Phone fears

I don’t have much luck with phones. After having iPhones for a while, I switched to a Windows phone. I liked the Metro UI and really thought that features like Live Tiles and Continuum would catch on. It turned out, as I said last year, that I was backing the losing horse in what was a two—not three—horse race.

So I made another switch, to Android this time. And bought a Huawei phone…

Exclusive: Google suspends some business with Huawei after Trump blacklist
Holders of current Huawei smartphones with Google apps, however, will continue to be able to use and download app updates provided by Google, a Google spokesperson said, confirming earlier reporting by Reuters. “We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” the Google spokesperson said.

Google blocks Huawei access to Android updates after blacklisting
Google said it was complying with an executive order issued by Donald Trump and was reviewing the “implications”, later adding that Google Play – through which Google allows users to download apps – and the security features of its antivirus software Google Play Protect would continue on existing Huawei devices. New versions of its smartphones outside China would lose access to popular applications and services including Google Play, Maps and the Gmail app.

Huawei responds to Android ban
In a statement emailed to The Verge, Huawei underscores its contributions to the growth of Android globally — which most recently saw the company’s Android phone sales growing by double digits while every other leading smartphone vendor was shrinking or stagnant — and reassures current owners of Huawei and (subsidiary brand) Honor phones that they will continue to receive security updates and after-sales service.

Meanwhile.

Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings
Costing 300 to 500 pesos apiece — the equivalent of $15 to $25 — the “dummies” are sophisticated fakes: They have a startup screen and bodies that are dead ringers for the originals, and inside there is a piece of metal to give the phone the heft of the real article. That comes in handy when trying to fool trigger-happy bandits who regularly attack the buses, big and small, that ferry people from the poorer outlying suburbs to jobs in the city center.

Smartphones have killed compact cameras

Via a Benedict Evans newsletter.

2019 outlook on the shipment by product type concerning cameras and related goods (pdf)
“Fascinating set of charts for the Japanese camera industry. The compact camera is now mostly gone thanks to smartphones, but the higher-end removable-lens cameras have stabilized, and at a much higher revenue than pre-digital, and lens sales are doing great. Also, the customer for these cameras is now younger and less male. Digital has opened up pro/hobbyist cameras even as smartphones killed snapshot cameras.”

smartphones-have-killed-compact-cameras

Last week, a look at the demise of CDs. Now, a similar curve for compact cameras. Avoid anything with the word ‘compact’, I think.

More fake face fun

More fun with fake faces. Here’s a breakdown from Eric Jang of Snapchat’s bizarre new filter.

Fun with Snapchat’s gender swapping filter
Snapchat’s new gender-bending filter is a source of endless fun and laughs at parties. The results are very pleasing to look at. As someone who is used to working with machine learning algorithms, it’s almost magical how robust this feature is.

I was so duly impressed that I signed up for Snapchat and fiddled around with it this morning to try and figure out what’s going on under the hood and how I might break it.

Eric takes it through its paces to learn a little more about how it’s generated. I hadn’t appreciated that it worked in real time like that.

beanie     turn     blonde

Update 15/05/2019

Classic FM got in on the act, and has taken a few portraits of classical music composers through the filter, with varying results.

We used Snapchat’s gender-swapping filter on famous composers… and the results are terrifying
5. Beethoven

more-fake-face-fun-5

Female Ludwig is a very sulky teenager.

An ugly problem, a possible solution

Taylor Lorenz at The Atlantic takes a long, hard look at Instagram and the extent of the misinformation and extremist ideologies that riddle the site.

Instagram is the internet’s new home for hate
Following just a handful of these accounts can quickly send users spiraling down a path toward even more extremist views and conspiracies, guided by Instagram’s own recommendation algorithm. On March 17, I clicked Follow on @the_typical_liberal. My account lit up with follow requests from pages with handles alluding to QAnon, and the app immediately prompted me to follow far-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Loomer, Alex Jones, and Candace Owens, as well as a slew of far-right meme pages such as @unclesamsmisguidedchildren and @the.new.federation. Following these pages resulted in suggestions for pages dedicated to promoting QAnon, chemtrails, Pizzagate, and anti-vaccination rhetoric.

On and on it goes.

@q_redpillworld17, for instance, which requested to follow me after I followed @the_typical_liberal, has posted several videos and images claiming proof that the New Zealand shooting was a “false flag”; one post compares the mosque’s blood-spattered carpet with another image, implying that the carpets don’t match so the shooting was staged. Another is a graphic video of the shooting, with a caption claiming that the bullets disappeared mid-air. Another suggests 200 examples of proof that the Earth is flat. Another falsely claims that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is secretly connected to the Clintons, who feed baby blood to George Soros.

It’s interesting, vital reading, with links to Instagram accounts I’m certainly not going to follow or even link to here.

But what can be done? Ignore the worries of the privacy, anti-censorship and free-speech activists and regulate the whole tech industry? Yes, let’s start with that.

The white paper on online harms is a global first. It has never been more needed
Some of the worries seemed rooted in the classic error of confusing the internet with a few giant companies that have come to dominate that world. In reality, the problem we have is not the internet so much as those corporations that ride on it and allow some unacceptable activities to flourish on their platforms, activities that are damaging to users and, in some cases, to democracy, but from which the companies profit enormously. Sooner or later, democracies will have to bring these outfits under control and the only question is how best to do it. The white paper suggests one possible way forward.

It does so by going to the heart of the problem – corporate responsibility.

[…]

The white paper says that the government will establish a new statutory duty of care on relevant companies “to take reasonable steps to keep their users safe and tackle illegal and harmful activity on their services”. Fulfilment of this duty will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator with formidable powers and sanctions at its disposal. Companies will have to fulfil their new legal duties or face the consequences and “will still need to be compliant with the overarching duty of care even where a specific code does not exist, for example assessing and responding to the risk associated with emerging harms or technology”.

You can read the White Paper online and judge for yourself.

You bought it, but is it yours?

Microsoft has changed its mind about selling e-books. Not only is it not selling any more, but it’s unselling those it sold previously.

Microsoft removes the Books category from the Microsoft Store
Previously purchased books and rentals will be accessible until early July, but after this, books will no longer be accessible, officials said in a customer-support article today. The company is promising full refunds for all content purchased from the Books category; anyone who bought books via the Store will receive further details on how to get refunds via email from Microsoft.

People aren’t happy though, as you can imagine.

Microsoft announces it will shut down ebook program and confiscate its customers’ libraries
This puts the difference between DRM-locked media and unencumbered media into sharp contrast. I have bought a lot of MP3s over the years, thousands of them, and many of the retailers I purchased from are long gone, but I still have the MP3s. Likewise, I have bought many books from long-defunct booksellers and even defunct publishers, but I still own those books.

When I was a bookseller, nothing I could do would result in your losing the book that I sold you. If I regretted selling you a book, I didn’t get to break into your house and steal it, even if I left you a cash refund for the price you paid.

Via the Wired newsletter, which added that “this remains a stark illustration of the fact that you never really buy digital media that’s locked down with DRM: merely a licence to access it for as long as its provider sees fit.”

Articles about Replika are replicating

Another piece on Eugenia Kuyda and how Replika came about, following an attempt to create a bot that could discuss restaurant recommendations.

This AI has sparked a budding friendship with 2.5 million people
Kuyda had high hopes for the service because chatbots were becoming all the rage in Silicon Valley at the time. But it didn’t take off. Only about 100,000 people downloaded Luka. Kuyda and her team realized that people preferred looking for restaurants on a graphical interface, and seeing lots of options at once.

Then In November 2015, Kuyda’s best friend, a startup founder named Roman Mazurenko, died in a car accident in Russia.

I’ve heard it before, but it’s still a sad start to the story.

Replika’s growing popularity among young people in particular (its main users are aged between 18 and 25) represents a renaissance in chatbots, which became overhyped a few years ago but are finding favor again as more app developers can use free machine-learning tools like Google’s TensorFlow.

It also marks an intriguing use case for AI in all the worry about job destruction: a way to talk through emotional problems when other human beings aren’t available. In Japan the idea of an artificial girlfriend, like the one voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the movie Her, has already become commonplace among many young men.

You must check out that last link, about those Japanese artificial girlfriends. It’s hard to believe the manufacturers, Gatebox, are suggesting you can have a relationship with an alarm clock.

A holographic virtual girlfriend lives inside Japan’s answer to the Amazon Echo
Instead of a simple, cylindrical speaker design, Gatebox has a screen and a projector, which brings Hikari — her name, appropriately, means “light” — to life inside the gadget. On the outside are microphones, cameras, and sensors to detect temperature and motion, so she can interact with you on a more personal level, rather than being a voice on your phone.

The result is a fully interactive virtual girl, who at her most basic can control your smart home equipment. The sensors mean she can recognize your face and your voice, and is designed to be a companion who can wake you up in the morning, fill you in on your day’s activities, remind you of things to remember, and even welcome you back when you return home from work.

articles-about-replika

Gone but not forgotten

A comprehensive list of what could be described as Google’s project failures.

Killed by Google – the Google graveyard & cemetery
Killed by Google is a Free and Open Source list of dead Google products, services, and devices. It serves to be a tribute and memorial of beloved products and services killed by Google.

We shouldn’t be afraid of failing, as that’s how we grow. I wouldn’t describe Google Reader as a failure, though. Still sorely missed.

Another data protection failure

Hot on the heels of Facebook’s latest password problem, TechCrunch has news of another online service with a very shoddy approach to data protection – i.e. there wasn’t any.

The app, Family Locator, allows families to track each other’s movements, similar to the location sharing option in Google Maps. But it seems the backend database for their nearly a quarter of a million users wasn’t protected at all.

A family tracking app was leaking real-time location data
Based on a review of the database, each account record contained a user’s name, email address, profile photo and their plaintext passwords. Each account also kept a record of their own and other family members’ real-time locations precise to just a few feet. Any user who had a geofence set up also had those coordinates stored in the database, along with what the user called them — such as “home” or “work.”

They tried to get in touch with the developer, React Apps, but to no avail.

The company’s website had no contact information — nor did its bare-bones privacy policy. The website had a privacy-enabled hidden WHOIS record, masking the owner’s email address. We even bought the company’s business records from the Australian Securities & Investments Commission, only to learn the company owner’s name — Sandip Mann Singh — but no contact information. We sent several messages through the company’s feedback form, but received no acknowledgement.

On Friday, we asked Microsoft, which hosted the database on its Azure cloud, to contact the developer. Hours later, the database was finally pulled offline.

Oh Facebook, what have you done now?

The Register nails it, once again.

Let’s spin Facebook’s Wheel of Misfortune! Clack-clack-clack… clack… You’ve won ‘100s of millions of passwords stored in plaintext’
Facebook today admitted it stored “some” of its addicts’ account passwords in a plaintext readable format. For “some”, read hundreds of millions.

The antisocial network quietly made the mea culpa in a statement that followed its breathless announcement of the Oculus Rift S Virtual Reality headset. The password snafu confession was, as far as we can tell, forthcoming from the Silicon Valley giant only after investigative journalist Brian Krebs blew the lid off the blunder.

Other news sources are happy to pile in, of course.

Why Facebook waited 3 months to disclose its latest privacy screw-up
We reached out to Facebook in an attempt to answer this question, but unsurprisingly received no response as of press time. Troy Hunt, a security researcher perhaps best known for running the breach disclosure site HaveIBeenPwned, was significantly more willing to chat.

“I suspect Facebook decided not to initially disclose the issue as they had no evidence of the data being used maliciously,” he wrote over Twitter direct message. “I can understand that position insofar as whilst the storage was clearly improper, without a compromise of the stored data the impact on customers would have been zero.”

This, of course, assumes that the passwords weren’t improperly accessed. Facebook claims as much in its blog post, but that requires you to trust Facebook. Which, well, you’d be forgiven for not jumping at the opportunity.

They’re all talking about whether these plaintext passwords were accessed by Facebook staff, whether anything malicious happened, but I think they’re missing a question — how did this happen?

Facebook’s own statement:

Keeping passwords secure

Or rather, not keeping them secure.

As part of a routine security review in January, we found that some user passwords were being stored in a readable format within our internal data storage systems. This caught our attention because our login systems are designed to mask passwords using techniques that make them unreadable.

Obviously not designed well enough, because that didn’t happen this time.

[…] In line with security best practices, Facebook masks people’s passwords when they create an account so that no one at the company can see them.

No it doesn’t.

In security terms, we “hash” and “salt” the passwords, including using a function called “scrypt” as well as a cryptographic key that lets us irreversibly replace your actual password with a random set of characters. With this technique, we can validate that a person is logging in with the correct password without actually having to store the password in plain text.

Yes yes yes, that’s all well and good, but that didn’t happen this time, because …? Who knows, perhaps they’ll tell us the next time this happens?

Happy birthday Bach

I love this Google Doodle, though even Bach can’t rescue my appalling lack of musical ability!

Google’s first AI-powered Doodle is a piano duet with Bach
Starting on March 21st, you’ll be able to play with the interactive Doodle, which will prompt you to compose a two-measure melody or pick one of the pre-existing choices. When you press the “Harmonize” button, it will use machine learning to give you a version of your melody that sounds like it was composed by Bach himself.

happy-birthday-bach-1

Various Google teams were involved in this project, including Google Magenta. There is an incredible amount of detail about the technologies behind the Bach harmonies on their own site.

Coconet: the ML model behind today’s Bach Doodle
Coconet is trained to restore Bach’s music from fragments: we take a piece from Bach, randomly erase some notes, and ask the model to guess the missing notes from context. The result is a versatile model of counterpoint that accepts arbitrarily incomplete scores as input and works out complete scores. This setup covers a wide range of musical tasks, such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions, rewriting and elaborating existing music, and composing from scratch.

happy-birthday-bach-2

I cannot begin to understand what’s going on there, but it sounds good.

MySpace isn’t your space anymore

Rolling Stone reflects on the news that MySpace has deleted all the music, photos and videos uploaded before 2016, seemingly as a result of a dodgy server migration project.

The internet is not your friend: MySpace and the loss of memories
But the loss was also deeply felt by nostalgia-happy millennials who came of age on MySpace, of which there are many: at its peak in 2006, MySpace had about 100 million users, many of whom were adolescents at the time. For those who were in their teens during those heady post-Friendster, pre-Facebook years, MySpace was nothing less than an introductory course in the fledgling field of How to Be Extremely Online — for better or, more likely than not, for worse.

So much of our lives is online now. Or rather, the memories of key events in our lives are tied to images and information kept online, outside of our control.

“There’s no way to recover the information we entrust to third parties,” Sarah Ditum wrote last week in a prophetic op-ed for the New Statesman. “We use Facebook, Gmail and Dropbox in the expectation that whatever we put there today will still exist tomorrow, but that can be a misplaced faith.” And that faith can come with some seriously devastating consequences, as evidenced by the posts from distraught posters on Reddit, one of whom is a father whose son passed away at 20, who now no longer is able to access a guitar demo he recorded at the age of seven. While we may refer to the disappearance of our embarrassing post-sex selfies and Taking Back Sunday-lyric-laden status updates as a “blessing,” it certainly doesn’t feel that way to those of with lost loved ones, whose connections to their online lives, however tenuous they may be, are some of the only connections they still have.

Kottke.org turns twenty

I’ve been a huge fan of Jason Kottke and his blog for as long as I’ve been on the web, I guess. We marked the web turning 30 earlier. It turns out kottke.org turns 20 this week. Time flies. Here he is, reminiscing over those early posts.

Twenty.
But had I not written all those posts, good and bad, I wouldn’t be who I am today, which, hopefully, is a somewhat wiser person vectoring towards a better version of himself. What the site has become in its best moments — a slightly highfalutin description from the about page: “[kottke.org] covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity” — has given me a chance to “try on” hundreds of thousands of ideas, put myself into the shoes of all kinds of different thinkers & creators, meet some wonderful people (some of whom I’m lucky enough to call my friends), and engage with some of the best readers on the web (that’s you!), who regularly challenge me on and improve my understanding of countless topics and viewpoints.

Here he is in conversation with Richard MacManus, who knows a thing or two about blogging himself, about this strange platform some of us insist on continuing with.

Jason Kottke, OG blogger
CI: But what about the cultural significance of blogs now? I mean there are some people like yourself who are still known as bloggers, but I very rarely hear the word ‘blog’ used these days. The younger generation, it seems to me, are not so concerned about having a home online – they’ll just gravitate to whatever tool happens to be popular at the time. So I feel like there’s some sort of a cultural shift that’s happened, that the blog is almost archaic these days.

Jason: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think in the beginning when blogs first came came around, you would tell somebody you had a blog and it would be like…a what? They didn’t know what it was. And then, blogs had their cultural moment and then everybody knew what they were. And like you said, you had a blog and people would be like, oh cool. But now, people are like… oh, that’s kind of quaint, you still have a blog.

Hmm.

happ://y.birthday.www

As I mentioned earlier, the Web turns 30 this year. Let’s reminisce with the Verge.

The World Wide Web turns 30: our favorite memories from A to Z
Over the past 30 years, major portions of the web have come and gone. They’ve made us laugh and cringe, let us waste time and find friends, and reshaped the world in the process.

For its anniversary, we’re looking back at some of our favorite websites, from A to Z, as well as some key people and technologies. Of course, there was far too much good stuff to include, so we had to note some additional favorites along the way.

Yes there are the obvious ones like Flickr and Geocities, but what about these blasts from the past?

JENNICAM
Jennifer Ringley started broadcasting every moment spent in her college dorm, by way of grainy photos uploaded every 15 minutes, in 1996. She was one of the first people to share her life online without a filter, offering a sense of intimacy and relatability that we now take for granted with digital celebrities. She was also one of the first people to discover the pitfalls of internet fame, including burnout after living years of her life in public, which is why she’s stayed mostly offline since 2003 when Jennicam went dark.

[…]

LIVEJOURNAL
Once upon a time (around the turn of the 21st century), there was a social network called LiveJournal where large numbers of people (some with very confusing pseudonyms) hung out, blogged, argued in long comment threads, posted fiction and poetry and art, and had a generally good time. In 2007, LiveJournal was sold to a Russian media company, and many of its original contributors eventually decamped to Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign climes. LiveJournal is still, well, live; its servers (and its user agreement) are now Russian and so are many of its users.

Breaking up is hard to do

The techlash continues.

Elizabeth Warren proposes breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook
At a rally in Long Island City, the neighborhood that was to be home to a major new Amazon campus, Ms. Warren laid out her proposal calling for regulators who would undo some tech mergers, as well as legislation that would prohibit platforms from both offering a marketplace for commerce and participating in that marketplace.

“We have these giants corporations — do I have to tell that to people in Long Island City? — that think they can roll over everyone,” Ms. Warren told the crowd, drawing applause. She compared Amazon to the dystopian novel “The Hunger Games,” in which those with power force their wishes on the less fortunate.

“I’m sick of freeloading billionaires,” she said.

She’s far from the lone voice on this issue.

Elizabeth Warren is right – we must break up Facebook, Google and Amazon
The current effort is bipartisan. At a Senate hearing I attended last week, the arch-conservative Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asked me, rhetorically: “Is there really any wonder that there is increased pressure for antitrust enforcement activity, for privacy activity when these companies behave in the way that they do?”

Hawley added: “Every day brings some creepy new revelation about these companies’ behaviors. Of course the public is going to want there to be action to defend their rights. It’s only natural.”

House of Lords report calls for digital super-regulator
The chair of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, called on the government to be less reactive in how it responds to digital risks: “The government should not just be responding to news headlines but looking ahead so that the services that constitute the digital world can be held accountable to an agreed set of principles,” he said.

“Self-regulation by online platforms is clearly failing and the current regulatory framework is out of date. The evidence we heard made a compelling and urgent case for a new approach to regulation. Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

You can always take matters into your own hands.

Goodbye Big Five
Reporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting my money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

Kids and screens

There’s a lot of talk about today’s children oversharing on social media. But what kind of example are the parents setting?

When kids realize their whole life is already online
While many kids may not yet have accounts themselves, their parents, schools, sports teams, and organizations have been curating an online presence for them since birth. The shock of realizing that details about your life—or, in some cases, an entire narrative of it—have been shared online without your consent or knowledge has become a pivotal experience in the lives of many young teens and tweens.

It seems we’re all on our screens, all the time. That plural is key, though, isn’t it? It used to be that there was only the one screen at home — the TV in the living room — but now everyone has their own screen and we sit and watch them all separately.

Here’s a report on research Ofcom carried out on what children are watching, and what they’re watching it on.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why
The evidence gives a sense of what attracts them to online video rather than traditional TV – and just how much has changed in the course of a generation.

We’ve got a couple of teenagers in the house, and so some of these conclusions struck a nerve. Here’s an extract about live TV.

Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why – A report for Ofcom (pdf)

What role does live TV play in children’s lives?

Key findings

• Most children viewed live TV as a family ritual, often watching programmes routinely every year (e.g. Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!)

• Parents welcomed live TV as an opportunity for “family time”, and were often actively encouraging their children to join them for communal TV watching

• Children were often using live TV as ’background noise’ while doing another task or to fill time while they were waiting for something

• Most live TV viewing was on a communal screen or device and therefore usually it was a compromised choice between those watching (e.g. parents and siblings)

[…]

Conclusions

The children loved being able to find whatever they wanted, whenever they liked. As YouTube responds to demand, it can offer a seemingly limitless choice of content. YouTube offers everything they could possibly want, and then allows them to easily access more of what they like the most. […]

Live TV is explicitly thought of by the children and their parents as an opportunity for “family time”, when they all sit down to watch something together. However, the children tended to feel that they weren’t choosing the content themselves, or it was a compromised choice. At other times children put live TV on for a few minutes as a ‘time filler’ while they were waiting for something or had a few minutes to spare. Overall, children seem most attracted to content that they can view on their own device, over which they can exercise maximum choice, and which directly feeds the things that interest them.

I think I miss that “family time”. It feels less natural now than it did when the kids were little.

Talk it over with an AI

We all need someone to talk to. A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. But is that still true if the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually exist?

Chatbot therapy
Since virtual therapy seems to work, some innovators have started to suspect they could offer patients the same benefits of CBT—without a human on the other end. Services like Replika (an app intended to provide an emotional connection, not necessarily therapy) and Woebot (a therapy service that started in Facebook Messenger before breaking out on its own) allow human patients to interact with artificially intelligent chatbots for the purpose of improving their mental health.

I gave Woebot a go some time back. It felt potentially useful but quite scripted, a little heavy-handed. I’ve just started with Replika and so far the conversations feel more natural, though a little random at times.

This app is trying to replicate you
Replika launched in March. At its core is a messaging app where users spend tens of hours answering questions to build a digital library of information about themselves. That library is run through a neural network to create a bot, that in theory, acts as the user would. Right now, it’s just a fun way for people to see how they sound in messages to others, synthesizing the thousands of messages you’ve sent into a distillate of your tone—rather like an extreme version of listening to recordings of yourself. But its creator, a San Francisco-based startup called Luka, sees a whole bunch of possible uses for it: a digital twin to serve as a companion for the lonely, a living memorial of the dead, created for those left behind, or even, one day, a version of ourselves that can carry out all the mundane tasks that we humans have to do, but never want to.

That line above, “a living memorial for the dead”, is key, as that’s how Replika started, with the story of Eugenia Kuyda and Roman Mazurenko.

Speak, memory
Modern life all but ensures that we leave behind vast digital archives — text messages, photos, posts on social media — and we are only beginning to consider what role they should play in mourning. In the moment, we tend to view our text messages as ephemeral. But as Kuyda found after Mazurenko’s death, they can also be powerful tools for coping with loss. Maybe, she thought, this “digital estate” could form the building blocks for a new type of memorial.

She’s not the only one wandering down this slightly morbid track.

Eternime and Replika: Giving life to the dead with new technology
At the moment, Eternime takes the form of an app which collects data about you. It does this in two ways: Automatically harvesting heaps of smartphone data, and by asking you questions through a chatbot.

The goal is to collect enough data about you so that when the technology catches up, it will be able to create a chatbot “avatar” of you after you die, which your loved ones can then interact with.

But would they want to? Grief is a very personal thing, I can’t imagine this approach being for everyone.

‘Have a good cry’: Chuckle Brother takes aim at the grief taboo
“It’s like when you are a kid and you fall over and you think it’s all right and then your mum comes and says, ‘Are you all right, love?’ You burst into tears,” he said. “It was the same when Barry died. Everybody was saying sorry about your brother.”

Replika seems less about leaving something behind for your family and friends when you’ve gone, but more about making a new friend whilst you’re still around.

The journey to create a friend
There is no doubt that friendship with a person and with an AI are two very different matters. And yet, they do have one thing in common: in both cases you need to know your soon-to-be friend really well to develop a bond.

But let’s not get carried away, we’re not talking Hal or Samantha yet.

Three myths about Replika
Social media has put forth a number of quite entertaining theories about Replika. Today we are listing some of the ideas that we love … even though they are not exactly true.

Though you never know how these things will progress.

This Y Combinator-backed AI firm trained its chatbot to call you on the phone, and it’s fun but a little creepy
Much like the text version of Replika, my conversation with the bot threw up some odd quirks. “I think you look lovely today,” it said, and when I pointed out that it doesn’t have eyes, it replied: “Are you sure I don’t?”

Strange, funny, and occasionally creepy nonsequiturs are not new to Replika, in fact, there is a whole Subreddit dedicated to weird exchanges with the bot. Overall, however, the bot seemed to follow the train of the conversation reasonably well, and even told me a joke when I asked it to.

Looking back for a better digital future

A review of two books on the histories and possible futures of the internet, that try to position themselves somewhere between the more common approaches that recent studies have taken — either deterministic accounts of the “improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex”, or heroic tales from Silicon Valley of “whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors”.

Counter-histories of the Internet
Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.

[…]

Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.

It’s an interesting debate, though I worry it may be a little redundant — do the top execs at Facebook, Google and Amazon have these books on their reading list?

Stop, we want to get off

Shortly before he died in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote this slightly melancholic article about his fears for the future of a society so obsessed with “pee ring into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces”, oblivious to their surroundings.

I’m not sure why the New Yorker has published this now, four years later, but I must admit to sharing some of his concerns.

The Machine Stops, by Oliver Sacks
In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing.

[…]

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

Out of curiosity, I took the option on the New Yorker webpage of having this article read to me. I enjoyed the irony of listening, right at the end, to an advert for an iPhone app.

Fascinating and horrifying

Thirty years after it all started, the web is a very strange place indeed.

The Communal Mind: Patricia Lockwood travels through the internet
A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. But if we managed to escape, to break out of the great skull and into the fresh air, if Twitter was shut down for crimes against humanity, what would we be losing? The bloodstream of the news, the thrilled consensus, the dance to the tune of the time. The portal that told us, each time we opened it, exactly what was happening now. It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself. Here’s how it began.

Some parts are much worse than others. Here’s a depressing look into the world of Facebook moderators; what they go through, what they have to put up with, how they are damaged as a result. I can’t help but wonder if the ends justify the means — do we really need all this?

The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America
Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

But the secrecy also insulates Cognizant and Facebook from criticism about their working conditions, moderators told me.

It’s not just a problem with Facebook, of course.

Suicide instructions spliced into kids’ cartoons on YouTube and YouTube Kids
Suicide tips stashed in otherwise benign cartoons are just the latest ghastly twist in the corruption of kids’ content on YouTube and YouTube Kids. For years, the video-sharing company has struggled with a whack-a-mole-style effort to keep a variety of disturbing and potentially scarring content out of videos targeting children.

Web beginnings and endings

It’s hard to believe the web’s thirty years old already. It seems like it’s been around forever in the way it underpins everything we do, from TV watching to banking. But we’re still grappling with the consequences its introduction has had on our societies, and probably will for another thirty years yet.

But let’s step back a little, to how it all began.

CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb rebuild
In December 1990, an application called WorldWideWeb was developed on a NeXT machine at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) just outside of Geneva. This program – WorldWideWeb — is the antecedent of most of what we consider or know of as “the web” today.

In February 2019, in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the development of WorldWideWeb, a group of developers and designers convened at CERN to rebuild the original browser within a contemporary browser, allowing users around the world to experience the rather humble origins of this transformative technology.

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Their timeline is very interesting, too: “thirty years of influences leading up to (and the thirty years of influence leading out from) the publication of the memo that lead to the development of the first web browser.”

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But all good things come to an end, and another one of the big players from back in the day is no more.

A eulogy for AltaVista, the Google of its time
You appeared on the search engine scene in December 1995. You made us go “woah” when you arrived. You did that by indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

Today, of course, pages get indexed in the billions, the tens of billions or more. But in 1995, 20 million was huge. Existing search engines like Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek (to name only a few) didn’t quite know what hit them. With so many pages, you seemed to find stuff they and others didn’t.

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Who’s next, I wonder.