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The upcoming US presidential election seems set to be something of a mess—to put it lightly. Covid-19 will likely deter millions from voting in person, and mail-in voting isn’t shaping up to be much more promising. This all comes at a time when political tensions are running higher than they have in decades, issues that shouldn’t be political (like mask-wearing) have become highly politicized, and Americans are dramatically divided along party lines.
So the last thing we need right now is yet another wrench in the spokes of democracy, in the form of disinformation; we all saw how that played out in 2016, and it wasn’t pretty. For the record, disinformation purposely misleads people, while misinformation is simply inaccurate, but without malicious intent. While there’s not a ton tech can do to make people feel safe at crowded polling stations or up the Postal Service’s budget, tech can help with disinformation, and Microsoft is trying to do so.
On Tuesday the company released two new tools designed to combat disinformation, described in a blog post by VP of Customer Security and Trust Tom Burt and Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz.
The first is Microsoft Video Authenticator, which is made to detect deepfakes. In case you’re not familiar with this wicked byproduct of AI progress, “deepfakes” refers to audio or visual files made using artificial intelligence that can manipulate peoples’ voices or likenesses to make it look like they said things they didn’t. Editing a video to string together words and form a sentence someone didn’t say doesn’t count as a deepfake; though there’s manipulation involved, you don’t need a neural network and you’re not generating any original content or footage.
The Authenticator analyzes videos or images and tells users the percentage chance that they’ve been artificially manipulated. For videos, the tool can even analyze individual frames in real time.
Deepfake videos are made by feeding hundreds of hours of video of someone into a neural network, “teaching” the network the minutiae of the person’s voice, pronunciation, mannerisms, gestures, etc. It’s like when you do an imitation of your annoying coworker from accounting, complete with mimicking the way he makes every sentence sound like a question and his eyes widen when he talks about complex spreadsheets. You’ve spent hours—no, months—in his presence and have his personality quirks down pat. An AI algorithm that produces deepfakes needs to learn those same quirks, and more, about whoever the creator’s target is.
Given enough real information and examples, the algorithm can then generate its own fake footage, with deepfake creators using computer graphics and manually tweaking the output to make it as realistic as possible.
The scariest part? To make a deepfake, you don’t need a fancy computer or even a ton of knowledge about software. There are open-source programs people can access for free online, and as far as finding video footage of famous people—well, we’ve got YouTube to thank for how easy that is.
Microsoft’s Video Authenticator can detect the blending boundary of a deepfake and subtle fading or greyscale elements that the human eye may not be able to see.
In the blog post, Burt and Horvitz point out that as time goes by, deepfakes are only going to get better and become harder to detect; after all, they’re generated by neural networks that are continuously learning from and improving themselves.
Microsoft’s counter-tactic is to come in from the opposite angle, that is, being able to confirm beyond doubt that a video, image, or piece of news is real (I mean, can McDonald’s fries cure baldness? Did a seal slap a kayaker in the face with an octopus? Never has it been so imperative that the world know the truth).
A tool built into Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud computing service, lets content producers add digital hashes and certificates to their content, and a reader (which can be used as a browser extension) checks the certificates and matches the hashes to indicate the content is authentic.
Finally, Microsoft also launched an interactive “Spot the Deepfake” quiz it developed in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, deepfake detection company Sensity, and USA Today. The quiz is intended to help people “learn about synthetic media, develop critical media literacy skills, and gain awareness of the impact of synthetic media on democracy.”
The impact Microsoft’s new tools will have remains to be seen—but hey, we’re glad they’re trying. And they’re not alone; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all taken steps to ban and remove deepfakes from their sites. The AI Foundation’s Reality Defender uses synthetic media detection algorithms to identify fake content. There’s even a coalition of big tech companies teaming up to try to fight election interference.
One thing is for sure: between a global pandemic, widespread protests and riots, mass unemployment, a hobbled economy, and the disinformation that’s remained rife through it all, we’re going to need all the help we can get to make it through not just the election, but the rest of the conga-line-of-catastrophes year that is 2020.
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The scale of goods moving around the planet at any moment is staggering. Raw materials are dug up in one country, spun into parts and pieces in another, and assembled into products in a third. Crossing oceans and continents, they find their way to a local store or direct to your door.
Magically, a roll of toilet paper, power tool, or tube of toothpaste is there just when you need it.
Even more staggering is that this whole system, the global supply chain, works so well that it’s effectively invisible most of the time. Until now, that is. The pandemic has thrown a floodlight on the inner workings of this modern wonder—and it’s exposed massive vulnerabilities.
The e-commerce supply chain is an instructive example. As the world went into lockdown, and everything non-essential went online, demand for digital fulfillment skyrocketed.
Even under “normal” conditions, most e-commerce warehouses were struggling to meet demand. But Covid-19 has further strained the ability to cope with shifting supply, an unprecedented tidal wave of orders, and labor shortages. Local stores are running out of key products. Online grocers and e-commerce platforms are suspending some home deliveries, restricting online purchases of certain items, and limiting new customers. The whole system is being severely tested.
Why? Despite an abundance of 21st century technology, we’re stuck in the 20th century.
Today’s supply chain consists of fleets of ships, trucks, warehouses, and importantly, people scattered around the world. While there are some notable instances of advanced automation, the overwhelming majority of work is still manual, resembling a sort of human-powered bucket brigade, with people wandering around warehouses or standing alongside conveyor belts. Each package of diapers or bottle of detergent ordered by an online customer might be touched dozens of times by warehouse workers before finding its way into a box delivered to a home.
The pandemic has proven the critical need for innovation due to increased demand, concerns about the health and safety of workers, and traceability and safety of products and services.
At the 2020 World Economic Forum, there was much discussion about the ongoing societal transformation in which humans and machines work in tandem, automating and augmenting the way we get things done. At the time, pre-pandemic, debate trended toward skepticism and fear of job losses, with some even questioning the ethics and need for these technologies.
Now, we see things differently. To make the global supply chain more resilient to shocks like Covid-19, we must look to technology.
Perfecting the Global Supply Chain: The Massive ‘Matter Router’
Technology has faced and overcome similar challenges in the past.
World War II, for example, drove innovation in techniques for rapid production of many products on a large scale, including penicillin. We went from the availability of one dose of the drug in 1941, to four million sterile packages of the drug every month four years later.
Similarly, today’s companies, big and small, are looking to automation, robotics, and AI to meet the pandemic head on. These technologies are crucial to scaling the infrastructure that will fulfill most of the world’s e-commerce and food distribution needs.
You can think of this new infrastructure as a rapidly evolving “matter router” that will employ increasingly complex robotic systems to move products more freely and efficiently.
Robots powered by specialized AI software, for example, are already learning to adapt to changes in the environment, using the most recent advances in industrial robotics and machine learning. When customers suddenly need to order dramatically new items, these robots don’t need to stop or be reprogrammed. They can perform new tasks by learning from experience using low-cost camera systems and deep learning for visual and image recognition.
These more flexible robots can work around the clock, helping make facilities less sensitive to sudden changes in workforce and customer demand and strengthening the supply chain.
Today, e-commerce is roughly 12% of retail sales in the US and is expected to rise well beyond 25% within the decade, fueled by changes in buying habits. However, analysts have begun to consider whether the current crisis might cause permanent jumps in those numbers, as it has in the past (for instance with the SARS epidemic in China in 2003). Whatever happens, the larger supply chain will benefit from greater, more flexible automation, especially during global crises.
We must create what Hamza Mudassire of the University of Cambridge calls a “resilient ecosystem that links multiple buyers with multiple vendors, across a mesh of supply chains.” This ecosystem must be backed by robust, efficient, and scalable automation that uses robotics, autonomous vehicles, and the Internet of Things to help track the flow of goods through the supply chain.
The good news? We can accomplish this with technologies we have today.
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We Need to Start Modeling Alternative Futures
Andrew Marino | The Verge
“‘I’m going to be the first person to tell you if you gave me all the data in the world and all the computers in the world, at this moment in time I cannot tell you what things are going to look like in three months,’ [says quantitative futurist Amy Webb.] ‘And that’s fine because that tells us we still have some agency. …The good news is if you are willing to lean into uncertainty and to accept the fact that you can’t control everything, but also you are not helpless in whatever comes next.'”
The Dangers of Moving All of Democracy Online
Marion Fourcade and Henry Farrell | Wired
“As we try to protect democracy from coronavirus, we must see technology as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. …If we’re very lucky, we’ll have restrained, targeted, and temporary measures that will be effective against the pandemic. If we’re not, we’ll create an open-ended, sweeping surveillance system that will undermine democratic freedoms without doing much to stop coronavirus.”
Why Does It Suddenly Feel Like 1999 on the Internet?
Tanya Basu and Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“You see it in the renewed willingness of people to form virtual relationships. …Now casually hanging out with randos (virtually, of course) is cool again. People are joining video calls with people they’ve never met for everything from happy hours to book clubs to late-night flirting. They’re sharing in collective moments of creativity on Google Sheets, looking for new pandemic pen pals, and sending softer, less pointed emails.”
Covid-19 Changed How the World Does Science, Together
Matt Apuzzo and David D. Kirkpatrick | The New York Times
“While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.”
A Debate Between AI Experts Shows a Battle Over the Technology’s Future
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“The disagreements [the two experts] expressed mirror many of the clashes within the field, highlighting how powerfully the technology has been shaped by a persistent battle of ideas and how little certainty there is about where it’s headed next.”
Meet the Xenobots, Virtual Creatures Brought to Life
Joshua Sokol | The New York Times
“If the last few decades of progress in artificial intelligence and in molecular biology hooked up, their love child—a class of life unlike anything that has ever lived—might resemble the dark specks doing lazy laps around a petri dish in a laboratory at Tufts University.”
Rivian Wants to Bring Electric Trucks to the Masses
Jon Gertner | Wired
“The pickup walks a careful line between Detroit traditionalism and EV iconoclasm. Where Tesla’s forthcoming Cybertruck looks like origami on wheels, the R1T, slim and limber, looks more like an F-150 on a gym-and-yoga regimen.”
The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Power
John R. Quain | Gizmodo
“To save us from the coming climate catastrophe, we need an energy hero, boasting limitless power and no greenhouse gas emissions (or nearly none). So it’s time, say some analysts, to resuscitate the nuclear energy industry. Doing so could provide carbon-free energy. But any plan to make nuclear power a big part of the energy mix also comes with serious financial risks as well as questions about if there’s enough time to enlist an army of nuclear power plants in the battle against the climate crisis.”
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