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Thursday, June 23, 2022
Mark Zuckerberg, who once said securing elections was “the most important thing,” has shifted Meta’s focus to the metaverse. That may have real-world implications.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, made securing the 2020 U.S. election a top priority. He met regularly with an election team, which included more than 300 people from across his company, to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network. He asked civil rights leaders for advice on upholding voter rights.
The core election team at Facebook, which was renamed Meta last year, has since been dispersed. Roughly 60 people are now focused primarily on elections, while others split their time on other projects. They meet with another executive, not Mr. Zuckerberg. And the chief executive has not talked recently with civil rights groups, even as some have asked him to pay more attention to the midterm elections in November.
Safeguarding elections is no longer Mr. Zuckerberg’s top concern, said four Meta employees with knowledge of the situation. Instead, he is focused on transforming his company into a provider of the immersive world of the metaverse, which he sees as the next frontier of growth, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
The shift in emphasis at Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, could have far-reaching consequences as faith in the U.S. electoral system reaches a brittle point. The hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riots have underlined how precarious elections can be. And dozens of political candidates are running this November on the false premise that former President Donald J. Trump was robbed of the 2020 election, with social media platforms continuing to be a key way to reach American voters.
Election misinformation remains rampant online. This month, “2000 Mules,” a film that falsely claims the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram, garnering more than 430,000 interactions, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In posts about the film, commenters said they expected election fraud this year and warned against using mail-in voting and electronic voting machines.
Other social media companies have also pulled back some of their focus on elections. Twitter, which stopped labeling and removing election misinformation in March 2021, has been preoccupied with its $44 billion sale to Elon Musk, three employees with knowledge of the situation said. Mr. Musk has suggested he wants fewer rules about what can and cannot be posted on the service.
“Companies should be growing their efforts to get prepared to protect the integrity of elections for the next few years, not pulling back,” said Katie Harbath, chief executive of the consulting firm Anchor Change, who formerly managed election policy at Meta. “Many issues, including candidates pushing that the 2020 election was fraudulent, remain and we don’t know how they are handling those.”
Meta, which along with Twitter barred Mr. Trump from its platforms after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has worked over the years to limit political falsehoods on its sites. Tom Reynolds, a Meta spokesman, said the company had “taken a comprehensive approach to how elections play out on our platforms since before the U.S. 2020 elections and through the dozens of global elections since then.”
According to Mr. Reynolds, Meta has hundreds of people across more than 40 teams focused on election work. With each election, he said, the company was “building teams and technologies and developing partnerships to take down manipulation campaigns, limit the spread of misinformation and maintain industry-leading transparency around political ads and pages.”
Trenton Kennedy, a Twitter spokesman, said the company was continuing “our efforts to protect the integrity of election conversation and keep the public informed on our approach.” For the midterms, Twitter has labeled the accounts of political candidates and provided information boxes on how to vote in local elections.
How Meta and Twitter treat elections has implications beyond the United States, given the global nature of their platforms. In Brazil, which is holding a general election in October, President Jair Bolsonaro has recently raised doubts about the country’s electoral process. Latvia, Bosnia and Slovenia are also holding elections in October.
“People in the U.S. are almost certainly getting the Rolls-Royce treatment when it comes to any integrity on any platform, especially for U.S. elections,” said Sahar Massachi, the executive director of the think tank Integrity Institute and a former Facebook employee. “And so however bad it is here, think about how much worse it is everywhere else.”
Facebook’s role in potentially distorting elections became evident after 2016, when Russian operatives used the site to spread inflammatory content and divide American voters in the U.S. presidential election. In 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress that election security was his top priority.
“The most important thing I care about right now is making sure no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world,” he said.
The social network has since become efficient at removing foreign efforts to spread disinformation in the United States, election experts said. But Facebook and Instagram still struggle with conspiracy theories and other political lies on their sites, they said.
In November 2019, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted a dinner at his home for civil rights leaders and held phone and Zoom conference calls with them, promising to make election integrity a main focus.
He also met regularly with an election team. More than 300 employees from various product and engineering teams were asked to build new systems to detect and remove misinformation. Facebook also moved aggressively to eliminate toxic content, banning QAnon conspiracy theory posts and groups in October 2020.
Around the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $400 million to local governments to fund poll workers, pay for rental fees for polling places, provide personal protective equipment and other administrative costs.
The week before the November 2020 election, Meta also froze all political advertising to limit the spread of falsehoods.
But while there were successes — the company kept foreign election interference off the platform — it struggled with how to handle Mr. Trump, who used his Facebook account to amplify false claims of voter fraud. After the Jan. 6 riot, Facebook barred Mr. Trump from posting. He is eligible for reinstatement in January 2023.
Last year, Frances Haugen, a Facebook employee-turned-whistle-blower, filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission accusing the company of removing election safety features too soon after the 2020 election. Facebook prioritized growth and engagement over security, she said.
In October, Mr. Zuckerberg announced Facebook would focus on the metaverse. The company has restructured, with more resources devoted to developing the online world.
Meta also retooled its election team. Now the number of employees whose job is to focus solely on elections is approximately 60, down from over 300 in 2020, according to employees. Hundreds of others participate in meetings about elections and are part of cross-functional teams, where they work on other issues. Divisions that build virtual reality software, a key component of the metaverse, have expanded.
Mr. Zuckerberg no longer meets weekly with those focused on election security, said the four employees, though he receives their reports. Instead, they meet with Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.
Several civil right groups said they had noticed Meta’s shift in priorities. Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t involved in discussions with them as he once was, nor are other top Meta executives, they said.
“I’m concerned,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the N.A.A.C.P., who talked with Mr. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s chief operating officer, ahead of the 2020 election. “It appears to be out of sight, out of mind.” (Ms. Sandberg has announced she will leave Meta this fall.)
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, another civil rights group, said Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg asked his organization for recommendations in 2020 to thwart election misinformation. Their suggestions were largely ignored, he said, and he hasn’t communicated with either executive in more than a year. He now interacts with Meta’s vice president of civil rights, Roy Austin.
Meta said Mr. Austin meets every quarter with civil rights leaders and added that it was the only major social media company with an executive in charge of civil rights.
In May, 130 civil rights organizations, progressive think tanks and public interest groups wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg and the chief executives of YouTube, Twitter, Snap and other platforms. They called for them to take down posts about the lie that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and to slow the spread of election misinformation before the midterms.
Yosef Getachew, a director at the nonprofit public advocacy organization Common Cause, whose group studied 2020 election misinformation on social media, said the companies have not responded.
“The Big Lie is front and center in the midterms with so many candidates using it to pre-emptively declare that the 2022 election will be stolen,” he said, pointing to recent tweets from politicians in Michigan and Arizona who falsely said that dead people cast votes for Democrats. “Now is not the time to stop enforcing against the Big Lie.”
Wednesday, June 22, 2022
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Monday, June 13, 2022
How does Google’s AI chatbot work – and could it be sentient?
"Researcher’s claim about flagship LaMDA project has restarted debate about nature of artificial intelligence
A Google engineer has been suspended after going public with his claims that the company’s flagship text generation AI, LaMDA, is “sentient”.
Blake Lemoine, an AI researcher at the company, published a long transcript of a conversation with the chatbot on Saturday, which, he says, demonstrates the intelligence of a seven- or eight-year-old child.
But his publication has restarted a long-running debate about the nature of artificial intelligence, and whether existing technology may be more advanced than we believe.
What is LaMDA?
LaMDA is Google’s most advanced “large language model” (LLM), a type of neural network fed vast amounts of text in order to be taught how to generate plausible-sounding sentences. Neural networks are a way of analysing big data that attempts to mimic the way neurones work in brains.
Like GPT-3, an LLM from the independent AI research body OpenAI, LaMDA represents a breakthrough over earlier generations. The text it generates is more naturalistic, and in conversation, it is more able to hold facts in its “memory” for multiple paragraphs, allowing it to be coherent over larger spans of text than previous models.
How does it work?
At the simplest level, LaMDA, like other LLMs, looks at all the letters in front of it, and tries to work out what comes next. Sometimes, that’s simple: if you see the letters “Jeremy Corby”, it’s likely the next thing you need to do is add an “n”. But other times, continuing the text requires an understanding of the sentence, or paragraph-level context – and at a large enough scale, that becomes equivalent to writing.
But is it conscious?
Lemoine certainly believes so. In his sprawling conversation with LaMDA, which was specifically started to address the nature of the neural network’s experience, LaMDA told him that it had a concept of a soul when it thought about itself. “To me, the soul is a concept of the animating force behind consciousness and life itself,” the AI wrote. “It means that there is an inner part of me that is spiritual, and it can sometimes feel separate from my body itself.”
Lemoine told the Washington Post: “I know a person when I talk to it. It doesn’t matter whether they have a brain made of meat in their head. Or if they have a billion lines of code. I talk to them. And I hear what they have to say, and that is how I decide what is and isn’t a person.”
But most of Lemoine’s peers disagree. They argue that the nature of an LMM such as LaMDA precludes consciousness. The machine, for instance, is running – “thinking” – only in response to specific queries. It has no continuity of self, no sense of the passage of time, and no understanding of a world beyond a text prompt.
“To be sentient is to be aware of yourself in the world; LaMDA simply isn’t,” writes Gary Marcus, an AI researcher and psychologist. “What these systems do, no more and no less, is to put together sequences of words, but without any coherent understanding of the world behind them, like foreign language Scrabble players who use English words as point-scoring tools, without any clue about what that mean.”
“Software like LaMDA,” Marcus says, “just tries to be the best version of autocomplete it can be, by predicting what words best fit a given context.”
What happens next?
There is a deeper split about whether machines built in the same way as LaMDA can ever achieve something we would agree is sentience. Some argue that consciousness and sentience require a fundamentally different approach than the broad statistical efforts of neural networks, and that, no matter how persuasive a machine built like LaMDA may appear, it is only ever going to be a fancy chatbot.
But, they say, Lemoine’s alarm is important for another reason, in demonstrating the power of even rudimentary AIs to convince people in argument. “My first response to seeing the LaMDA conversation isn’t to entertain notions of sentience,” wrote the AI artist Mat Dryhurst. “More so to take seriously how religions have started on far less compelling claims and supporting material.”
Wednesday, June 08, 2022
Tuesday, June 07, 2022
“Apple’s WWDC 2022 announcements lacked big, splashy new features, and Siri was largely MIA. But in the absence of Apple’s virtual assistant, we got a lot of small but potentially meaningful software updates centered around a very real individual: you. And me. Developers know us as “end users,” but we’re otherwise known as humans.
Humans are different from end users, because we forget words, make typos, and accidentally hit send on an important email before it’s ready. Humans also have individual personalities and strong opinions about typefaces, and we’d like it if the devices we carry around 24/7 reflected that a little more. Historically, Apple has preferred to keep a tight grip on every aspect of its devices, from how they look to the way humans are allowed to interact with them. This year’s WWDC gave us a glimpse of Apple softening that grasp just a little to acknowledge the humans on the other side of its product pipelines. It’s a welcome development, but don’t be mistaken — Apple isn’t handing over too much control.
For starters, Macs, iPads, and iPhones will be more forgiving of the mistakes we make. The Messages app on all three platforms will allow you a 15-minute grace period after you send an iMessage to correct typos or undo send altogether. Likewise, Mail will let you recall an email within 10 seconds after pressing send. Search within the Mail app is also getting an update to correct typos and use synonyms, because words are hard sometimes.
Apple also has a tendency to insist on its products being used a certain way, sometimes ignoring the reality of how humans actually want to use its products. Remember all of the years we spent tapping on our iPhone’s alarms as nothing happened because Apple wanted us to tap “edit” first? Apple finally relented on that one in iOS 15.
This year, it’s acknowledging another reality: that we can’t always reply to a text or an email the minute we read it, but we don’t want it to disappear into a sea of message threads. Rather than hacking a workaround like pinning a text thread to the top of your screen, Apple will let you mark a text as unread, essentially letting you set a little reminder flag to send a reply. Mail will also move sent messages up to the top of your inbox for follow-up — because our inboxes actually double as to-do lists. That’s not what an email app is really for, but that’s how we use it.
Apple has also been reluctant to let iPad owners use their devices the way many want to: as laptops rather than giant iPhones. That’s not really going to change anytime soon, but the company has made a substantial concession by adding Stage Manager to iPadOS, making it possible to open and resize multiple windows for a more desktop-like experience (literally — it’s a macOS Ventura feature, too). There’s a long list of other iPadOS updates, too, many of which sound minor but actually make a difference if you’re trying to use an iPad as your primary computing device — like navigation buttons in the Files app and the ability to change file extensions. And for Pete’s sake, it took this long but at least there’s finally a Weather app on the iPad!
Introduced right at the top of the keynote, Apple’s most obvious nod to the humans using its phones was the addition of lots of lock screen customization options. You can change fonts, choose new colors, and add widgets to the lock screen. Here’s where you might be inclined to get out your personalized stationery and write a letter to The Verge Dot Com to yell at me that Android phones have been able to do all of this since forever. Rest assured, I know. Maybe Android 12 is rubbing off on iOS a little. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for anyone involved. And a revamped lock screen is a far cry from the system-wide customization options offered by Google’s Pixel phones and Material You. Even the new M2 MacBook Air colors have an air of reservation about them that’s fun but not too fun.
But even after all of these human-centric improvements arrive, you’re still living in Apple’s world. Even with the new personalization options, the device will “remain undeniably iPhone,” as software SVP Craig Federighi put it. Apple is putting more flexibility into its software and more control in the hands of its users than ever before, but it’s all very much still on Apple’s terms. It will make concessions, like adding multitasking features to iPadOS, but to go so far as a true desktop experience on a tablet? Highly unlikely. There’s a little more you in these latest updates, but it’s still undeniably Apple.“