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The Download: harmful AI, and a deadlier monkeypox variant

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The White House just unveiled a new AI Bill of Rights


+ What does GPT-3 “know” about me? Large language models are trained on troves of personal data hoovered from the internet. But how much does it actually know about us? Read the full story.

+ Google’s new AI can hear a snippet of a song—and then keep on playing. The technique, called AudioLM, generates naturalistic sounds without the need for human annotation. Read the full story.

The must-reads

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

1 A more dangerous monkeypox variant could go global
Scientists worry the deadlier Clade I variant could spread beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo. (New Scientist $)
+ More than 26,000 people in the US contracted monkeypox this year. (WP $)

2 Women are smuggling abortion pills into the US from Mexico
They’re risking jail time and significant fines to help terminate pregnancies in post-Roe states. (New Yorker $)
+ Where to get abortion pills and how to use them. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Why mental health discourse on social media is so unbearable
While internet diagnosis is helpful for some, others have leaned too far into self-pathologizing. (Vox)

4 Iranian celebrities are galvanizing protestors online
Warnings from the country’s security officials have fallen on deaf ears. (FT $)

5 Bitcoin mining has soared to record levels
You can thank The Merge. (Bloomberg $)
+ Crypto mining is particularly hot in Africa right now. (CoinDesk)
+ A couple mistakenly refunded $10.5 million by crypto.com are in court. (The Guardian)

6 WhatsApp spam is out of control in India
Users are left constantly blocking a stream of spam. (Rest of World)
+ The people using humor to troll their spam texts. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Black holes could help explain how the universe began
If a new quantum gravity theory pays dividends, that is. (NYT $)
+ This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. (MIT Technology Review)

8 We should pay attention to flooding myths 
Geo-legends teach us how our ancestors dealt with the climate. (The Atlantic $)
+ Pakistan’s flood survivors are trying to rebuild. (New Yorker $)
+ Deadly spores could spread to new areas via wildfire smoke. (Wired $)

9 The surprisingly controversial history of the microprocessor
Inventor Ted Hoff didn’t patent the invention—a decision he came to regret. (IEEE Spectrum)

10 Jellyfish can be tasty
There are a lot of them, too. But good luck convincing people to eat them. (Hakai Magazine)
+ A battery made from seaweed could pave the way to greener energy storage. (New Scientist $)

Quote of the day

“There is a person whose name is a scent fighting a company whose name reminds one of birds—Dickens would just love that.”

—Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, tells the Wall Street Journal why literary fans are so invested in Elon Musk and Twitter’s legal scuffle.

The big story

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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