The UpStream

China unveils first AI reporter and, while creepy, it is not AI

posted Saturday Nov 17, 2018 by Scott Ertz

China unveils first AI reporter and, while creepy, it is not AI

Last week, China unveiled what is, on the surface, a pretty impressive achievement: an AI reporter for their state-run television news. This virtual anchorman was developed by Xinhua and the Chinese search engine, Sogou, as a way to create a 24/7 face for the news, that never gets tired and is always there. According to Qiu Hao, the name of the digital host who is a representation of a real anchor for the network,

Not only can I accompany you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I can be endlessly copied and present at different scenes to bring you the news.

To prove that this is true, the company showed off a second virtual representation of a real network anchor, who presents in English. He added,

The development of the media industry calls for continuous innovation and deep integration with the international advanced technologies... I look forward to bringing you brand new news experiences.

The biggest problem with this pitch is the claim the company is making: the world's first AI anchor. The anchor, as stated in his own voice, is not AI. In fact, he reads from a script written by humans no different from any other tv news anchor on any network. In fact, the only place that AI played any role in the software is using a machine learning algorithm to analyze video of the two humans in question to build a model of behaviors, mannerisms, and speech patterns.

While machine learning is a branch of AI, the anchor himself is not an AI. Instead, it is built on top of an AI-powered rendering engine. Not quite the same thing. Now, if the anchor is eventually able to scan the internet, pick topics and write a script, then I'll be impressed. Until then, I think it's probably cheaper and less creepy to have a real person host your television news program. Unless you're trying to present false information with a straight face, but that's a different topic (hopefully).

Facebook hired firm to silence its critics, Zuckerberg says he did not know

posted Saturday Nov 17, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Facebook hired firm to silence its critics, Zuckerberg says he did not know

The past couple of years have been difficult for Facebook. With controversy after controversy, the largest being Cambridge Analytica, it sure seems that the company cannot seem to do anything right. As such, trust in their brand is at an all-time low, both with consumers and with legislators.

In an attempt to raise its public perception, the company hired a PR firm called Definers Public Affairs. While the relationship started out innocent enough, it grew into something less than acceptable. The firm is known for political counterintelligence, and they brought that expertise to Facebook. In the days leading up to Sheryl Sandberg testifying before Congress, Definers researched all of the financial and technological ties that the Senators had to the topic at hand. In particular, they found campaign donations from Facebook and its employees, as well as any technology used to track visitors to their own websites. This was passed out to reporters in an attempt to undermine the proceedings and establish them as hypocrites. This was while, publicly, the company was promising transparency and cooperation with the committee. Responding to the behavior, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, said,

At the same time that Facebook was publicly professing their desire to work with the committee to address these issues, they were paying a political opposition research firm to privately attempt to undermine that same committee's credibility. It's very concerning.

The company also set up false websites with the intention to bring attention to non-governmental critics. In particular, they went after George Soros, the founder and often secret funder of various ultra-left organizations. They tried to get anti-Soros people, conservatives in particular, to go against Facebook protests by claiming he was funding them, though his organization seems to have little to nothing to do with it.

After The New York Times detailed the relationship, CEO Mark Zuckerberg cut ties with the company claiming,

I understand that a lot of D.C.-type firms might do this kind of work. When I learned about it I decided that we don't want to be doing it.

Obviously, a company this integral to Facebook's existence and intimately tied up with both Zuckerberg's and Sandberg's appearances before Congress is unlikely to go unnoticed by the CEO himself. However, it is good practice to claim no knowledge when the legal ramifications come to light.

A collection of Senators has begun an investigation into the relationship, in particular looking at the campaign finance issues it raises. A letter from Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, Chris Coons, and Richard Blumenthal, says in part,

We are gravely concerned by recent reports indicating that your company used contractors to retaliate against or spread intentionally inflammatory information about your critics. In addition, the staggering amount of data that Facebook has collected on both its users and people who have not subscribed to or consented to use of the platform, raises concern that the company could improperly or illegally use its vast financial and data resources against government officials and critics seeking to protect the public and our democracy.

Being in the crosshairs of Congress for more than privacy concerns, but instead for potentially illegal activity, does not serve Facebook well. It could, however, serve the US public well, as any illegal campaign activities could reveal that Facebook themselves were involved in election tampering, suggesting that their knowledge in 2016 could have been higher than previously believed.

PlayStation is the first of the Big Three to abandon E3

posted Saturday Nov 17, 2018 by Scott Ertz

PlayStation is the first of the Big Three to abandon E3

It has long been known that E3 is collapsing in on itself. Despite the fact the conference was only known because of its rather inclusive badging system, the hosts decided to close the rules up, allowing only those with a high profile in the industry to attend. This meant that fans could no longer go, beginning the downward decline of the show. This, combined with their complete lack of understanding around new media, led to the big companies within the industry to get scared.

Activision took a year off from the official show but rented a church nearby to hold an unofficial press conference. Nintendo took some time off from having on-site press conferences but didn't exclude themselves from the show floor. In 2016, the disinterest in the show gained some steam, with both EA and Activision deciding to skip the event. EA hosted an open event next door, while Activision showed some gameplay with PlayStation, but had no official floor presence. Disney Interactive and Wargaming followed behind, announcing they were exiting the show entirely.

While Activision, EA, Disney, and Wargaming being absent left a hole in the floor, 2019 is going to leave an even larger hole. Sony has announced that they will have absolutely no presence at or during E3 2019. This means no presence on the floor, no PlayStation press conference, and no PlayStation Experience event. Sony explained their reasoning in a statement,

As the industry evolves, Sony Interactive Entertainment continues to look for inventive opportunities to engage the community. PlayStation fans mean the world to us and we always want to innovate, think differently and experiment with new ways to delight gamers. As a result, we have decided not to participate in E3 in 2019. We are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019 and can't wait to share our plans with you.

This feels completely different from Microsoft pulling out of CES, where they said that the timing of the event didn't line up with their product development cycle. In this case, Sony is saying that they aren't nearly as interested in the gaming press seeing their stuff as they are about engaging directly with the gaming community as a whole. This means that we can expect a bigger, more relevant PlayStation Experience, or something with a new name, to happen in more places, at a time unrelated to the former industry-leading event.

Have we reached the breaking point? Can an $1800 phone be a success?

posted Saturday Nov 17, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Have we reached the breaking point? Can an $1800 phone be a success?

For months, the tech industry has been focused on the inevitable announcement of Samsung's foldable phone, the first of this generation's multi-screen Android devices. Unlike the last generation, the Samsung device is designed to eliminate the seam between folded and unfolded modes, making it a far better concept than the Kyocera Echo and similar devices. Last week, the device, officially dubbed Samsung Galaxy F, was finally announced and shown to the world with all of the expected features in tow.

Two important pieces of information were missing, however: release date and price. Thanks to South Korean news site Yonhap News Agency, we now have a report that March 2019 will be the release window, which is in that perfect period immediately following Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The report also contains information about price, and it is not going to make many people happy. According to internal sources, Samsung is planning a price tag of two million Korean Won, which is the equivalent of about $1,770.

Phone prices have certainly been on the rise for the past few years, thanks in great part to Apple's iPhone X rocketing its price to over $1000, and its successors doing the same. With Apple's price increase came other manufacturers increasing the price of their flagship devices, including Samsung, whose Galaxy Note9 also has a price point upwards of $1000.

The question remains: How long can this continue? When will a manufacturer breach the breaking point for consumers and release a phone that is too expensive for consumers to consider? It will likely depend on the manufacturer. We saw the launch of the Essential Phone met with relative indifference until the company cut the price in half. What will be the tipping point for Samsung owners, though? Is it possible that Samsung has already hit that point with the Galaxy F?

Would you spend $1800 on a smartphone? Let us know in the comments.

Netflix Reverses Course, Bringing 3 Films to Theaters Before Streaming

posted Saturday Nov 3, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Netflix Reverses Course, Bringing 3 Films to Theaters Before Streaming

There is no question that streaming services are the current go-to for many movie viewers. The industry, however, feels very differently about streaming services, including industry leader Netflix. Studios and producers continue to look down on these services, despite the rising viewership versus shrinking viewership in theaters. It has caused a problem for Netflix, who has maintained a policy of "day-and-date" delivery for the films they bring to theaters, which means that they launch in theaters and on Netflix at the same time.

Because of this policy, Netflix content has been banned from the Cannes Film Festival and other similar events, preventing the company from winning these awards, which can lead to more prestige with investors, directors, producers, and studios. Hollywood heavy hitters have even petitioned the Academy to prevent Netflix from being eligible for Oscar awards, comparing Netflix originals to made for TV movies, which are also not eligible.

Seemingly in response, the company announced on Halloween that they are bringing 3 films to theaters: with exclusivity to theaters for varying lengths of time. The most notable is a black-and-white film called Roma, which has had massive festival success, even being called a masterpiece. This film will have the longest theatrical exclusivity, with it living in art-house theaters exclusively until it appears on Netflix on December 14th. In addition, Ballad of Buster Scruggs from the filmmaking masters of the Coen Brothers and Bird Box, a thriller starring Sandra Bullock.

There's no way to know what affect this will have on Netflix, of course. It's possible that the festivals who previously banned Netflix from participating will begin to reconsider their positions, but it is equally possible that they will consider this to be a pandering move and maintain their positions. One thing is for sure: very few theaters will see anything extra from this.

Google Employees Stage Walkout Over Harassment Claims, CEO Responds

posted Saturday Nov 3, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Google Employees Stage Walkout Over Harassment Claims, CEO Responds

The tech industry has long had a difficult relationship with sexual conduct within the context of work. HP lost a CEO over sexual misconduct. Uber fired an exec over it last month. One company at CES is known for "hookers and blow" at their events. Even Microsoft hosted a party at the Game Developers Conference which featured scantily clad women on tables.

Unfortunately, not all companies are called on the carpet for their handling of these issues, especially in the way that Google was addressed this week. After a report published by The New York Times showed that Google had quietly ignored credible accusations of sexual misconduct by their executives, Google employees and contractors responded publicly.

20,000 of the company's employees and contractors walked out from 50 offices across the globe. They met in courtyards and common areas, where employees who have experienced inappropriate behavior shared their experiences with one another and the world. These employees thought the problem within the culture were so problematic that it needed to be addressed immediately. They got their wish.

Rich DeVaul, who had headed up the Google X research division, resigned over accusations involving an applicant in 2013. He apologized for his "error of judgement." CEO Sundar Pichai responded directly to employees over the issues, saying,

So first, let me say that I am deeply sorry for the past actions and the pain they have caused employees. Larry mentioned this on stage last week, but it bears repeating: if even one person experiences Google the way the New York Times article described, we are not the company we aspire to be.

I understand the anger and disappointment that many of you feel. I feel it as well, and I am fully committed to making progress on and (sic) issue that has persisted for far too long in our society… and yes, here at Google, too.

Will this change anything within the organization itself? Only time will tell. What this will do, however, is give employees at other Silicon Valley companies, and tech companies in other parts of the country, the confidence to address issues they see, as well. A comfortable employee, especially in a creative industry like software, is going to be more creative and more productive. Plus, it's just the right thing to do, to treat people with respect.

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