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Social media giants are trying to operate without human controls but are failing

(TECH NEWS) Artificial intelligence (AI) is taking over in fascinating ways, but this big experiment of replacing human tasks is failing. Good news / bad news.

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ai robot not human

Let me tell you a story. In fact, let me tell you several.

A village in Macedonia had a small economic boom during the 2016 election, plagiarizing and stitching together pro-Trump messages on social media, then publishing the results as “news” in order to profit from Google ad revenue.

Back during the “Keep Calm and…” T-shirt fad, a shirt company went through a thoroughly justified PR apocalypse for selling products labeled “Keep Calm and Hit Her” and “Keep Calm and Rape a Lot.”

The 17th most popular website on Earth occasionally likes to tell women over 30 to freeze their ova.

So! That’s a parade of fail. What’s it got in common, beyond making any reasonable reader consider moving to an Amish community and trying to forget even the word “Internet”?

People. More accurately, their absence.

Veles, Macedonia churned out profitable nonsense about Trump slapping a protester (that didn’t happen) or getting the blessing of the Pope (Pope says nope) because Google ads are programmatic. There’s no QA component, no human eyes reviewing content and asking “is this worth advertising on?” or for that matter “is this blatantly false?”

Likewise the Evil T-Shirt Crisis. The company generated slogans by dropping memes into an algorithm, then throwing the result on Amazon. That ended… poorly.

We, and every other tech and business network in the digital cosmos, have written in depth about all the dang robots taking our jobs. Usually our primary concern is the economic fallout. We’re a business news organization. It’s our job to warn you about that stuff.

But there’s another problem, and it’s a huge problem, especially as media consumption in general continues to rise, and more and more of that media is moderated by algorithms rather than people.

Robots aren’t just taking our jobs. They suck at our jobs. Algorithms may play go, but they aren’t ready to make value judgments yet. A quick Google will yield a dozen more examples of AI failures just as repulsive and/or hilarious as the ones on my list. And the real punchline for all of that?

It’s good news.

For once, the robot apocalypse is cutting us puny humans a break. It’s creating jobs almost as fast as it’s gobbling them up, because at this point, it is excruciatingly clear that robots aren’t ready to produce work people can actually see. They’re not even ready to put ads on work people see, not without causing a PR catastrophe every other month.

AI isn’t a better widget. It also isn’t an employee that doesn’t want benefits or take long lunches.

It’s a product in permanent beta, desperately trying to catch up to the constantly changing nuance of human interaction. It doesn’t work without homo sapiens holding its robot hand.

Let’s call it Salter’s Law: For every application of AI to customer-facing work, you will need to hire at least one human for damage control when the AI screws up.

Matt Salter is a writer and former fundraising and communications officer for nonprofit organizations, including Volunteers of America and PICO National Network. He’s excited to put his knowledge of fundraising, marketing, and all things digital to work for your reading enjoyment. When not writing about himself in the third person, Matt enjoys horror movies and tabletop gaming, and can usually be found somewhere in the DFW Metroplex with WiFi and a good all-day breakfast.

Tech News

Google is giving back some privacy control? (You read that right)

(TECH NEWS) In a bizarre twist, Google is giving you the option to opt out of data collection – for real this time.

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Open laptop on desk, open to map privacy options

It’s strange to hear “Google” and “privacy” in the same sentence without “concerns” following along, yet here we are. In a twist that’s definitely not related to various controversies involving the tech company, Google is giving back some control over data sharing—even if it isn’t much.

Starting soon, you will be able to opt out of Google’s data-reliant “smart” features (Smart Compose and Smart Reply) across the G-Suite of pertinent products: Gmail, Chat, and Meet. Opting out would, in this case, prevent Google from using your data to formulate responses based on your previous activity; it would also turn off the “smart” features.

One might observe that users have had the option to turn off “smart” features before, but doing so didn’t disable Google’s data collection—just the features themselves. For Google to include the option to opt out of data collection completely is relatively unprecedented—and perhaps exactly what people have been clamoring for on the heels of recent lawsuits against the tech giant.

In addition to being able to close off “smart” features, Google will also allow you to opt out of data collection for things like the Google Assistant, Google Maps, and other Google-related services that lean into your Gmail Inbox, Meet, and Chat activity. Since Google knowing what your favorite restaurant is or when to recommend tickets to you can be unnerving, this is a welcome change of pace.

Keep in mind that opting out of data collection for “smart” features will automatically disable other “smart” options from Google, including those Assistant reminders and customized Maps. At the time of this writing, Google has made it clear that you can’t opt out of one and keep the other—while you can go back and toggle on data collection again, you won’t be able to use these features without Google analyzing your Meet, Chat, and Gmail contents and behavior.

It will be interesting to see what the short-term ramifications of this decision are. If Google stops collecting data for a small period of time at your request and then you turn back on the “smart” features that use said data, will the predictive text and suggestions suffer? Only time will tell. For now, keep an eye out for this updated privacy option—it should be rolling out in the next few weeks.

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Tech News

Google added Driving Mode, and they need your help to fill in the blanks

(TECH NEWS) Google wants you to help build out their driving mode, and all you have to do is annoy every last person around you.

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Google Maps releases a Driving Mode, held in hand.

Google is trying to map the planet and everything on it. An ever-hungry juggernaut dragon, there is some noble utility to having every mappable atom cataloged by their Sauron gaze. They’ve got goofy cars with oversized eyeball cameras gleefully running along every last street in existence, and their dance of taking photos is going to last until the end of time. It’s not even like they are shy about announcing it – HEY THIS IS A GOOGLE CAR AND WE’RE TAAAAAAKING PICTUUUUUURES.

These efforts are a bit hampered at the moment between various travel bans, which – while understandable – means that the beast can’t be sated. But Google is resourceful and full of smart people, and they know that most people are probably pretty bored and need excuses to move around. Bonus – it’s pretty safe to do so in your car (at least in terms of COVID-19 exposure), and everyone needs a change of scenery here and there.

First spotted by users at Reddit last week, Google has opened up a new “Driving Mode” option for their mobile navigation app. It lets users upload photos to their Street View service, which in turn can then be shared out to the internet at large. As a bonus, it blurs out faces and license plates to protect privacy. I guess the paranoid part of me wonders if the app secretly saves data in an  unblurred state, but that means there would have to be a nefarious reason to amass that kind of data.

For the time being, let’s ignore that potentially troubling thought and focus on the positive that Google is providing here – a way to more quickly clear out all the dead gray space their maps might still be riddled with. I’m that friend who doesn’t trust that the address painted on your curb, so I’m totally down for knowing what you meant by “the one with the red door and the big blue thing.”

It’s crowdsourcing at its most genuine and distilled – an army of free freelancers working to collect data on a gargantuan project that might bankrupt even the largest tech giants of the world. If we focused the entirety of Instagram to a specific task, and a willing audience rose up and immediately contributed, we could get enough data to solve practically anything. Google is more or less taking Uber’s model and applying it to data aggregation and collection, and I can’t really fault them for that.

You may be wondering how useful this is, or even if it carries any utility at all. I think the answer there hinges on 2 things to consider. The first is simple – Google hasn’t fully mapped everything out. This includes rural areas in developed countries, to vast expanses in several others. If the thought is that we can better visualize the world in an effort to benefit humanity at large, then this endeavor is highly worthwhile.

The second thing to think about is just how usable the uploaded photos are, and this will rely on the devices themselves. Google could mitigate this by controlling software and hardware version minimums, with requirements that a camera must be able to provide images at a high bit quality. This would cut down on bad data or unusable pictures. Surely there’s a review process for final approval on top of that. In the end, this should ensure pictures that clearly convey visual data properly. (Of course, sometimes you’ll still get weird or funny stuff.)

If there’s one downside to any of this, it is that nagging feeling of another minor intrusion on privacy. When Google drives their cars around, it’s hard to miss their mechanical extremities and brightly colored paint jobs. When some rando down the road loads up a camera in their ‘96 Sonata and starts snapping pics, I could see that making some people upset. At the worst, you could say Google is encouraging unscrupulous behavior (or at least very annoying behavior), but I see enough Facebook updates from people telling me what coffee they drank for the day, so maybe no one is too worried. I guess you could worry about someone keeping any compromising photos, but Google can’t be held responsible for that.

For now, the rollout appears to be controlled at this time, as it’s not widely available to everyone, and there’s no clear indication on when and how it will be publicly released everywhere. Hit the road everyone.

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Tech News

Microsoft engineer *almost* gets away with $10 million

(TECH NEWS) It was almost the perfect scheme, but this Microsoft engineer messed up and is heading for prison instead.

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The front of the Microsoft office with large Microsoft logo.

Volodymyr Kvashuk, a former Microsoft engineer from Ukraine, is facing 9 years in prison for attempting to steal $10 million from his employer. He has been ordered to pay over $8 million in restitution fees, and may even face deportation after his prison term is complete.

Here’s how it all went down:

Kvashuk’s position as a program tester for the Microsoft Online store gave him access to a “whitelisted” store account, which automatically bypassed fraud detection protocols, to test store functionality. Purchases through whitelisted accounts were supposed to be void, but Kvashuk discovered that he was able to use the account to purchase legitimate store gift cards.

At first, he only used the credit to make small unauthorized purchases, like software and graphics cards. But nobody seemed to notice, because the purchases were linked to fake payment devices, and so Kvashuk got bolder.

He went on to make larger and larger transactions, selling his stolen Microsoft store credit for bitcoin online and spending the money on a new house and car.

As the stakes escalated, he eventually started taking more measures to conceal his tracks- like sending his largest sums through a “mixing” service to conceal their origins before he deposited them into his proper bank account. The funds were even properly reported to the IRS, but he claimed they were a gift from his dad.

Yet Kvashuk made a few damning mistakes that allowed investigators to track him down.

Most egregiously, despite being wise enough to use a VPN for this activity, he regularly reused the same connection (and therefore the same IP address). This acted like a trail of breadcrumbs that linked his known accounts and the ones directly involved with his scheme.

Investigators also highlighted the uncanny timing of the transactions in question, stating “The value of the bitcoin deposits to Kvashuk’s Coinbase account generally correlated with the value of the purchased and redeemed [Microsoft credit].”

“Stealing from your employer is bad enough,” US Attorney Brian Moran stated, “but stealing and making it appear that your colleagues are to blame widens the damage beyond dollars and cents.”

In the end, Krashuk got justice. He was found guilty of “five counts of wire fraud, six counts of money laundering, two counts of aggravated identity theft, two counts of filing false tax returns, and one count each of mail fraud, access device fraud, and access to a protected computer in furtherance of fraud,” according to court documents.

That’s quite the laundry list of offenses, but it can all be boiled down to a few simple words: “You really messed up, man.”

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