Wave of Regulation, IPOs, Black Hole Photography, and a Mysterious Malware
Teb’s Weekly Tech Digest
Around the world regulators are starting to take on big tech. In the US, a senate bill was introduced which would ban certain manipulative design practices that trick users into giving up private information. The UK has proposed a sweeping new policy that would give the government wide berth in punishing tech companies that don’t tackle hate crimes, stalking, and more. In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, Australia passed a law that requires tech platforms to quickly remove “abhorrent violent content” from their platforms — companies that do not comply could face fines up to 10% of their yearly revenue, and their executives could face 3 years in prison under the new law. Singapore introduced legislation attempting to combat fake news. And even Mark Zuckerberg has started calling for regulation. The Facebook CEO has already started working with French president Emmanuel Macron to draft and refine regulations.
I’m broadly in favor of efforts to rein in the massive tech corporations, but regulation is tricky. A common thread in these regulations is that they brush up against free speech and censorship issues. As I’ve written regarding privacy regulation, getting it right is hard. While I think we should absolutely proceed — regulators shouldn’t adopt the Facebook mantra (“move fast and break things”) that got us here in the first place.
Lyft’s IPO raised more than $2 billion for the company. It was the first of many “unicorns” expected to IPO this year. The competing rideshare platform Uber is hot on Lyft’s heels, and has already filed their own S-1. Some environmentally focused investors have been vocal about opting out of the Uber and Lyft IPOs arguing the rideshare model is a threat to public transit, and puts more cars on the road.
This kind of pressure — combined with the drivers strikes in southern California — might partially explain why Lyft is promising to invest at least $50 million per year into “support locally-driven transportation and other initiatives,” starting in LA. The new regulatory climate may also play a role — Lyft and Uber have both been subject to regulation recently, including a minimum wage law and a traffic congestion law both in New York City.
While the slew of coming IPO’s is good for investors and early employees — many of whom stand to become overnight millionaires — others are pointing out that these companies are still burning through cash rather than turning a profit. If you squint, these IPOs might look a little bubbly.
Google’s AI advisory council didn’t last long. Following controversy over who was appointed to the panel, Google canceled the project. MIT Technology Review took the opportunity to collect some advice from AI and ethics experts for Google’s next attempt. As AI and Robotics continue to become more intertwined, and given Google’s recently reopened robotics department and drone delivery program in Australia, we can continue to expect AI+Ethics news out of Google. It won’t be limited to Google either — New York recently piloted a facial recognition system that failed spectacularly.
In other AI news, research is bridging the gap between two rival AI factions. “Symbolists” and “Connectionists” teamed up to build a new AI system that they claim can train with significantly less data than current state-of-the-art Deep Learning tactics. That might be bad news for a growing body of low-skill laborers who have been employed to prepare the labeled training data that powers most modern AI systems. Even those labeling efforts entail some ethical quandaries: Bloomberg reported this week about the labeling of voice data collected by Amazon’s Alexa devices, which included employees who believed they had overheard a sexual assault and were reportedly told by the company that it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.
Scientists captured the first ever photograph of a black hole, to much fanfare. The imagery itself is honestly a bit dull (sorry not sorry!), but it represents a massive achievement and sets the stage for a new era of study for gravitational singularities. The videos of our sun’s coronal rain published earlier this month as part of a larger project were much more fun to watch.
In biotech, Chinese scientists have used genetic engineering to alter monkey brains which appears to have improved their cognitive abilities. It’s nearly impossible to do this research in the US or Europe — possibly because more people in the west have seen Planet of the Apes. Many in the genetic world are calling for a slower approach to genetic engineering citing ethical concerns, this research serves as a reminder that some are willing to steamroll into the unknown without the backing of a global consensus.
Finally, in the security world, a powerful and mysterious malware was discovered by Kaspersky Lab. The software, dubbed “Taj Mahal” is a swiss army knife of an espionage tool — reminiscent of the Flame virus that made waves in the early 2010’s. As of now, it’s not clear who built the malware, or what their goals are, but the software is highly sophisticated indicating that the authors are well resourced, whoever they are.