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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Why Is TikTok Being Banned? - The New York Times

Why Countries Are Trying to Ban TikTok

Governments have expressed concerns that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, may endanger sensitive user data.

The logo of TikTok, a stylized symbol resembling a musical note and followed by the name of the social media platform, is shown outside the company’s building in Culver City, California.
TikTok has long denied allegations that it puts sensitive user data into the hands of the Chinese government.Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In recent months, lawmakers in the United States, Europe and Canada have escalated efforts to restrict access to TikTok, the massively popular short-form video app that is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, citing security threats.

The White House told federal agencies on Feb. 27 that they had 30 days to delete the app from government devices. Britain, Canada and the executive arm of the European Union also recently banned the app from official devices.

A House committee two days later backed an even more extreme step, voting to advance legislation that would allow President Biden to ban TikTok from all devices nationwide.

Here’s why the pressure has been ratcheted up on TikTok, which has said that it is used by more than 100 million Americans.

Why are governments banning TikTok?

It all comes down to China.

Lawmakers and regulators in the West have increasingly expressed concern that TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, may put sensitive user data, like location information, into the hands of the Chinese government. They have pointed to laws that allow the Chinese government to secretly demand data from Chinese companies and citizens for intelligence-gathering operations. They are also worried that China could use TikTok’s content recommendations for misinformation.

TikTok has long denied such allegations and has tried to distance itself from ByteDance.

Have any countries banned TikTok?

India banned the platform in mid-2020, costing ByteDance one of its biggest markets, as the government cracked down on 59 Chinese-owned apps, claiming that they were secretly transmitting users’ data to servers outside India.

A person in dark lighting looks at a phone.
Most of the existing TikTok bans have been implemented at governments and universities that have the power to keep an app off their devices or networks.Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

What’s happening with bans in the United States?

Since November, more than two dozen states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices and many colleges — like the University of Texas at Austin, Auburn University, and Boise State University — have blocked it from campus Wi-Fi networks. The app has already been banned for three years on U.S. government devices used by the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Coast Guard. But the bans typically don’t extend to personal devices. And students often just switch to cellular data to use the app.

Is Congress trying to ban TikTok?

Some members would like to. In early March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to approve a bill that could grant a president the authority to ban the platform entirely. (Courts previously stopped a Trump administration effort to do this.)

In January, a Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, introduced a bill to ban TikTok for all Americans after pushing for a measure, which passed in December as part of a spending package, that banned TikTok on all devices issued by the federal government. A separate bipartisan bill, introduced in December, also sought to ban TikTok and target any similar social media companies from countries like Russia and Iran.

What is the Biden administration doing?

TikTok said this week that the Biden administration wants its Chinese ownership to sell the app or face a possible ban. The administration has been largely quiet, though the White House recently pointed to an ongoing review, in response to questions about TikTok. TikTok has been in yearslong confidential talks with the administration’s review panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, to address questions about TikTok and ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government and the handling of user data. TikTok said that in August it submitted a 90-page proposal detailing how it planned to operate in the United States while addressing national security concerns.

Can the government ban an app?

Most of the existing TikTok bans have been implemented at governments and universities that have the power to keep an app off their devices or networks.

A broader, government-imposed ban that stops Americans from using an app that allows them to share their views and art could face legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After all, large numbers of Americans, including elected officials and major news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, now produce videos on TikTok.

“In democratic governments, the government can’t just ban free speech or expression without very strong and tailored grounds to do so and it’s just not clear that we have that yet,” said Ms. Chin.

What if I already have TikTok on my phone when a ban is issued?

The exact mechanism for banning an app on privately owned phones is unclear.

Ms. Chin said that the United States could block TikTok from selling advertisements or making updates to its systems, essentially making it nonfunctional.

Apple and other companies that operate app stores do block downloads of apps that no longer work. They also ban apps that carry inappropriate or illegal content, said Justin Cappos, a professor at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering.

They also have the ability to remove apps installed on a user’s phone. “That usually doesn’t happen,” he said.

Determined users might also be able to fight a ban by refusing to update their phones, “which is a bad idea,” Professor Cappos said.

The TikTok logo appears on a phone as a person sits at a table of food.
Since November, more than two dozen states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices and many colleges.Shuran Huang for The New York Times

What has TikTok’s response been?

TikTok has referred to the bans as “political theater” and criticized lawmakers for attempting to censor Americans. “The swiftest and most thorough way to address any national security concerns about TikTok is for CFIUS to adopt the proposed agreement that we worked with them on for nearly two years,” Brooke Oberwetter, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said in a statement. Separately, TikTok has been trying to win allies, recently making an uncharacteristic push in Washington to meet with influential think tanks, public interest groups and lawmakers to promote the plan it submitted to the government.

How are TikTok’s privacy and security issues different from Instagram’s, Facebook’s or Twitter’s?

Chinese ownership seems to be the main issue.

Critics of the efforts to ban the platform have pointed out that all social media networks engage in rampant collection of their users’ data.

Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights group, recently waged a #DontBanTikTok campaign with the goal of redirecting lawmakers’ attention on TikTok to creating data and privacy laws that would apply to all Big Tech companies.

“The general consensus from the privacy community is that TikTok collects a lot of data, but it’s not out of step with the amount of data collected by other apps,” said Robyn Caplan, a senior researcher at Data & Society Research Institute.

Who else opposes a ban?

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter in late February to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to protest its bill, saying that the legislation would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.

Of course, millions of Americans, digital creators and marketers would hate to see the platform go away, and blocking a popular app could create a political backlash among young people.

What can I do right now to protect my data if I use TikTok?

To protect your privacy on TikTok, you can employ the same practices used to protect yourself on other social media platforms. That includes not giving apps permission to access your location or contacts.

You can also watch TikTok videos without opening an account.

What are other approaches besides a ban?

The administration could approve TikTok’s plan for operating in the United States. There is also a chance that lawmakers would force ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American company — which almost happened in 2020."

Why Is TikTok Being Banned? - The New York Times

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

How Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant Lost the AI Race - The New York Times

How Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant Lost the A.I. Race

"The virtual assistants had more than a decade to become indispensable. But they were hampered by clunky design and miscalculations, leaving room for chatbots to rise.

Patrick Edell

By Brian X. ChenNico Grant and Karen Weise

Brian X. Chen, The Times’s lead consumer technology writer, and Nico Grant, who covers Google, reported from San Francisco. Karen Weise, who writes about Amazon, is based in Seattle.

On a rainy Tuesday in San Francisco, Apple executives took the stage in a crowded auditorium to unveil the fifth-generation iPhone. The phone, which looked identical to the previous version, had a new feature that the audience was soon buzzing about: Siri, a virtual assistant.

Scott Forstall, then Apple’s head of software, pushed an iPhone button to summon Siri and prodded it with questions. At his request, Siri checked the time in Paris (“8:16 p.m.,” Siri replied), defined the word “mitosis” (“Cell division in which the nucleus divides into nuclei containing the same number of chromosomes,” it said) and pulled up a list of 14 highly rated Greek restaurants, five of them in Palo Alto, Calif.

“I’ve been in the A.I. field for a long time, and this still blows me away,” Mr. Forstall said.

That was 12 years ago. Since then, people have been far from blown away by Siri and competing assistants that are powered by artificial intelligence, like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. The technology has largely remained stagnant, and the talking assistants have become the butt of jokes, including in a 2018 “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring a smart speaker for seniors.

The tech world is now gushing over a different kind of virtual assistant: chatbots. These A.I.-powered bots, such as ChatGPT and the new ChatGPT Plus from the San Francisco company OpenAI, can improvise answers to questions typed into a chat box with alacrity. People have used ChatGPT to handle complex tasks like coding software, drafting business proposals and writing fiction.

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And ChatGPT, which uses A.I. to guess what word comes next, is rapidly improving. A few months ago, it couldn’t write a proper haiku; now it can do so with gusto. On Tuesday, OpenAI unveiled its next-generation A.I. engine, GPT-4, which powers ChatGPT.

The excitement around chatbots illustrates how Siri, Alexa and other voice assistants — which once elicited similar enthusiasm — have squandered their lead in the A.I. race.

Over the past decade, the products hit roadblocks. Siri ran into technological hurdles, including clunky code that took weeks to update with basic features, said John Burkey, a former Apple engineer who worked on the assistant. Amazon and Google miscalculated how the voice assistants would be used, leading them to invest in areas with the technology that rarely paid off, former employees said. When those experiments failed, enthusiasm for the technology waned at the companies, they said.

Voice assistants are “dumb as a rock,” Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said in an interview this month with The Financial Times, declaring that newer A.I. would lead the way. Microsoft has worked closely with OpenAI, investing $13 billion in the start-up and incorporating its technology into the Bing search engine, as well as other products.

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Apple declined to comment on Siri. Google said it was committed to providing a great virtual assistant to help people on their phones and inside their homes and cars; the company is separately testing a chatbot called Bard. Amazon said that it saw a 30 percent increase in customer engagement globally with Alexa in the last year and that it was optimistic about its mission to build world-class A.I.

Alexa, the voice assistant, was embedded in Amazon’s Echo devices.
Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

The assistants and the chatbots are based on different flavors of A.I. Chatbots are powered by what are known as large language models, which are systems trained to recognize and generate text based on enormous data sets scraped off the web. They can then suggest words to complete a sentence.

In contrast, Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are essentially what are known as command-and-control systems. These can understand a finite list of questions and requests like “What’s the weather in New York City?” or “Turn on the bedroom lights.” If a user asks the virtual assistant to do something that is not in its code, the bot simply says it can’t help.

Siri also had a cumbersome design that made it time-consuming to add new features, said Mr. Burkey, who was given the job of improving Siri in 2014. Siri’s database contains a gigantic list of words, including the names of musical artists and locations like restaurants, in nearly two dozen languages.

That made it “one big snowball,” he said. If someone wanted to add a word to Siri’s database, he added, “it goes in one big pile.”

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So seemingly simple updates, like adding some new phrases to the data set, would require rebuilding the entire database, which could take up to six weeks, Mr. Burkey said. Adding more complex features like new search tools could take nearly a year. That meant there was no path for Siri to become a creative assistant like ChatGPT, he said.

Alexa and Google Assistant relied on technology similar to Siri’s, but the companies struggled to generate meaningful revenue with the assistants, former managers at Amazon and Google said. (In contrast, Apple successfully used Siri to entice buyers to its iPhones.)

After Amazon released the Echo, a smart speaker powered by Alexa, in 2014, the company hoped the product would help it increase sales in its online store by enabling consumers to talk to Alexa to place orders, said a former Amazon leader involved with Alexa. But while people had fun playing with Alexa’s ability to answer weather prompts and set alarms, few asked Alexa to order items, he added.

Amazon may have overinvested in making new kinds of hardware, like now-discontinued alarm clocks and microwaves that worked with Alexa, which sold at or below cost, the former executive said.

The company also underinvested in creating an ecosystem for people to easily expand Alexa’s abilities, in the way that Apple had done with its App Store, which helped stoke interest in the iPhone, the person said. While Amazon offered a “skills” store to make Alexa control third-party accessories like light switches, it was difficult for people to find and set up skills for the speakers — unlike the friction-free experience of downloading mobile apps from app stores.

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“We never had that App Store moment for the assistants,” said Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst for the research firm Creative Strategies who was a consultant for Amazon.

Late last year, the Amazon division working on Alexa was a major target of the company’s 18,000 layoffs, and a number of top Alexa executives have left the company.

Kinley Pearsall, an Amazon spokeswoman, said Alexa was much more than a voice assistant, and “we’re as optimistic about that mission as ever.”

Google Assistant was included in the company’s home devices, such as the Google Home Mini smart speaker.
Smith Collection/Gado, via Getty Images

Amazon’s misfires with Alexa may have led Google astray, said a former manager who worked on Google Assistant. Google engineers spent years experimenting with its assistant to mimic what Alexa could do, including designing smart speakers and voice-controlled tablet screens to control home accessories like thermostats and light switches. The company later integrated ads into those home products, which did not become a major source of revenue.

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Over time, Google realized that most people used the voice assistant only for a limited number of simple tasks, such as starting timers and playing music, the former manager said. In 2020, when Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google executive, took over Google Assistant, his group refocused the virtual companion as a marquee feature for Android smartphones.

In January, when Google’s parent company laid off 12,000 employees, the team working on operating systems for home devices lost 16 percent of its engineers.

Many of the big tech companies are now racing to come up with responses to ChatGPT. At Apple’s headquarters last month, the company held its annual A.I. summit, an internal event for employees to learn about its large language model and other A.I. tools, two people who were briefed on the program said. Many engineers, including members of the Siri team, have been testing language-generating concepts every week, the people said.

On Tuesday, Google also said it would soon release generative A.I. tools to help businesses, governments and software developers build applications with embedded chatbots, and incorporate the underlying technology into their systems.

In the future, the technologies of chatbots and voice assistants will converge, A.I. experts said. That means people will be able to control chatbots with speech, and those who use Apple, Amazon and Google products will be able to ask the virtual assistants to help them with their jobs, not just tasks like checking the weather.

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“These products never worked in the past because we never had human-level dialogue capabilities,” said Aravind Srinivas, a founder of Perplexity, an A.I. start-up that offers a chatbot-powered search engine. “Now we do.”

How Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant Lost the AI Race - The New York Times

Monday, March 13, 2023

What is Happening with Samsung's Camera?

Tempted by a new gadget? Keep the Golden Rule in mind before buying - The Washington Post

Tempted by a new gadget? Keep the golden rule in mind before buying.

Companies would be thrilled if you bought new devices every year. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

We get lots of questions here at the Help Desk and are always keen to tackle your most troublesome tech conundrums. But if there’s just one I’ve heard the most over the years, it is: “I’ve had [insert gadget name here] for [usually not a long time] — should I get the new one?”

Tech reporter Chris Velazco helps his colleagues decide whether or not they should consider upgrading their smartphone. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Oftentimes, that question is born of honest curiosity — someone really wants to know if the promises a company has made about some new product are worth buying into. Other people, however, have already made up their minds about buying something new and are just looking for someone to validate their choices.

No matter why people ask, though, my answer is almost always the same: If it isn’t seriously broken, and you got whatever it is less than two years ago, don’t even think about replacing it.

That’s my golden rule for gadget shopping, and I admit it sounds like a pretty obvious rule of thumb. But as long as companies churn out new smartphones, laptops, wearable gadgets and more for sale each year — and then advertise them like crazy — it can be a little too easy to splurge on an upgrade that may not move the satisfaction needle for you.

Our advice: Resist that temptation whenever you can. Not only will your bank account thank you, but the upgrade you do invest in down the road also is likely to feel fresher and more capable because you’ve allowed for the underlying technology to mature further before embracing it.

As straightforward as my rule is, there are a few things about it that we should unpack, such as why the threshold is two years, and what qualifies as “seriously” broken.

Barring accidents and, say, defects stemming from production, the first year with a new gadget is likely to be your best year with it. And by the time you tiptoe past the first anniversary of your purchase, you’ve probably built up some considerable experience with it — which means you have a pretty good sense of how well it’s supposed to run.

Keep that baseline in mind as you continue using your device.

In my experience, it’s after the second year that things you may have taken for granted before — like performance or battery life, if the gadget in question has a battery — can really start turning south.

These kinds of consumer gadgets receive software and security updates for more than two years; in fact, it’s not uncommon for products from companies including Samsung and Apple to receive four or more years of updates. The hardware, by comparison, may struggle to last as long.

That’s not to say a phone, laptop or a smartwatch will suddenly go batty after two years; the process is usually much more subtle than that. Hang onto a device long enough, though, and you’ll hit a point where it runs too slowly or the battery doesn’t last long enough for your comfort. It’s only after that point that we’d recommend you think about upgrading — or if possible, repairing — your device.

What makes a device ‘seriously’ broken?

Let’s say that you have a smartphone that does everything you want it to and that you’ve been satisfied with everything about it except its battery life. It wasn’t always this way, though; early on, you could count on your phone to last full days, but now it barely gets you through lunchtime.

Is it worth upgrading then?

We don’t think so. The details will depend on your phone’s model, but you can generally expect to pay $100 (plus tax) or less to get a genuine replacement battery installed. You could spend even less if you felt like taking a stab at the process yourself. (I spent a weekend not too long ago dismantling old Samsung phones to remove their old bloated batteries, a process that wound up being way more pleasant and contemplative than I expected.)

Paying $100 or so to fix your phone’s biggest issue isn’t nothing, but it’s a fraction of what a brand new model would cost you. If the problem is a little more complicated, such as a shattered screen, expect potential repair costs to go up a bit. Apple’s estimates for out-of-warranty screen replacements range from $129 for aging devices like the 2016 iPhone SE to about $379 for the iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Even at the high end, those costs still may make a repair a better choice than a full-on upgrade if you’re satisfied with everything else. I’d consider a device to be “seriously” broken — and therefore worth considering writing off — only once the potential repair costs hit 50 percent of the cost of a new model.

At that point, do whatever feels right for you and your budget, and don’t forget to recycle, trade in or upcycle that older device once you’ve done with it."

Tempted by a new gadget? Keep the Golden Rule in mind before buying - The Washington Post