How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into evil | John Naughton

If our supersmart tech leaders knew a bit more about history or philosophy we wouldnt be in the mess were in now

One of the biggest puzzles about our current predicament with fake news and the weaponisation of social media is why the folks who built this technology are so taken aback by what has happened. Exhibit A is the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, whose political education I recently chronicled. But hes not alone. In fact Id say he is quite representative of many of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world. We have a burgeoning genre of OMG, what have we done? angst coming from former Facebook and Google employees who have begun to realise that the cool stuff they worked on might have had, well, antisocial consequences.

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didnt care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think thats unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel Trumps favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.

So what else could explain the astonishing naivety of the tech crowd? My hunch is it has something to do with their educational backgrounds. Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter.

Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

We are now beginning to see the consequences of the dominance of this half-educated elite. As one perceptive observer Bob ODonnell puts it, a liberal arts major familiar with works like Alexis de Tocquevilles Democracy in America, John Stuart Mills On Liberty, or even the work of ancient Greek historians, might have been able to recognise much sooner the potential for the tyranny of the majority or other disconcerting sociological phenomena that are embedded into the very nature of todays social media platforms. While seemingly democratic at a superficial level, a system in which the lack of structure means that all voices carry equal weight, and yet popularity, not experience or intelligence, actually drives influence, is clearly in need of more refinement and thought than it was first given.

All of which brings to mind CP Snows famous Two Cultures lecture, delivered in Cambridge in 1959, in which he lamented the fact that the intellectual life of the whole of western society was scarred by the gap between the opposing cultures of science and engineering on the one hand, and the humanities on the other with the latter holding the upper hand among contemporary ruling elites. Snow thought that this perverse dominance would deprive Britain of the intellectual capacity to thrive in the postwar world and he clearly longed to reverse it.

Snow passed away in 1980, but one wonders what he would have made of the new masters of our universe. One hopes that he might see it as a reminder of the old adage: be careful what you wish for you might just get it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/19/how-tech-leaders-delivered-us-into-evil-john-naughton

Facebook finishes its move to neural machine translation

Facebook announced this morning that it had completed its move to neural machine translation a complicated way of saying that Facebook is now using convolutional neural networks (CNNs) and recurrent neural networks (RNNs) to automatically translate content across Facebook.

Google, Microsoft and Facebook have been making the move to neural machine translation for some time now, rapidly leaving old-school phrase-based statistical machine translation behind. There are a lot of reasons why neural approaches show more promise than phrase-based approaches, but the bottom line is that they produce more accurate translations.

Traditional machine translation is a fairly explicit process. Relying on key phrases, phrase-based systems translate sentences then probabilistically determine a final translation. You can think of this in a similar light as using theRosetta Stone (identical phrases in multiple languages) to translate text.

In contrast, neural models deal in a higher level of abstraction. The interpretation of a sentence becomes part of a multi-dimensional vector representation, which really just means were trying to translate based on some semblance of context rather than phrases.

Facebook Status update translation

Its not a perfect process, and researchers are still tinkering with how to deal with long-term dependencies (i.e. retaining understanding and accuracy throughout a long text), but the approach is incredibly promising and has produced great results, thus far, for those implementing it.

Google announced the first stage of its move to neural machine translationin September 2016 and Microsoft made a similar announcement two months later. Facebook has been working on its conversion efforts for about a year and its now at full deployment. Facebook AI Research (FAIR) published its own research on the topic back in May and open sourced its CNN models on GitHub.

Our problem is different than that of most of the standard places,mostly because of the type of language we see at Facebook, Necip Fazil Ayan, engineering manager in Facebooks language technologies group,explained to me in an interview. We see a lot ofinformal language and slang acronyms. The style of language is very different.

Facebook has seen about a 10 percent jump in translation quality. You can read more into the improvement in FAIRs research. The results are particularly striking for languages that lack a lot of data in the form of comparative translation pairs.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2017/08/03/facebook-finishes-its-move-to-neural-machine-translation/

Australia’s government turns the heat up on encrypted messaging apps

The Australian government is cracking down on encrypted apps.
Image: Getty Images

The jig is up for encrypted messaging, in the eyes of the Australian government.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Friday morning the government will bring in new laws to force tech companies to hand over data protected by encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal.

It’s in light of increased use of encryption in cases related to terrorism, drugs trafficking, and paedophilia rings. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) said 65 percent of serious investigations now involve some sort of encryption.

“At the end of the day, what has happened here is legislation has not yet kept pace with technology,” AFP’s deputy commissioner, Michael Phelan, said during a press conference.

The new laws will be modelled on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, which gives intelligence agencies the power to de-encrypt communications.

But here’s the problem: Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal use end-to-end encryption, which means the key to accessing these messages is held by the sender and the receiver, and not by the company.

So will these companies have to build a backdoor to these encrypted apps, creating a vulnerability that can be taken advantage by hackers with the right tools?

Well, Turnbull isn’t explicitly asking for a backdoor. Authorities will force companies to give access to these encrypted communications “lawfully” via a warrant or a court order.

“What we need is the cooperation where we can compel it, but we will need the cooperation from the tech companies to provide access in accordance with the law,” Turnbull said.

Encryption keys are devised by a mathematical formula. Asked if whether the laws of mathematics would curb the government’s bid to crack end-to-end encryption, Turnbull said Australia’s laws would overrule. No, you read that right.

“Well, the laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia,” he said.

Given terrorists aren’t just using readily available messaging apps, it remains to be seen how the government’s proposed laws will deal with the problem of the dozens of encryption packages out there.

It likely won’t work in reality

Matthew Warren, a cyber security professor at Deakin University, said intelligence agencies will potentially focus their efforts on how they can intercept messages in realtime. But that’s unlikely to work.

“The problem is if it would work in reality. It would only work if you knew the terrorist target that you were tracking, and actually knew what technologies they were using,” he explained.

“In order for this to work in realtime it means the intelligence organisations will need access to the encryption keys. Apple and Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t going to do that.”

Even if certain companies agree to create a backdoor to their apps, Warren said those looking to break the law could simply change to one of the many dozen encrypted apps available on the market.

Nevertheless, he expects “a number of countries” will look to implement similar legal powers, after a G20 statement on countering terrorism encouraged companies to collaborate with law enforcement on providing “lawful and non-arbitrary access to available information.”

Facebook and Apple stand firm on encryption

Following a series of terrorist attacks, Facebook announced it will be using artificial intelligence and employed a team of 150 counterrorism experts to stop terrorist activity on its platform. But it will stop short of weakening encryption for authorities.

“We appreciate the important work law enforcement does, and we understand their need to carry out investigations,” a Facebook spokesperson said via email.

“That’s why we already have a protocol in place to respond to requests where we can. At the same time, weakening encrypted systems for them would mean weakening it for everyone.”

WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, won’t succumb to pressure either. Its co-founder Brian Acton stated in January it will “fight any government request to create a backdoor.”

Apple wouldn’t comment directly on the Australian government’s pressure on encrypted messaging, but pointed to a statement by CEO Tim Cook in which he said the company will never allow backdoor access to its products to any government agency.

We’ll find out if the Australian government’s plans hold much if any water, when the legislation is put to the country’s Parliament by the end of the year.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/07/14/australian-government-encrypted-apps/

How to turn off Messenger’s Chat Heads

Image: Christopher Mineses/Mashable

You never have to be interrupted by your friend’s floating head again.

Chat Heads were introduced several years ago on Facebook Messenger for Android. The feature uses profile pictures of the people you’re talking to on Messenger as shortcuts for the chatthey pop up on your screen, regardless of what you’re doing, and invite you to tap into the conversation.

While the feature can be useful sometimes, it’s mostly just in the way when you’re doing something else on your phone.

Messenger also has a feature that lets you directly reply from your notification bar when you need to, so the Chat Heads are frankly a bit superfluousand again, annoying. But they’re still on by default.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to get rid of them. Here’s how:

  1. In Messenger, click on your profile button on the top right.

  2. Scroll down to the “Chat Heads” setting and toggle it off.

Voila! Easy, right? And totally worth it to keep disembodied heads from interrupting your Clash of Clans sesh.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/03/27/how-to-turn-off-chat-heads-messenger/

Is Snapchat the new Facebook?

As Snapchat plans the most eagerly anticipated technology IPO since its older rival floated in 2012, Rupert Neate examines the two companies striking similarities

Snapchat hopes its planned flotation in New York will value the five-year-old photo-sharing app company at up to $25bn (20bn) and turn its 26-year-old founder, Evan Spiegel, into the worlds youngest billionaire with a $5.5bn fortune. It is the most eagerly anticipated technology initial public offering (IPO) since Facebook floated in 2012 turning its then 28-year-old founder, Mark Zuckerberg, into the worlds richest man under 30. The similarities between Snap (the official name for the company that owns Snapchat) and Facebook are striking, and have got many financial analysts and advertising experts asking if Snapchat is the new Facebook.

How did they start?

Zuckerberg and Spiegel hit upon the ideas for their companies at university and then dropped out. Zuckerberg, a computer science major, began knocking up a website called Facemash, loosely based on Hot or Not, in his Harvard dorm room. The site evolved intoFacebook but not without a legal challenge from the Winklevoss twins, who sued Zuckerberg claiming he stole their idea.

Evan
Evan Spiegel could become the worlds youngest billionaire. Photograph: Jae C. Hong/AP

Snapchat was born out of banter between Spiegel and his Stanford fraternity brothers Frank Reginald Brown and Bobby Murphy. In 2011 the trio were discussing sexting and the need for a way to send pictures that disappeared.

As with Facebook, the genesis of the idea was disputed, and Brown sued Spiegel and the company. They settled out of court, with Spiegel, who was studying product design, and Murphy, a mathematics and computational science major, remaining majority shareholders with a 22.4% stake each.

How many users do they have?

Facebook had 900m users as it prepared for its 2012 flotation. Since then the social network has grown to 1.86bn monthly active users more than half the worlds population that has access to the internet. About 1.2bn check their Facebook accounts every day.

Snapchat has far fewer users, but the company claims they are much more engaged than Facebooks. Snapchat had 158m daily users at the last count. Two-thirds of them check the app every day and the average daily user visits the app 18 times a day, spending an average of 25-30 minutes a day sending snaps and watching snaps from their friends, celebrities and advertising brands.

Snapchat is only accessible via mobile phone. Snapchat claims to reach 41% of all 18- to 34-year-olds in the US each day.

How much are they worth?

Facebook has a market value of $373bn more than twice that of IBM. Facebook was valued at $104bn when it floated at $38 a share on the NYSE on 18 May 2012. Today the shares are changing hands at $131.

Facebook tried to buy Snapchat several times, and Spiegel has said Zuckerberg tried to force him to sell up. It was basically like, Were going to crush you, Spiegel told Forbes magazine. Spiegel rejected Zuckerbergs last $3bn takeover in November 2013. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has since developed versions of 15 of Snapchats features.

Snaps IPO filings show the company is planning to float its shares at a level that would value the companyat $20-25bn.

How much control do the founders have?

Snapchats flotation is unusual. The company is not selling any voting shares, so the founders will controversially keep total control of the firm even after raising public money. Facebook has a voting structure that gives the founders far more rights than other shareholders.

How much money do they make?

Facebook made a profit of $10.2bn in 2016, up 177% on 2015. Its total advertising income was almost $27bn. But Facebook only turned its first profit in 2009.

Snap, which is spending a lot of money on expanding its user base, made a net loss of $515m in 2016 up on the $373m it lost in 2015.

Where does the income come from?

Both companies make their money from advertising at the expense of traditional advertising markets such as newspapers and TV.

Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, the worlds largest advertising company, has said his clients spent $1.7bn advertising on Facebook last year. That compares to $5bn WPP clients spent on Google ads, but is vastly more than the $90m spent on Snapchat.

Neil Campling, head of global technology research at Northern Trust Capital Markets, told CNBC: Snapchat is likely on a faster growth path than either Google or Facebook. Their opportunity is enormous and just beginning.

Snapchat has tried to differentiate itself from Facebook by not allowing adverts targeted directly at users interests or browsing history. I got an ad this morning for something I was thinking about buying yesterday, and its really annoying. We care about not being creepy, Spiegel said in 2015.

Facebooks advertising is sold entirely by computer program. Advertisers can visit ads.facebook.com, plug in payment information and create an advert. Those ads can be targeted as narrowly or broadly as the advertiser desires, and can be billed in a variety of ways, from paying a flat fee for every thousand views to payments per click, per like and more.

Where are they based?

Facebooks huge headquarters in Silicon Valleys Menlo Park has a green roof the size of seven American football pitches. The company employs more than 17,000 people across the world.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/03/is-snapchat-the-new-facebook