How China takes extreme measures to keep teens off TikTok
When the crackdown on video games happened in 2021, the social media industry was definitely spooked, because many Chinese people were already comparing short-video apps like Douyin to video games in terms of addictiveness. It seemed as though the sword of Damocles could drop at any time.
That possibility seems even more certain now. On February 27, the National Radio and Television Administration, China’s top authority on media production and consumption, said it had convened a meeting to work on “enforcing the regulation of short videos and preventing underage users from becoming addicted.” News of the meeting sent a clear signal to Chinese social media platforms that the government is not pleased with the current measures and needs them to come up with new ones.
What could those new measures look like? It could mean even stricter rules around screen time and content. But the announcement also mentioned some other interesting directions, like requiring creators to obtain a license to provide content for teenagers and developing ways for the government to regulate the algorithms themselves. As the situation develops, we should expect to see more innovative measures taken in China to impose limits on Douyin and similar platforms.
As for the US, even getting to the level of China’s existing regulations around social media would require some big changes.
To ensure that no teens in China are using their parents’ accounts to watch or post to Douyin, every account is linked to the user’s real identity, and the company says facial recognition tech is used to monitor the creation of livestream content. Sure, those measures help prevent teens from finding workarounds, but they also have privacy implications for all users, and I don’t believe everyone will decide to sacrifice those rights just to make sure they can control what children get to see.
We can see how the control vs. privacy trade-off has previously played out in China. Before 2019, the gaming industry had a theoretical daily play-time limit for underage gamers, but it couldn’t be enforced in real time. Now there is a central database created for gamers, tied to facial recognition systems developed by big gaming publishers like Tencent and NetEase, that can verify everyone’s identity in seconds.
On the content side of things, Douyin’s teenager mode bans a slew of content types from being shown, including videos of pranks, “superstitions,” or “entertainment venues”—places like dance or karaoke clubs that teenagers are not supposed to enter. While the content is likely selected by ByteDance employees, social media companies in China are regularly punished by the government for failing to conduct thorough censorship, and that means decisions about what is suitable for teens to watch are ultimately made by the state. Even the normal version of Douyin regularly takes down pro-LGBTQ content on the basis that they present “unhealthy and non-mainstream views on marriage and love.”
There is a dangerously thin line between content moderation and cultural censorship. As people lobby for more protection for their children, we’ll have to answer some hard questions about what those social media limits should look like—and what we’re willing to trade for them.
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.”