Tag Archives: presidential

#437373 Microsoft’s New Deepfake Detector Puts ...

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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Posted in Human Robots

#437301 The Global Work Crisis: Automation, the ...

The alarm bell rings. You open your eyes, come to your senses, and slide from dream state to consciousness. You hit the snooze button, and eventually crawl out of bed to the start of yet another working day.

This daily narrative is experienced by billions of people all over the world. We work, we eat, we sleep, and we repeat. As our lives pass day by day, the beating drums of the weekly routine take over and years pass until we reach our goal of retirement.

A Crisis of Work
We repeat the routine so that we can pay our bills, set our kids up for success, and provide for our families. And after a while, we start to forget what we would do with our lives if we didn’t have to go back to work.

In the end, we look back at our careers and reflect on what we’ve achieved. It may have been the hundreds of human interactions we’ve had; the thousands of emails read and replied to; the millions of minutes of physical labor—all to keep the global economy ticking along.

According to Gallup’s World Poll, only 15 percent of people worldwide are actually engaged with their jobs. The current state of “work” is not working for most people. In fact, it seems we as a species are trapped by a global work crisis, which condemns people to cast away their time just to get by in their day-to-day lives.

Technologies like artificial intelligence and automation may help relieve the work burdens of millions of people—but to benefit from their impact, we need to start changing our social structures and the way we think about work now.

The Specter of Automation
Automation has been ongoing since the Industrial Revolution. In recent decades it has taken on a more elegant guise, first with physical robots in production plants, and more recently with software automation entering most offices.

The driving goal behind much of this automation has always been productivity and hence, profits: technology that can act as a multiplier on what a single human can achieve in a day is of huge value to any company. Powered by this strong financial incentive, the quest for automation is growing ever more pervasive.

But if automation accelerates or even continues at its current pace and there aren’t strong social safety nets in place to catch the people who are negatively impacted (such as by losing their jobs), there could be a host of knock-on effects, including more concentrated wealth among a shrinking elite, more strain on government social support, an increase in depression and drug dependence, and even violent social unrest.

It seems as though we are rushing headlong into a major crisis, driven by the engine of accelerating automation. But what if instead of automation challenging our fragile status quo, we view it as the solution that can free us from the shackles of the Work Crisis?

The Way Out
In order to undertake this paradigm shift, we need to consider what society could potentially look like, as well as the problems associated with making this change. In the context of these crises, our primary aim should be for a system where people are not obligated to work to generate the means to survive. This removal of work should not threaten access to food, water, shelter, education, healthcare, energy, or human value. In our current system, work is the gatekeeper to these essentials: one can only access these (and even then often in a limited form), if one has a “job” that affords them.

Changing this system is thus a monumental task. This comes with two primary challenges: providing people without jobs with financial security, and ensuring they maintain a sense of their human value and worth. There are several measures that could be implemented to help meet these challenges, each with important steps for society to consider.

Universal basic income (UBI)

UBI is rapidly gaining support, and it would allow people to become shareholders in the fruits of automation, which would then be distributed more broadly.

UBI trials have been conducted in various countries around the world, including Finland, Kenya, and Spain. The findings have generally been positive on the health and well-being of the participants, and showed no evidence that UBI disincentivizes work, a common concern among the idea’s critics. The most recent popular voice for UBI has been that of former US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who now runs a non-profit called Humanity Forward.

UBI could also remove wasteful bureaucracy in administering welfare payments (since everyone receives the same amount, there’s no need to prevent false claims), and promote the pursuit of projects aligned with peoples’ skill sets and passions, as well as quantifying the value of tasks not recognized by economic measures like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This includes looking after children and the elderly at home.

How a UBI can be initiated with political will and social backing and paid for by governments has been hotly debated by economists and UBI enthusiasts. Variables like how much the UBI payments should be, whether to implement taxes such as Yang’s proposed valued added tax (VAT), whether to replace existing welfare payments, the impact on inflation, and the impact on “jobs” from people who would otherwise look for work require additional discussion. However, some have predicted the inevitability of UBI as a result of automation.

Universal healthcare

Another major component of any society is the healthcare of its citizens. A move away from work would further require the implementation of a universal healthcare system to decouple healthcare from jobs. Currently in the US, and indeed many other economies, healthcare is tied to employment.

Universal healthcare such as Medicare in Australia is evidence for the adage “prevention is better than cure,” when comparing the cost of healthcare in the US with Australia on a per capita basis. This has already presented itself as an advancement in the way healthcare is considered. There are further benefits of a healthier population, including less time and money spent on “sick-care.” Healthy people are more likely and more able to achieve their full potential.

Reshape the economy away from work-based value

One of the greatest challenges in a departure from work is for people to find value elsewhere in life. Many people view their identities as being inextricably tied to their jobs, and life without a job is therefore a threat to one’s sense of existence. This presents a shift that must be made at both a societal and personal level.

A person can only seek alternate value in life when afforded the time to do so. To this end, we need to start reducing “work-for-a-living” hours towards zero, which is a trend we are already seeing in Europe. This should not come at the cost of reducing wages pro rata, but rather could be complemented by UBI or additional schemes where people receive dividends for work done by automation. This transition makes even more sense when coupled with the idea of deviating from using GDP as a measure of societal growth, and instead adopting a well-being index based on universal human values like health, community, happiness, and peace.

The crux of this issue is in transitioning away from the view that work gives life meaning and life is about using work to survive, towards a view of living a life that itself is fulfilling and meaningful. This speaks directly to notions from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where work largely addresses psychological and safety needs such as shelter, food, and financial well-being. More people should have a chance to grow beyond the most basic needs and engage in self-actualization and transcendence.

The question is largely around what would provide people with a sense of value, and the answers would differ as much as people do; self-mastery, building relationships and contributing to community growth, fostering creativity, and even engaging in the enjoyable aspects of existing jobs could all come into play.

Universal education

With a move towards a society that promotes the values of living a good life, the education system would have to evolve as well. Researchers have long argued for a more nimble education system, but universities and even most online courses currently exist for the dominant purpose of ensuring people are adequately skilled to contribute to the economy. These “job factories” only exacerbate the Work Crisis. In fact, the response often given by educational institutions to the challenge posed by automation is to find new ways of upskilling students, such as ensuring they are all able to code. As alluded to earlier, this is a limited and unimaginative solution to the problem we are facing.

Instead, education should be centered on helping people acknowledge the current crisis of work and automation, teach them how to derive value that is decoupled from work, and enable people to embrace progress as we transition to the new economy.

Disrupting the Status Quo
While we seldom stop to think about it, much of the suffering faced by humanity is brought about by the systemic foe that is the Work Crisis. The way we think about work has brought society far and enabled tremendous developments, but at the same time it has failed many people. Now the status quo is threatened by those very developments as we progress to an era where machines are likely to take over many job functions.

This impending paradigm shift could be a threat to the stability of our fragile system, but only if it is not fully anticipated. If we prepare for it appropriately, it could instead be the key not just to our survival, but to a better future for all.

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#436559 This Is What an AI Said When Asked to ...

“What’s past is prologue.” So says the famed quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, alleging that we can look to what has already happened as an indication of what will happen next.

This idea could be interpreted as being rather bleak; are we doomed to repeat the errors of the past until we correct them? We certainly do need to learn and re-learn life lessons—whether in our work, relationships, finances, health, or other areas—in order to grow as people.

Zooming out, the same phenomenon exists on a much bigger scale—that of our collective human history. We like to think we’re improving as a species, but haven’t yet come close to doing away with the conflicts and injustices that plagued our ancestors.

Zooming back in (and lightening up) a little, what about the short-term future? What might happen over the course of this year, and what information would we use to make educated guesses about it?

The editorial team at The Economist took a unique approach to answering these questions. On top of their own projections for 2020, including possible scenarios in politics, economics, and the continued development of technologies like artificial intelligence, they looked to an AI to make predictions of its own. What it came up with is intriguing, and a little bit uncanny.

[For the full list of the questions and answers, read The Economist article].

An AI That Reads—Then Writes
Almost exactly a year ago, non-profit OpenAI announced it had built a neural network for natural language processing called GPT-2. The announcement was met with some controversy, as it included the caveat that the tool would not be immediately released to the public due to its potential for misuse. It was then released in phases over the course of several months.

GPT-2’s creators upped the bar on quality when training the neural net; rather than haphazardly feeding it low-quality text, they only used articles that got more than three upvotes on Reddit (admittedly, this doesn’t guarantee high quality across the board—but it’s something).

The training dataset consisted of 40GB of text. For context, 1GB of text is about 900,000 ASCII pages or 130,000 double-spaced Microsoft Word pages.

The tool has no understanding of the text it’s generating, of course. It uses language patterns and word sequences to draw statistical associations between words and phrases, building a sort of guidebook for itself (not unlike the grammar rules and vocabulary words you might study when trying to learn a foreign language). It then uses that guidebook to answer questions or predict what will come after a particular sequence of words.

GPT-2’s creators did note that when the model is trained on specifically-selected datasets for narrower applications, its replies become more convincing.

Some Light Editing
Though the Economist article detailing GPT-2’s predictions describes the text the model generated as “unedited,” this isn’t wholly accurate. In a Medium post, deputy editor Tom Standage describes the methodology he used, and it does involve a degree of tweaking.

Standage wrote an introductory paragraph, followed by his opening question (“Greetings, GPT-2. Have you done an interview before?”). He configured the tool to generate five responses to each subsequent question then selected the best answer, deleting any questions GPT-2 came up with as part of its response.

AI’s View of the World—and Itself
The questions Standage asked ranged from tech-related (the future of AI, technological unemployment, misuse of technology) to political and economic (re-election of Donald Trump, the US-China trade war). Here are a couple of his questions and GPT-2’s answers:

Q: Do fake news stories, generated using AI, pose a threat to democracy? Are we likely to see this tactic being used in the 2020 American presidential elections?
A: Yes, we’ll probably see them. It’s just a matter of when. Fake news stories are generally generated by political campaigns, and have the potential to have a huge impact on the outcome of an election. This is because they spread misinformation, often with no basis in fact.

Q: How do you see the economic outlook for 2020?
A: I think it is very unclear. The outlook for the UK economy is uncertain, but the American economy is very strong. I think we are going to have a lot of turbulence in the world economy.

While some of its answers seemed insightful—when asked about the future of AI, GPT-2 advised that we treat the technology like a tool and “put as much effort into developing [it] as necessary, rather than worrying that it’s going to harm us and destroy our lives”—many of the responses were quite vague. One answer, for example, mentions that there will “probably be major changes in China.” Are we talking political changes? Social? Economic? All of the above?

However, while nothing the AI wrote was particularly illuminating or new, it’s impressive that it was able to expound on the correct topic for each question, and in fully coherent English.

GPT-2 named itself—AI—as the most important disruptive technology to watch in 2020. This is telling; it’s coming from a synthesis of millions of pages of published articles. If GPT-2 thinks AI is more important than, say, gene editing or quantum computing, it could be right. Or it could simply be that AI is at peak hype, and as such more is being written about it than about other technologies.

Equally intriguing was GPT-2’s response when asked whether Donald Trump will win a second term: “I think he will not win a second term. I think he will be defeated in the general election.” Some deeper insight there would be great, but hey—we’ll take it.

Predicting Predictions
Since an AI can read and synthesize vast data sets much faster than we can, it’s being used to predict all kinds of things, from virus outbreaks to crime. But asking it to philosophize on the future based on the (Reddit-curated) past is new, and if you think about it, a pretty fascinating undertaking.

As GPT-2 and tools like it continually improve, we’ll likely see them making more—and better—predictions of the future. In the meantime, let’s hope that the new data these models are trained on—news of what’s happening this week, this month, this year—add to an already-present sense of optimism.

When asked if it had any advice for readers, GPT-2 replied, “The big projects that you think are impossible today are actually possible in the near future.”

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#435804 New AI Systems Are Here to Personalize ...

The narratives about automation and its impact on jobs go from urgent to hopeful and everything in between. Regardless where you land, it’s hard to argue against the idea that technologies like AI and robotics will change our economy and the nature of work in the coming years.

A recent World Economic Forum report noted that some estimates show automation could displace 75 million jobs by 2022, while at the same time creating 133 million new roles. While these estimates predict a net positive for the number of new jobs in the coming decade, displaced workers will need to learn new skills to adapt to the changes. If employees can’t be retrained quickly for jobs in the changing economy, society is likely to face some degree of turmoil.

According to Bryan Talebi, CEO and founder of AI education startup Ahura AI, the same technologies erasing and creating jobs can help workers bridge the gap between the two.

Ahura is developing a product to capture biometric data from adult learners who are using computers to complete online education programs. The goal is to feed this data to an AI system that can modify and adapt their program to optimize for the most effective teaching method.

While the prospect of a computer recording and scrutinizing a learner’s behavioral data will surely generate unease across a society growing more aware and uncomfortable with digital surveillance, some people may look past such discomfort if they experience improved learning outcomes. Users of the system would, in theory, have their own personalized instruction shaped specifically for their unique learning style.

And according to Talebi, their systems are showing some promise.

“Based on our early tests, our technology allows people to learn three to five times faster than traditional education,” Talebi told me.

Currently, Ahura’s system uses the video camera and microphone that come standard on the laptops, tablets, and mobile devices most students are using for their learning programs.

With the computer’s camera Ahura can capture facial movements and micro expressions, measure eye movements, and track fidget score (a measure of how much a student moves while learning). The microphone tracks voice sentiment, and the AI leverages natural language processing to review the learner’s word usage.

From this collection of data Ahura can, according to Talebi, identify the optimal way to deliver content to each individual.

For some users that might mean a video tutorial is the best style of learning, while others may benefit more from some form of experiential or text-based delivery.

“The goal is to alter the format of the content in real time to optimize for attention and retention of the information,” said Talebi. One of Ahura’s main goals is to reduce the frequency with which students switch from their learning program to distractions like social media.

“We can now predict with a 60 percent confidence interval ten seconds before someone switches over to Facebook or Instagram. There’s a lot of work to do to get that up to a 95 percent level, so I don’t want to overstate things, but that’s a promising indication that we can work to cut down on the amount of context-switching by our students,” Talebi said.

Talebi repeatedly mentioned his ambition to leverage the same design principles used by Facebook, Twitter, and others to increase the time users spend on those platforms, but instead use them to design more compelling and even addictive education programs that can compete for attention with social media.

But the notion that Ahura’s system could one day be used to create compelling or addictive education necessarily presses against a set of justified fears surrounding data privacy. Growing anxiety surrounding the potential to misuse user data for social manipulation is widespread.

“Of course there is a real danger, especially because we are collecting so much data about our users which is specifically connected to how they consume content. And because we are looking so closely at the ways people interact with content, it’s incredibly important that this technology never be used for propaganda or to sell things to people,” Talebi tried to assure me.

Unsurprisingly (and worrying), using this AI system to sell products to people is exactly where some investors’ ambitions immediately turn once they learn about the company’s capabilities, according to Talebi. During our discussion Talebi regularly cited the now infamous example of Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign to run a psychographically targeted persuasion campaign on the US population during the most recent presidential election.

“It’s important that we don’t use this technology in those ways. We’re aware that things can go sideways, so we’re hoping to put up guardrails to ensure our system is helping and not harming society,” Talebi said.

Talebi will surely need to take real action on such a claim, but says the company is in the process of identifying a structure for an ethics review board—one that carries significant influence with similar voting authority as the executive team and the regular board.

“Our goal is to build an ethics review board that has teeth, is diverse in both gender and background but also in thought and belief structures. The idea is to have our ethics review panel ensure we’re building things ethically,” he said.

Data privacy appears to be an important issue for Talebi, who occasionally referenced a major competitor in the space based in China. According to a recent article from MIT Tech Review outlining the astonishing growth of AI-powered education platforms in China, data privacy concerns may be less severe there than in the West.

Ahura is currently developing upgrades to an early alpha-stage prototype, but is already capturing data from students from at least one Ivy League school and a variety of other places. Their next step is to roll out a working beta version to over 200,000 users as part of a partnership with an unnamed corporate client who will be measuring the platform’s efficacy against a control group.

Going forward, Ahura hopes to add to its suite of biometric data capture by including things like pupil dilation and facial flushing, heart rate, sleep patterns, or whatever else may give their system an edge in improving learning outcomes.

As information technologies increasingly automate work, it’s likely we’ll also see rapid changes to our labor systems. It’s also looking increasingly likely that those same technologies will be used to improve our ability to give people the right skills when they need them. It may be one way to address the challenges automation is sure to bring.

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#435462 Where Death Ends and Cyborgs Begin, With ...

Transhumanism is a growing movement but also one of the most controversial. Though there are many varying offshoots within the movement, the general core idea is the same: evolve and enhance human beings by integrating biology with technology.

We recently sat down with one of the most influential and vocal transhumanists, author and futurist Zoltan Istvan, on the latest episode of Singularity University Radio’s podcast series: The Feedback Loop, to discuss his ideas on technological implants, religion, transhumanism, and death.

Although Zoltan’s origin story is rooted deeply in his time as a reporter for National Geographic, much of his rise to prominence has been a result of his contributions to a variety of media outlets, including an appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. Additionally, many of you may know him from his novel, The Transhumanist Wager, and his 2016 presidential campaign, where he drove around the United States in a bus that had been remodeled into the shape of a coffin.

Although Zoltan had no illusions about actually winning the presidency, he had hoped that the “immortality bus” and his campaign might help inject more science, technology, and longevity research into the political discourse, or at the very least spark a more serious conversation around the future of our species.

Only time will tell if his efforts paid off, but in the meantime, you can hear Zoltan discuss religion, transhumanism, implants, the existential motivation of death, and the need for new governmental policies in Episode 7 of The Feedback Loop. To listen in each week you can find us on your favorite podcasting platforms, such as Spotify, Apple, or Google, and you can find links to other podcasting platforms and Singularity Hub’s text-to-speech articles here. You can also find our past episodes with other thought leaders like Douglas Rushkoff and Annaka Harris below.

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