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Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and their rivals compete in Modi’s India

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Srishti Behl Arya


The showrunner of Sacred Games, Vikramaditya Motwane, told me that after the furore around that episode, he was told to avoid “anything to do with religion.” Local media outlets reported that the government began seriously considering censoring streaming because of the lynching scene. The news that this might happen ricocheted around the industry.

I traveled to India in late 2019 to see how the country’s nascent streaming industry was faring in its struggles with Hindu nationalism.

Srishti Behl Arya comes from a family of Bollywood filmmakers. Her father, a director and producer, worked with Amitabh Bachchan, a legendary actor. When she was little, she accompanied her parents on location, where she and the other children of the cast and crew pretended to be film stars. “We ran around like psychos,” she told me when I visited her at Netflix’s offices in Bandra-Kurla, a wealthy suburban business district in Mumbai.

In 2018, Netflix hired Arya to commission feature-length content. That year, the company made more than 20 original films and five original series in Hindi. But this did little to alter its public persona. In a country with more than 24 major languages, Netflix was still viewed as an English-language platform for westernized Indians. And this is where Arya, who knew everyone who mattered in Hindi film, fit into the picture. She had worked in advertising, and then as an actor and a writer, before moving on to TV production.

Soon she enlisted many of her childhood friends, who had grown up to become some of the most powerful people in the Hindi film industry, to work for Netflix. She signed on Zoya Akhtar, whose last feature film was India’s official entry to the Academy Awards, to direct a short film. Like Arya, Akhtar comes from a film family, but because Bollywood is a male-dominated industry, it’s still almost impossible for a female filmmaker or female-oriented films to raise capital. By contrast, several women helmed projects at Netflix. The platform’s biggest star is Radhika Apte, a Bollywood actress who has appeared in so many Netflix productions that online wags joke she’s in all of them.

Srishti Behl Arya, who runs Netflix’s division of Indian original films.

NETFLIX

But working with Bollywood meant dealing with its shortcomings. Netflix held several workshops in Mumbai to train Indian content creators. It taught them how to develop a major series, but also helped them brush up on basics such as how to write, schedule, and budget. “That’s how we can add value to the industry,” Arya told me. “By helping it get more organized.”

On my last day in Mumbai, I went to visit Red Chillies Entertainment, a towering production house owned by Shah Rukh Khan, which produces shows for Netflix. Back in 2017, Hastings and Khan had appeared together in a stilted promotional skit announcing a new spy thriller called Bard of Blood.

The foyer was deserted on the day I arrived, except for a beautiful sculpture of Ganesha, a Hindu god who is viewed as the patron of the arts. It was wrapped in plastic to protect it from construction dust. Around it some barefoot workmen were operating power tools without any protective gear. On the fourth floor, an exhausted-looking man with slippers on his feet and salt in his dark hair emerged from an editing studio. Several years ago, newly graduated from the London School of Film, Patrick Graham had been struggling to land projects when a friend suggested he try Bollywood. He floundered at first, stifled by censorship. But then, in 2018, Netflix India gave Graham the budget to produce a fictional series in which Muslims are rounded up in internment camps. They also brought him in to co-write the screenplay for Leila. When we met, he was wrapping up production on Betaal, a four-episode zombie series that would be released the next year. Months earlier, in a conversation on the phone, Graham had seemed pumped at the opportunity. “It’s massive,” he’d said. But in person, in Mumbai, he was downcast. “I have to go through the series and remove anything that might offend,” he told me, gloomily. “The oversensitive people are winning.”

In November 2020, Hindu nationalists went after Netflix again. Mira Nair’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy showed a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl. A leader of the BJP’s youth wing filed a police complaint about the series for “shooting kissing scenes under temple premises.” The leader accused the show of promoting “love jihad”—a conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are seducing Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.

still from A Suitable Boy
A scene from the film A Suitable Boy. From left: Danesh Razvi, Tanya Maniktala.

MILAN MOUDGILL / ©ACORN TV/BBC ONE / COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

In January, another group of Hindu nationalists claimed offense, this time over a political drama on Amazon Prime Video called Tandav. They didn’t care for the depiction of an actor dressed as the Hindu god Shiva. The director quickly issued a public apology and deleted some offending scenes. But he was still named in police complaints in six states, along with members of his cast and crew. Prosecutors also charged Aparna Purohit, who heads Indian original programming for Amazon, with forgery, cyber-terrorism, and promoting hatred between classes.

The very next month, the government announced what it called a “soft-touch self-regulatory architecture” for streaming services. This new ethics code, notionally voluntary, comes with ratings and a grievance system that make streaming, in effect, just as tightly regulated as film and TV.

After the new code was announced, Amazon canceled the upcoming season of The Family Man, a planned spy thriller, and the follow-up to Paatal Lok, a crime series. It also announced plans to co-produce its first Indian film—a mythological tale starring Akshay Kumar, an actor who is known for his close ties with Hindu nationalists.

Netflix had entered India just when hundreds of millions of Indians discovered the internet. It helped create a new language for Indian streaming. In 2020, its subscriber base was estimated to have risen to 4.2 million. But whether the company—and streaming services more generally—can ultimately succeed depends in large measure on matters outside of their control.

Kashyap, the director, believes he has a handle on the censorship problem. “We will say what we want to say,” he told me. “We will simply find different ways of saying it.” On March 3, his house and those of several other Bollywood stars were raided by tax authorities in what Nawab Malik, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress Party, described as an intimidation attempt. That same day, Netflix India announced a slate of 40 new films and series.



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The Download: dual-driving AI, and Russia’s Telegram propaganda

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🧠


This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

The news: Wayve, a driverless-car startup based in London, has made a machine-learning model that can drive two different types of vehicle: a passenger car and a delivery van. It is the first time the same AI driver has learned to drive multiple vehicles.

Why it matters: While robotaxis have made it to a handful of streets in Phoenix and San Francisco, their success has been limited. Wayve is part of a new generation of startups ditching the traditional robotics mindset—where driverless cars rely on super-detailed 3D maps and modules for sensing and planning. Instead, these startups rely entirely on AI to drive the vehicles.

What’s next: The advance suggests that Wayve’s approach to autonomous vehicles, in which a deep-learning model is trained to drive from scratch, could help it scale up faster than its leading rivals. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Putin’s propaganda: When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. And this one is being fought on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Opposing forces: Following the announcement, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind Putin’s plans, eager to promote the idea that the war he is waging is just and winnable.  But whether this vein of propaganda is working is far from certain. For all the work the government is doing to try to control the narrative, there’s a vibrant opposition on the same platform working to undermine it—and offering support for those seeking to dodge the draft. Read the full story.

—Chris Stokel-Walker

NASA’s DART mission is on track to crash into an asteroid today

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, is on course to collide with the asteroid Dimorphos at 7.14pm ET today. Though Dimorphos is not about to collide with Earth, DART is intended to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid like it that is headed our way, should one ever be discovered.

Read more about the DART mission, and how the crash is likely to play out.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US says Russia will face catastrophe if it uses nuclear weapons
It’s hard to know whether Putin’s threat is a bluff—or deadly serious. (The Guardian)
+ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky thinks it is very real. (CNBC)
+ What is the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine? (MIT Technology Review)

2 YouTube wants to lure creators away from TikTok with cash
But it won’t say how much. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Germany’s zero-tolerance for hate speech is a double-edged sword
While the threat of fines disincentivizes some perpetrators, activists worry that too many people are being targeted. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation is already shaping US voters’ decisions ahead of November’s midterms. (NYT $)

4 Why even the largest companies are vulnerable to hacking
A zero-trust approach is helpful, but will only take you so far. (WSJ $)
+ Hackers can disrupt image-recognition systems using radio waves. (New Scientist $)
+ Microsoft is optimistic that AI can root out bad actors. (Bloomberg $)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

5 NASA’s Artemis moon mission has been delayed again
Due to tropical storm Ian. (BBC)
+ Saudi Arabia wants to send its first female astronaut into space. (Insider $)

6 Fighting climate change extends beyond kicking corporations
A more nuanced approach could be required to speed up the transition to cleaner energy. (The Atlantic $)
+ Global wildfires mean that snow is melting quicker than usual. (Slate $)
+ Disaster insurance is increasingly tricky to navigate. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Carbon removal hype is becoming a dangerous distraction. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Crypto’s fired workers don’t know what to do next
But plenty of them haven’t let their experiences put them off the sector. (The Information $)
+ Interpol has issued a red notice for Terraform Labs’ co-founder Do Kwon. (Bloomberg $) 

8 The Danish city that banned Google
The tech giant’s handling of children’s data wasn’t properly assessed. (Wired $)
+ Google says it’s unwilling to pitch it to fund network costs in Europe. (Reuters)

9 Why neuroscience is making a comeback
Some experts are convinced that making neurology and psychiatry departments work closer together is long overdue. (Economist $)

10 How plant-based meat fell out of fashion 🍔
Evangelists are convinced the nascent industry is merely experiencing teething problems. (The Guardian)
+ Your first lab-grown burger is coming soon—and it’ll be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“There’s definitely the boys’ club that still exists.”

—Taryn Langer, founder of public relations firm Moxie Communications Group, tells the New York Times about her frustrations at the sexist state of the tech industry.

The big story

The quest to learn if our brain’s mutations affect mental health

August 2021

Scientists have struggled in their search for specific genes behind most brain disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike problems with some other parts of our body, the vast majority of brain disorder presentations are not linked to an identifiable gene.

But a University of California, San Diego study published in 2001 suggested a different path. What if it wasn’t a single faulty gene—or even a series of genes—that always caused cognitive issues? What if it could be the genetic differences between cells? 

The explanation had seemed far-fetched, but more researchers have begun to take it seriously. Scientists already knew that the 85 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain work to some extent in concert—but what they want to know is whether there is a risk when some of those cells might be singing a different genetic tune. Read the full story.

—Roxanne Khamsi

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Some gadgets are definitely more useful than others.
+ Calling all cat lovers! This potted history of mischievous felines in French painter Alexandre-François Desportes’ work is heartwarming stuff (thanks Melissa!)
+ A useful guide to working out what you really want from life
+ A Ukrainian startup is reportedly planning to use AI to clone the iconic voice of James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader. 
+ The rumors are true—butter really is having a moment.



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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles


Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.

But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)

According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.

Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.

Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.

“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”

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Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

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Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram


Just minutes after Putin announced conscription, the administrators of the anti-Kremlin Rospartizan group announced its own “mobilization,” gearing up its supporters to bomb military enlistment officers and the Ministry of Defense with Molotov cocktails. “Ordinary Russians are invited to die for nothing in a foreign land,” they wrote. “Agitate, incite, spread the truth, but do not be the ones who legitimize the Russian government.”

The Rospartizan Telegram group—which has more than 28,000 subscribers—has posted photos and videos purporting to show early action against the military mobilization, including burned-out offices and broken windows at local government buildings. 

Other Telegram channels are offering citizens opportunities for less direct, though far more self-interested, action—namely, how to flee the country even as the government has instituted a nationwide ban on selling plane tickets to men aged 18 to 65. Groups advising Russians on how to escape into neighboring countries sprung up almost as soon as Putin finished talking, and some groups already on the platform adjusted their message. 

One group, which offers advice and tips on how to cross from Russia to Georgia, is rapidly closing in on 100,000 members. The group dates back to at least November 2020, according to previously pinned messages; since then, it has offered information for potential travelers about how to book spots on minibuses crossing the border and how to travel with pets. 

After Putin’s declaration, the channel was co-opted by young men giving supposed firsthand accounts of crossing the border this week. Users are sharing their age, when and where they crossed the border, and what resistance they encountered from border guards, if any. 

For those who haven’t decided to escape Russia, there are still other messages about how to duck army call-ups. Another channel, set up shortly after Putin’s conscription drive, crowdsources information about where police and other authorities in Moscow are signing up men of military age. It gained 52,000 subscribers in just two days, and they are keeping track of photos, videos, and maps showing where people are being handed conscription orders. The group is one of many: another Moscow-based Telegram channel doing the same thing has more than 115,000 subscribers. Half that audience joined in 18 hours overnight on September 22. 

“You will not see many calls or advice on established media on how to avoid mobilization,” says Golovchenko. “You will see this on Telegram.”

The Kremlin is trying hard to gain supremacy on Telegram because of its current position as a rich seam of subterfuge for those opposed to Putin and his regime, Golovchenko adds. “What is at stake is the extent to which Telegram can amplify the idea that war is now part of Russia’s everyday life,” he says. “If Russians begin to realize their neighbors and friends and fathers are being killed en masse, that will be crucial.”

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