Four ways the Supreme Court could reshape the web
Scenario 1: One or both cases are dismissed or sent back.
Several justices voiced confusion about what exactly the Gonzalez case was arguing, and how the case got all the way up to the Supreme Court. The plaintiff’s lawyers received criticism for poor arguments, and there’s speculation that the case might be dismissed. This would mean the Supreme Court could avoid ruling on Section 230 at all, and send a clear signal that Congress ought to deal with the problem. There’s also a chance that the Taamneh case could go back to the lower court.
Scenario 2: Google wins in Gonzalez, but the way Section 230 is interpreted changes.
When the Supreme Court issues a verdict, it issues opinions on the verdict too. These opinions offer legal rationales that change how lower courts interpret the ruling and law going forward. So even if Google wins, that doesn’t necessarily mean the court won’t write something that changes the way Section 230 is interpreted.
It’s possible that the court could open a whole new can of worms if it does this. For example, there was lots of discussion about “neutral algorithms” during the oral arguments—tapping into the age-old myth that technology can be separated from messy, complex societal issues. It’s unclear exactly what would constitute algorithmic neutrality, and much has been written about the inherently non-neutral nature of AI.
Scenario 3: The Taamneh ruling becomes the heavy hitter.
The oral arguments in Taamneh seemed to have more teeth. The justices seemed more up to speed on the basics of the case, and questions focused on how it should interpret the Antiterrorism Act. Though the arguments don’t mention Section 230, the results could still change how platforms are held responsible for content moderation.
Arguments in Taamneh centered on what Twitter knew about how ISIS used its platform and whether the company’s actions (or inactions) led to ISIS recruitment. If the court agrees with Taamneh, platforms might be incentivized to look away from potentially illegal content so they can claim immunity, which could make the internet less safe. On the other hand, Twitter said it relied on government authorities to inform the company about terrorist content, which could raise other questions about free speech.
Scenario 4: Section 230 is repealed.
This now seems unlikely, and if it happened, chaos would ensue—at least among tech executives. However, the upside is that Congress might be pushed to actually pass comprehensive legislation holding platforms accountable for harms they cause.
(If you want even more SCOTUS content, here are some good takes from Michael Kanaan, who was the first chairperson of artificial intelligence for the US Air Force, and Danielle Citron, a UVA law professor, among the many watchers weighing in.)
What else I’m reading about this week
- The European Union banned TikTok on its staff devices. This is just the latest clampdown by governments on the Chinese social media app. Many US states have banned the use of the app among government employees over concerns (echoed by the FBI) of espionage and influence operations from the Chinese Communist Party, and the Biden administration passed a temporary ban of the app on federal devices in December.
- This great story from Wired by Vauhini Vara is about the grip big tech platforms have on our lives and economies, even when we try to escape them. Vara details how Buy Nothing, a movement of people trying to limit their consumption by exchanging free stuff, tried to leave Facebook and start its own app, and the mess that resulted.
- Biden went to Kyiv on a surprise trip on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I recommend reading this highly entertaining press pool report from the Wall Street Journal’s Sabrina Siddiqui that details the preparations for the secret trip.
What I learned this week
Young people seem to trust what influencers have to say about politics … a lot. A new study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s Media Effects Research Lab suggests that social media influencers may be a “powerful asset for political campaigns.” That’s because trust among their followers carries over to political messaging.
The study involved a survey of almost 400 US university students. It found that political messages from influencers have a meaningful impact on their followers’ political opinions, especially if they’re viewed as trustworthy, knowledgeable, or attractive.
Influencers, both national and local, are becoming a bigger part of political campaigning. That’s not necessarily a wholly bad thing. However, it’s still a cause for concern: other researchers have noted that people are particularly vulnerable to the risk of misinformation from influencers.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”