The Supreme Court may overhaul how you live online
Now they’re at the center of a landmark legal case that ultimately has the power to completely change how we live online. On February 21, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Gonzalez v. Google, which deals with allegations that Google violated the Anti-Terrorism Act when YouTube’s recommendations promoted ISIS content. It’s the first time the court will consider a legal provision called Section 230.
Section 230 is the legal foundation that, for decades, all the big internet companies with any user generated stuff—Google, Facebook, Wikimedia, AOL, even Craigslist—built their policies and often businesses upon. As I wrote last week, it has “long protected social platforms from lawsuits over harmful user-generated content while giving them leeway to remove posts at their discretion.” (A reminder: Presidents Trump and Biden have both said they are in favor of getting rid of Section 230, which they argue gives platforms too much power with little oversight; tech companies and many free-speech advocates want to keep it.)
SCOTUS has homed in on a very specific question: Are recommendations of content the same as display of content, the latter of which is widely accepted as being covered by Section 230?
The stakes could not really be higher. As I wrote: “[I]f Section 230 is repealed or broadly reinterpreted, these companies may be forced to transform their approach to moderating content and to overhaul their platform architectures in the process.”
Without getting into all the legalese here, what is important to understand is that while it might seem plausible to draw a distinction between recommendation algorithms (especially those that aid terrorists) and the display and hosting of content, technically speaking, it’s a really murky distinction. Algorithms that sort by chronology, geography, or other criteria manage the display of most content in some way, and tech companies and some experts say it’s not easy to draw a line between this and algorithmic amplification, which deliberately boosts certain content and can have harmful consequences (and some beneficial ones too).
While my story last week narrowed in on the risks the ruling poses to community moderation systems online, including features like the Reddit upvote, experts I spoke with had a slew of concerns. Many of them shared the same worry that SCOTUS won’t deliver a technically and socially nuanced ruling with clarity.
“This Supreme Court doesn’t give me a lot of confidence,” Eric Goldman, a professor and dean at Santa Clara University School of Law, told me. Goldman is concerned that the ruling will have broad unintentional consequences and worries about the risk of an “opinion that’s an internet killer.”
On the other hand, some experts told me that the harms inflicted on individuals and society by algorithms have reached an unacceptable level, and though it might be more ideal to regulate algorithms through legislation, SCOTUS should really take this opportunity to change internet law.
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.”