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The Download: an “unhackable” phone, and Ring’s TV show




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.

Erik Prince wants to sell you a “secure” smartphone that’s too good to be true

Erik Prince’s pitch to investors was simple, but certainly ambitious: pay just €5 million and cure the biggest cybersecurity and privacy plagues of our day.

The American billionaire—best known for founding the notorious private military firm Blackwater—was pushing Unplugged, a smartphone startup promising “free speech, privacy, and security” untethered from dominant tech giants like Apple and Google.

But these bold claims are undercut by a previously unreported pitch deck obtained by MIT Technology Review. It’s a messy mix of impossible claims, meaningless buzzwords, and outright fiction.

Almost every attempt to build this kind of phone has failed. This try is likely to be no different. Read the full story.

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

Ring’s new TV show is a brilliant but ominous viral marketing ploy

Footage from Ring’s camera devices, which customers install to protect their homes, keep an eye on deliveries, and see or interact with who’s at the door, has become a common sight across social media in recent years.

Such videos will underpin new TV show Ring Nation when it starts next month, featuring funny animals, marriage proposals, and heartwarming neighborhood interactions.

As well as an extended viral marketing campaign, it’s a clever attempt to launder the image of Ring—a company that has been continuously criticized for its often-lax approach to customer data, and especially for allowing law enforcement to access user videos without consent. Read the full story.

—Eileen Guo & Abby Ohlheiser

The fight for “Instagram face”

Through beauty filters, platforms like Instagram are helping users achieve increasingly narrowing beauty standards—though only in the digital world—at a stunningly rapid pace. There is evidence that excessive use of these filters online has harmful effects on mental health, especially for young girls.

“Instagram face” is a recognized aesthetic template: ethnically ambiguous and featuring the flawless skin, big eyes, full lips, small nose, and perfectly contoured curves made accessible in large part by filters. And while Instagram has banned filters that encourage plastic surgery, massive demand for beauty augmentation on social media is complicating matters. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

The must-reads

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

1 The US is trying to get more monkeypox vaccines
By moving production to Michigan and splitting existing doses into fifths. (WP $)
+ It wants to provide 50,0000 vaccines for Pride events across the country. (CNBC)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 A Chicago city sensor project has gone global
It tracked everything from air quality to flooding. (MIT Technology Review)

3 How a predatory CEO’s internet fame allowed him to hide in plain sight
Dan Price used social media to shamelessly rehabilitate his image and control the narrative around his actions. (NYT $)
+ Price has resigned from his company, Gravity Payments. (WP $)

4 An Apple security flaw leaves devices vulnerable to hacking
Hackers could seize full admin access to iPhones, iPads and Macs if users fail to update to the latest software. (The Verge)

5 Google workers urged the company to stop collecting abortion data
The union is also asking Alphabet to cease its political lobbying post-Roe. (The Guardian)
+ An adtech firm that reveals trips to abortion clinics has attracted the ire of the FTC. (WP $)
+ It’s still unclear how employer policies covering workers’ abortions will work. (The Atlantic $)
+ Big Tech remains silent on questions about data privacy in a post-Roe US. (MIT Technology Review)

6 What getting back to nature can teach us about the future
A ‘hunter-gatherer’ attitude could come in handy as the climate crisis intensifies. (Neo.Life)
+ Bioacoustics is a useful, if limited, way to keep an eye on wildlife. (Fast Company $) 

7 Google’s quantum computer has been cracked
By an algorithm running on a standard machine. (New Scientist $)

8 How much meat should we eat? 🥩
We ought to be both reducing our intake and farming more sustainably. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Giving up just half your hamburgers can really help the climate. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Meet the musicians connecting with fans over email
Forget TikTok and Instagram, Substack’s where it’s at these days. (The Guardian)

10 TikTokers are stealing cars now
The Kia Boyz trend has fueled a car crime wave across the US. (NY Mag $)
+ The platform has reversed its decision to ban the hashtag schizophrenia. (Input)

Quote of the day

“People are begging for monkeypox vaccines, and we’ve just pissed off the one manufacturer.”

—An anonymous health official describes how the Biden administration’s decision to split monkeypox vaccines into fifths did not go down well with its maker, Bavarian Nordic, to the Washington Post.

The big story

Inside Singapore’s huge bet on vertical farming

October 2020

It’s taken decades for Singapore to wake up and realize that—as far as food goes—it is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world.

This risk simply hadn’t occurred to authorities back in the 1970s, when they ripped up the crops of tapioca, sweet potatoes, and vegetables flourishing across more than 15,000 hectares of the country’s land and replaced them with high-rise office buildings and condos. The focus back then was finance, telecoms, and electronics, not food. 

But while this strategy successfully swelled Singapore’s economy (it’s now the fourth richest country in the world, per capita), it left the country with only 600 hectares of farmland. Consequently, the country has pinned its hopes on technology, with  high-output urban farms hailed as its best bet. But vertical farming is not without its skeptics. Read the full story.

—Megan Tatum

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.)

+ Who doesn’t love the Beach Boys?
+ The evocado is a more environmentally friendly avocado, apparently.
+ A great question—why *do* so many bikes end up at the bottom of canals and lakes?
+ Here’s a brief look at just some of the weird and wonderful creatures lurking in the ocean depths.
+ How amazing does the world dog surfing championship look? (thanks Charlotte!)


Human creators stand to benefit as AI rewrites the rules of content creation



Human creators stand to benefit as AI rewrites the rules of content creation

A game-changer for content creation

Among the AI-related technologies to have emerged in the past several years is generative AI—deep-learning algorithms that allow computers to generate original content, such as text, images, video, audio, and code. And demand for such content will likely jump in the coming years—Gartner predicts that by 2025, generative AI will account for 10% of all data created, compared with 1% in 2022. 

Screenshot of Jason Allen’s work “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” Discord 

“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” is an example of AI-generated content (AIGC), created with the Midjourney text-to-art generator program. Several other AI-driven art-generating programs have also emerged in 2022, capable of creating paintings from single-line text prompts. The diversity of technologies reflects a wide range of artistic styles and different user demands. DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, for instance, are focused mainly on western-style artwork, while Baidu’s ERNIE-ViLG and Wenxin Yige produce images influenced by Chinese aesthetics. At Baidu’s deep learning developer conference Wave Summit+ 2022, the company announced that Wenxin Yige has been updated with new features, including turning photos into AI-generated art, image editing, and one-click video production.

Meanwhile, AIGC can also include articles, videos, and various other media offerings such as voice synthesis. A technology that generates audible speech indistinguishable from the voice of the original speaker, voice synthesis can be applied in many scenarios, including voice navigation for digital maps. Baidu Maps, for example, allows users to customize its voice navigation to their own voice just by recording nine sentences.

Recent advances in AI technologies have also created generative language models that can fluently compose texts with just one click. They can be used for generating marketing copy, processing documents, extracting summaries, and other text tasks, unlocking creativity that other technologies such as voice synthesis have failed to tap. One of the leading generative language models is Baidu’s ERNIE 3.0, which has been widely applied in various industries such as health care, education, technology, and entertainment.

“In the past year, artificial intelligence has made a great leap and changed its technological direction,” says Robin Li, CEO of Baidu. “Artificial intelligence has gone from understanding pictures and text to generating content.” Going one step further, Baidu App, a popular search and newsfeed app with over 600 million monthly users, including five million content creators, recently released a video editing feature that can produce a short video accompanied by a voiceover created from data provided in an article.

Improving efficiency and growth

As AIGC becomes increasingly common, it could make content creation more efficient by getting rid of repetitive, time-intensive tasks for creators such as sorting out source assets and voice recordings and rendering images. Aspiring filmmakers, for instance, have long had to pay their dues by spending countless hours mastering the complex and tedious process of video editing. AIGC may soon make that unnecessary. 

Besides boosting efficiency, AIGC could also increase business growth in content creation amid rising demand for personalized digital content that users can interact with dynamically. InsightSLICE forecasts that the global digital creation market will on average grow 12% annually between 2020 and 2030 and hit $38.2 billion. With content consumption fast outpacing production, traditional development methods will likely struggle to meet such increasing demand, creating a gap that could be filled by AIGC. “AI has the potential to meet this massive demand for content at a tenth of the cost and a hundred times or thousands of times faster in the next decade,” Li says.

AI with humanity as its foundation

AIGC can also serve as an educational tool by helping children develop their creativity. StoryDrawer, for instance, is an AI-driven program designed to boost children’s creative thinking, which often declines as the focus in their education shifts to rote learning. 

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The Download: the West’s AI myth, and Musk v Apple



The Download: the West’s AI myth, and Musk v Apple

While the US and the EU may differ on how to regulate tech, their lawmakers seem to agree on one thing: the West needs to ban AI-powered social scoring.

As they understand it, social scoring is a practice in which authoritarian governments—specifically China—rank people’s trustworthiness and punish them for undesirable behaviors, such as stealing or not paying back loans. Essentially, it’s seen as a dystopian superscore assigned to each citizen.

The reality? While there have been some contentious local experiments with social credit scores in China, there is no countrywide, all-seeing social credit system with algorithms that rank people.

The irony is that while US and European politicians try to ban systems that don’t really exist, systems that do rank and penalize people are already in place in the West—and are denying people housing and jobs in the process. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly AI newsletter covering all of the industry’s most interesting developments. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

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

1 Apple has reportedly threatened to pull Twitter from the App Store
According to Elon Musk. (NYT $)
+ Musk has threatened to “go to war” with the company after it decided to stop advertising on Twitter. (WP $)
+ Apple’s reluctance to advertise on Twitter right now isn’t exactly unique. (Motherboard)
+ Twitter’s child protection team in Asia has been gutted. (Wired $)

2 Another crypto firm has collapsed
Lender BlockFi has filed for bankruptcy, and is (partly) blaming FTX. (WSJ $)
+ The company is suing FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried. (FT $)
+ It looks like the much-feared “crypto contagion” is spreading. (NYT $)

3 AI is rapidly becoming more powerful—and dangerous
That’s particularly worrying when its growth is too much for safety teams to handle. (Vox)
+ Do AI systems need to come with safety warnings? (MIT Technology Review)
+ This AI chat-room game is gaining a legion of fans. (The Guardian)

4 A Pegasus spyware investigation is in danger of being compromised 
It’s the target of a disinformation campaign, security experts have warned. (The Guardian)
+ Cyber insurance won’t protect you from theft of your data. (The Guardian)

5 Google gave the FBI geofence data for its January 6 investigation 
Google identified more than 5,000 devices near the US Capitol during the riot. (Wired $)

6 Monkeypox isn’t going anywhere
But it’s not on the rise, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ The World Health Organization says it will now be known as mpox. (BBC)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

7 What it’s like to be the unwitting face of a romance scam
James Scott Geras’ pictures have been used to catfish countless women. (Motherboard)

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What’s next in cybersecurity



The Download: cybersecurity’s next act, and mass protests in China

One of the reasons cyber hasn’t played a bigger role in the war, according to Carhart, is because “in the whole conflict, we saw Russia being underprepared for things and not having a good game plan. So it’s not really surprising that we see that as well in the cyber domain.”

Moreover, Ukraine, under the leadership of  Zhora and his cybersecurity agency, has been working on its cyber defenses for years, and it has received support from the international community since the war started, according to experts. Finally, an interesting twist in the conflict on the internet between Russia and Ukraine was the rise of the decentralized, international cyber coalition known as the IT Army, which scored some significant hacks, showing  that war in the future can also be fought by hacktivists. 

Ransomware runs rampant again

This year, other than the usual corporations, hospitals, and schools, government agencies in Costa Rica, Montenegro, and Albania all suffered damaging ransomware attacks too. In Costa Rica, the government declared a national emergency, a first after a ransomware attack. And in Albania, the government expelled Iranian diplomats from the country—a first in the history of cybersecurity—following a destructive cyberattack.

These types of attacks were at an all-time high in 2022, a trend that will likely continue next year, according to Allan Liska, a researcher who focuses on ransomware at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. 

“[Ransomware is] not just a technical problem like an information stealer or other commodity malware. There are real-world, geopolitical implications,” he says. In the past, for example, a North Korean ransomware called WannaCry caused severe disruption to the UK’s National Health System and hit an estimated 230,000 computers worldwide

Luckily, it’s not all bad news on the ransomware front. According to Liska, there are some early signs that point to “the death of the ransomware-as-a-service model,” in which ransomware gangs lease out hacking tools. The main reason, he said, is that whenever a gang gets too big, “something bad happens to them.”

For example, the ransomware groups REvil and DarkSide/BlackMatter were hit by governments; Conti, a Russian ransomware gang, unraveled internally when a Ukrainian researcher appalled by Conti’s public support of the war leaked internal chats; and the LockBit crew also suffered the leak of its code.  

“We are seeing a lot of the affiliates deciding that maybe I don’t want to be part of a big ransomware group, because they all have targets on their back, which means that I might have a target on my back, and I just want to carry out my cybercrime,” Liska says. 

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