehicles with a mere USB-A cable. The topic has graduated way beyond a social media fad and into a serious concern. Adams, for example, pointed to stolen cars as a gateway to other crimes, like hit-and-runs. It can also be dangerous; four teenagers in upstate New York died during a joyride with a stolen Kia last year. And some insurance companies even stopped taking new insurance policies for some Hyundais and Kias. In February, Kia and Hyundai issued updates to make the cars harder to lift.

Adams was adamant grand larceny auto numbers were dragging the city’s overall crime numbers up and urged New Yorkers to “participate” in the fight against car theft by using an AirTag.


I thought the UK had cut down on car theft through immobilisers, but London in 2022 had more than 26,000 thefts – though it seems a large proportion of the targeted cars are high-end, keyless models stolen by complex methods (as we’ve discussed here recently). Those have trackers built in. Still get nicked.
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Brazil pushes back on big tech firms’ campaign against ‘fake news law’ • Reuters

Anthony Boadle:


Brazil’s government and judiciary objected on Tuesday to big tech firms campaigning against an internet regulation bill aimed at cracking down on fake news, alleging undue interference in the debate in Congress.

Bill 2630, also known as the Fake News Law, puts the onus on the internet companies, search engines and social messaging services to find and report illegal material, instead of leaving it to the courts, charging hefty fines for failures to do so.

Tech firms have been campaigning against the bill, including Google which had added a link on its search engine in Brazil connecting to blogs against the bill and asking users to lobby their representatives.

Justice Minister Flavio Dino ordered Google to change the link on Tuesday, saying the company had two hours after notification or would face fines of one million reais ($198,000) per hour if it did not.

“What is this? An editorial? This is not a media or an advertising company,” the minister told a news conference, calling Google’s link disguised and misleading advertising for the company’s stance against the law.

The US company promptly pulled the link, though Google defended its right to communicate its concerns through “marketing campaigns” on its platforms and denied altering search results to favor material contrary to the bill.

“We support discussions on measures to combat the phenomenon of misinformation. All Brazilians have the right to be part of this conversation, and as such, we are committed to communicating our concerns about Bill 2630 publicly and transparently,” it said in a statement.


On its face, this law is like the XKCD cartoon “Someone is wrong on the internet”, except Google and other tech firms have to correct it all the time. What does that mean for YouTube – do all the flat earth videos vanish in Brazil? Or all of the videos?
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‘Star Trek’ fans can now virtually tour every Starship Enterprise bridge • Smithsonian Magazine

Sarah Kuta:


For decades, many “Star Trek” fans have imagined what it would be like to work from the bridge of the starship Enterprise, the long-running franchise’s high-tech space-exploring vessel. Through various iterations and seasons of the series, created by Gene Roddenberry in the ’60s, the bridge has remained a constant, serving as the backdrop for many important moments in the show’s 800-plus episodes.

Now, die-hard Trekkies and casual watchers alike can virtually roam around the Enterprise’s bridge to their heart’s content, thanks to a sophisticated and highly detailed new web portal that brings the space to life.

The site features 360-degree, 3D models of the various versions of the Enterprise, as well as a timeline of the ship’s evolution throughout the franchise’s history. Fans of the show can also read detailed information about each version of the ship’s design, its significance to the “Star Trek” storyline and its production backstory.


This seems like it would be the ideal thing for virtual reality. Though, OK, you might need some sort of thing where you’re not walking, but floating around. So VR with no legs so you’re not tempted to walk?
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About us • Fakespot


Fakespot’s mission is to bring trust and transparency to the Internet by eliminating misinformation and fraud, starting with eCommerce. Fakespot protects consumers while saving them both time and money by using AI to detect fraudulent product reviews and third-party sellers in real-time. Our proprietary technology analyzes billions of consumer reviews to quickly identify suspicious activity and then recommend better alternatives to consumers. We got tired of getting ripped off online, so we made it our mission to never let it happen to anyone else.


Mozilla has just bought this company:


In Mozilla, we have found a partner that shares a similar mission as to what the future of the internet should look like, where the convergence of trust, privacy and security play an imperative part of our digital experiences.

In a time where it’s simpler than ever before to generate fake content, the browser is the first entry point to consuming that content. As such, browsers have the most potential for true innovations where actions, like shopping, become better than ever before.


Mozilla, clinging to life through Google’s generous sponsorship of its search box (renews this year!), and still looking for that new USP.
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Intel: Just You Wait. Again.• Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée looks at how Intel has promised – or threatened – to catch up with the ARM-based world ever since Apple stuck a Qualcomm chip in the first iPhone:


the company’s revenue for its new IFS foundry business decreased by 24% to an insignificant $118m, with a $140m operating loss gingerly explained as “increased spending to support strategic growth”. Other Intel businesses such as Networking (NEX) products and Mobileye — yet another Autonomous Driving Technology — add nothing promising to the company’s picture.

This doesn’t prevent Gelsinger from once again intoning the Just You Wait refrain. This time, the promise is to “regain transistor performance and power performance leadership by 2025”.

Is it credible?

We all agree that the US tech industry would be better served by Intel providing a better alternative to TSMC’s and Samsung’s advanced foundries. Indeed, We The Taxpayers are funding efforts to stimulate our country’s semiconductor sector at the tune of $52B. I won’t comment other than to reminisce about a difficult late 80s conversation with an industry CEO when, as an Apple exec, I naively opposed an attempt to combat the loss of semiconductor memory business to foreign competitors by subsidizing something tentatively called US Memories. But, in this really complicated 2023 world, what choices do we actually have?

For years I’ve watched Intel’s repeated mistakes, the misplaced self-regard, the ineffective leadership changes for this Silicon Valley icon, for the inventor of the first commercial microprocessor, only to be disappointed time and again as the company failed to shake the Wintel yoke — while Microsoft successfully diversified.

I fervently hope Pat Gelsinger succeeds.


Chances aren’t looking that good that he will, though. Maybe Intel will become an also-ran in the category it invented.
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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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