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The Download: Europe’s ambitious AI Act, and picturing our galaxy’s black hole

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supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way


—Melissa Heikkilä

This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy

EHT COLLABORATION

It might not look like much, but this blurry orange-and-black picture is the supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy, which has been pictured for the first time.

Although the black hole itself, known as Sagittarius A*, is entirely dark, it’s encircled by a bright ring of glowing gas that’s been warped by its own gravity. It was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, the same global team that took the famous first-ever picture of a black hole inside the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy in 2019. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

Quote of the day

“I want to return to my family – and not in a casket.”

—Dmitri, a Russian soldier, explains why he refused to rejoin the invasion of Ukraine once back on Russian soil to The Guardian.

The must-reads

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

1 Elon Musk has put his Twitter deal “on hold”
He said he’s waiting for details supporting the calculation that spam and fake accounts represented fewer than 5% of users. (WP $)
+ The news comes after the company fired two of its most senior executives. (NYT $)
+ For celebrities, Twitter is high risk and low reward. (WP $)
+ Musk is pitting American Tesla workers against their counterparts in China. (The Guardian)

2 Six people have now died in North Korea amid its first covid outbreak
A further 187,800 people are being isolated and treated for the virus. (The Guardian)
+ Africa’s first covid vaccine factory is yet to receive a single order. (NYT $)

3 Russia’s hackers could face cyber war crime charges
Ukraine’s essential infrastructure was targeted during the war. (Wired $)

4 Crypto detectives are in high demand 
Investigators are being hired to track down stolen bitcoin and NFTs. (Vox)
+ How the current crypto crash mirrors the 2008 financial crisis. (Foreign Policy)
+ NFT sales are still plummeting, too. (WSJ $)

5 Instagram’s algorithms are pushing fear and outrage content to new parents
But opting out of seeing posts that elicit knee-jerk reactions isn’t straightforward. (WP $)
+ A Texas law that punishes social media for “censoring” users has been reinstated. (Axios)

6 The FBI purchased Pegasus spyware to aid investigations
The Bureau previously said it bought the hacking tool to test and evaluate it. (NYT $)
+ Google is failing to enforce its own ban on ads for stalkerware. (TR)

7 How Japan lost its global tech head start
Now it’s trying to claw it back. (Rest of World)

8 Thousands of popular websites are tracking your typing
Keyloggers collect keystrokes before you even hit ‘submit’ on a form. (Wired $)
+ Yik Yak, the anonymous social media platform, exposed its users’ locations. (Motherboard)

9 Our understanding of female incels is still murky
Mainly because they aren’t a unified group with defined, shared goals. (The Atlantic $)

10 The primitive bots of the 2000s paved the way for Alexa
And they were a whole lot more fun, too. (Dazed)

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.)

+ Wrinkle the duck ran the Long Island marathon (well, one kilometer of it) and was rewarded with his own tiny medal.
+ Danny Boyle’s forthcoming TV series about the Sex Pistols sounds great fun.
+ Barry Webb’s photographs of slime mold organisms are completely fascinating—they look like alien trees.
+ After yesterday’s giant sturgeon, a gigantic endangered stingray has been safely returned to the Mekong River in Cambodia.
+ “BookTok” is undeniably getting more young people into reading.
+ It’s Friday the 13th! Here’s why it’s an unlucky day in some cultures.
+ I’m really not sure about this ice cream flavor.



Tech

The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China

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The Download: metaverse fashion, and looser covid rules in China


Fashion creator Jenni Svoboda is designing a beanie with a melted cupcake top, sprinkles, and doughnuts for ears. But this outlandish accessory isn’t destined for the physical world—Svoboda is designing for the metaverse. She’s working in a burgeoning, if bizarre, new niche: fashion stylists who create or curate outfits for people in virtual spaces.

Metaverse stylists are increasingly sought-after as frequent users seek help dressing their avatars—often in experimental, wildly creative looks that defy personal expectations, societal standards, and sometimes even physics. 

Stylists like Svoboda are among those shaping the metaverse fashion industry, which is already generating hundreds of millions of dollars. But while, to the casual observer, it can seem outlandish and even obscene to spend so much money on virtual clothes, there are deeper, more personal, reasons why people are hiring professionals to curate their virtual outfits. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Making sense of the changes to China’s zero-covid policy

On December 1, 2019, the first known covid-19 patient started showing symptoms in Wuhan. Three years later, China is the last country in the world holding on to strict pandemic control restrictions. However, after days of intense protests that shocked the world, it looks as if things could finally change.

Beijing has just announced wide-ranging relaxations of its zero covid policy, including allowing people to quarantine at home instead of in special facilities for the first time.

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Uber’s facial recognition is locking Indian drivers out of their accounts 

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Uber checks that a driver’s face matches what the company has on file through a program called “Real-Time ID Check.” It was rolled out in the US in 2016, in India in 2017, and then in other markets. “This prevents fraud and protects drivers’ accounts from being compromised. It also protects riders by building another layer of accountability into the app to ensure the right person is behind the wheel,” Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, said in a statement in 2017.

But the company’s driver verification procedures are far from seamless. Adnan Taqi, an Uber driver in Mumbai, ran into trouble with it when the app prompted him to take a selfie around dusk. He was locked out for 48 hours, a big dent in his work schedule—he says he drives 18 hours straight, sometimes as much as 24 hours, to be able to make a living. Days later, he took a selfie that locked him out of his account again, this time for a whole week. That time, Taqi suspects, it came down to hair: “I hadn’t shaved for a few days and my hair had also grown out a bit,” he says. 

More than a dozen drivers interviewed for this story detailed instances of having to find better lighting to avoid being locked out of their Uber accounts. “Whenever Uber asks for a selfie in the evenings or at night, I’ve had to pull over and go under a streetlight to click a clear picture—otherwise there are chances of getting rejected,” said Santosh Kumar, an Uber driver from Hyderabad. 

Others have struggled with scratches on their cameras and low-budget smartphones. The problem isn’t unique to Uber. Drivers with Ola, which is backed by SoftBank, face similar issues. 

Some of these struggles can be explained by natural limitations in face recognition technology. The software starts by converting your face into a set of points, explains Jernej Kavka, an independent technology consultant with access to Microsoft’s Face API, which is what Uber uses to power Real-Time ID Check. 

Adnan Taqi holds up his phone in the driver’s seat of his car. Variations in lighting and facial hair have likely caused him to lose access to the app.

SELVAPRAKASH LAKSHMANAN

“With excessive facial hair, the points change and it may not recognize where the chin is,” Kavka says. The same thing happens when there is low lighting or the phone’s camera doesn’t have a good contrast. “This makes it difficult for the computer to detect edges,” he explains.

But the software may be especially brittle in India. In December 2021, tech policy researchers Smriti Parsheera (a fellow with the CyberBRICS project) and Gaurav Jain (an economist with the International Finance Corporation) posted a preprint paper that audited four commercial facial processing tools—Amazon’s Rekognition, Microsoft Azure’s Face, Face++, and FaceX—for their performance on Indian faces. When the software was applied to a database of 32,184 election candidates, Microsoft’s Face failed to even detect the presence of a face in more than 1,000 images, throwing an error rate of more than 3%—the worst among the four. 

It could be that the Uber app is failing drivers because its software was not trained on a diverse range of Indian faces, Parsheera says. But she says there may be other issues at play as well. “There could be a number of other contributing factors like lighting, angle, effects of aging, etc.,” she explained in writing. “But the lack of transparency surrounding the use of such systems makes it hard to provide a more concrete explanation.” 

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones

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The Download: Uber’s flawed facial recognition, and police drones


One evening in February last year, a 23-year-old Uber driver named Niradi Srikanth was getting ready to start another shift, ferrying passengers around the south Indian city of Hyderabad. He pointed the phone at his face to take a selfie to verify his identity. The process usually worked seamlessly. But this time he was unable to log in.

Srikanth suspected it was because he had recently shaved his head. After further attempts to log in were rejected, Uber informed him that his account had been blocked. He is not alone. In a survey conducted by MIT Technology Review of 150 Uber drivers in the country, almost half had been either temporarily or permanently locked out of their accounts because of problems with their selfie.

Hundreds of thousands of India’s gig economy workers are at the mercy of facial recognition technology, with few legal, policy or regulatory protections. For workers like Srikanth, getting blocked from or kicked off a platform can have devastating consequences. Read the full story.

—Varsha Bansal

I met a police drone in VR—and hated it

Police departments across the world are embracing drones, deploying them for everything from surveillance and intelligence gathering to even chasing criminals. Yet none of them seem to be trying to find out how encounters with drones leave people feeling—or whether the technology will help or hinder policing work.

A team from University College London and the London School of Economics is filling in the gaps, studying how people react when meeting police drones in virtual reality, and whether they come away feeling more or less trusting of the police. 

MIT Technology Review’s Melissa Heikkilä came away from her encounter with a VR police drone feeling unnerved. If others feel the same way, the big question is whether these drones are effective tools for policing in the first place. Read the full story.

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter covering AI and its effects on society. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

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