Do robots eat electric salad?

Around the Web
Issue No. 013

A lettuce, machine learning’s stealing problem, an update on humanity’s end of life, and pictures from the beginning of life.

Welcome to Around the Web, where we welcome our overlord the lettuce with open arms and vinaigrette.

The news were chockfull of everything these past two weeks. I tried to keep up, but deleted some topics nonetheless. Still, it’s the longest issue so far. Get a tea, some cookies, and enjoy the ride.

Before we start, friends of the format Algorithm Watch are offering five fellowships to report on algorithmic accountability in Europe.

So, what’s up, world?

This ain’t intelligence

The Generate AI hype models continue to be plagued by copyright issues—or theft, to put it less mildly. GitHub's Copilot was the subject of an article in The Register, which explored the issues that can arise from scraping code to generate new code. GitHub claimed the model was fair use. Which is nothing more than a claim at the moment.

Of course, it's ironic that GitHub, a company that has built its reputation and market value on its deep ties to the open source community, would release a product that monetizes open source in a way that harms the community. On the other hand, given Microsoft's long history of hostility towards open source, perhaps it's not so surprising. When Microsoft bought GitHub in 2018, many open source developers - myself included - hoped for the best. Apparently, those hopes were misplaced.

You can read more about Matthew Butterick's ongoing investigation at

Rachel Metz reported the indiscriminate use of art in models like DALL-E or Midjourney. The models can reproduce the artists' style to a degree of similarity that is disconcerting for the artists concerned. The artists whose work is included in datasets such as LAION-5B, which serves as the basis for Stable Diffusion, are not amused.

The discussion has only just begun. It touches on an incredibly wide range of issues. Starting with «What is art?» (machine learning model generated images probably not), copyright, consent, to the more technical. Or how much of our reality can actually be described by language alone. How about protecting the personal data in datasets from prompt injection attacks?

How to build less harmful AI systems is an incredibly difficult question to answer. But the companies that are not asking it are flush with billions of dollars. They actively choose to take the easy way out by ignoring ethics altogether or dealing with them half-heartedly after the damage has been done.

Venture capital, after burning billions in crypto, is riding the hype train again. Recently, Stability AI and Jasper AI have both secured fresh funding, each now valued at over a billion dollars.

In stark contrast, a group of volunteers has launched a bounty programme to combat bias in AI. As much as I applaud the intention, I'm appalled that this was necessary. And that Microsoft and Amazon have the audacity to offer a few thousand dollars in rewards or computing resources. Remember that Microsoft has invested a billion dollars into OpenAI. Donating ten thousand feels like an insult by comparison.

Generated images will be included in the Office suite as part of Microsoft's exclusive right to build commercial features on top of OpenAI's «research».

Sofia Quaglia writes about the dangers of using machine-translated text in high-stakes situations in Death by Machine Translation?.

In Israel, a young man captioned a photo of himself leaning against a bulldozer with the Arabic caption "يصبحهم", or "good morning", but the social media's AI translation rendered it as "hurt them" in English or "attack them" in Hebrew. This led to the man, a construction worker, being arrested and questioned by the police.

The neo-fascist government in Italy has proposed building an algorithm to assign young people to compulsory work. It is an unsettling suggestion, but not an unprecedented idea. .

You don’t die completely, as long as someone thinks of you. Which might soon be forever. A new set of ML assisted technologies set out to clone our relatives, but basically anyone, and make them «live» forever (I’ve linked to Amazon’s product offer in issue 11).

While we talk about death, let’s briefly talk about weapons on robots, shall we?

Remember the last issue where robot manufacturers promised not to weaponise their robots? Police are doing it for them. And the Netherlands has deployed NATO’s first killer robot. The only silver lining is that Amazon might make you immortal after robots shot you down. Hurray.

Legislation readings

Canada is moving forward with their legislation, called the AI and Data Act (AIDA).

As Bianca Wylie argues in the series of posts (read part one here), it’s important to take time and get these things right, or skip them at all:

However, the foundational error that informs both data protection and AI legislation is that the idea of human rights should be subsumed to commercial interests and state efficiencies. Fast forward 20+ years, and the way these two pieces are getting blended into one another (industry and the state) because of the use of private technologies in public service delivery is another element of this conversation that requires expansion.

The Ada Lovelace Institute asked how the path forward for the AI liability issues might look like and if the directive is enough.

In this post, I look at three legal developments that progressively show how existing approaches to AI liability have not kept abreast of technological developments, which may lead to overcoming traditional civil liability regimes tout court.

A lettuce prime minister

Liz Truss. The only prime minister that made it really hard to not link to the Daily Star. The British tabloid live-streamed a lettuce, sitting on a desk, hiding under the desk (which forced the prime minister’s office to say that Truss is, really, not hiding underneath her desk).

The lettuce won, by the time of Truss’ resignation, equipped with a whip, goggly eyes and a pack of tofu.

She’s gone now, taking the Queen, the British economy and her party with her. Quite an impressive feat for 45 days in office. 45 days, which will earn her 115,000 GBP a month for the rest of her life.

A picture by Liz Truss. She is wearing a safety helmet and a high-visibility waistcoat. In her hand she is holding a button. She looks slightly insane. To her left is Kwasi Kwarteng. To her right is an elderly man.
Liz Truss having a blast, blowing the country to smithereens.

A fair compensation, considering that she broke all kinds of records. As Slate has calculated, Brits spent 2 percent of her time in office standing in the Queue. A book on her «astonishing rise to power» will never see the shelves. She was the only prime minister to not have a show of Doctor Who air during their time in office since the show’s inception.

The Guardian summarised Truss’ second to last day in office in all its chaos. If there has ever been a day in parliament which describes a political party in a state of meltdown, this might be it. Hell, most raves are more orderly than this.

From inadvertently leaking the government's agenda, to berating MPs for toeing the party line, to Truss herself missing a vote on fracking that was dubbed a vote of no confidence. This day would have been weeks ago in a normal timeline. But we live in the worst of timelines. So, it's been just fourteen hours.

The Tories clung to power. For a brief moment, it even looked like Theresa May or Boris Johnson might get back into the office they'd been thrown out of.

But as every rival dropped out, Rishi Sunak was crowned prime minister. The richest prime minister in British history immediately spoke of the hard times ahead. For his citizens, of course.

Every single one of the cretins we call politicians is completely incapable of leading a country to anything but ruin. Maybe bring back the lettuce. By now, it's probably just as rotten as the rest of the parliament.

Prevailing surveillance

Surveillance capitalism is alive and well. TikTok is reportedly tracking location data «of some specific American citizens», as Forbes reports.

The panic over Chinese state surveillance was quickly grounded by Uber, which plans to build an advertising system for their users, which is based on the locations they went to in the past. The Vice article is a good reminder of Uber’s past blunders, too. Just in case anyone forgot about this, as every other company is trying to keep up.

But we don’t even need advertising in Uber cars. We still have Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home (which of course come with advertising). Amazon’s plans for the smart home of the future is a panopticon in every household. Neat appliances watching the every move of the residents.

This intense devotion to tracking and quantifying all aspects of our waking and non-waking hours is nothing new—see the Apple Watch, the Fitbit, social media writ large, and the smartphone in your pocket—but Amazon has been unusually explicit about its plans. The Everything Store is becoming an Everything Tracker, collecting and leveraging large amounts of personal data related to entertainment, fitness, health, and, it claims, security. It’s surveillance that millions of customers are opting in to.

Welcome to Ring Nation. Smile. You will be on camera.

In their newest report At the Digital Doorstep, Aiha Nguyen and Eve Zelickson lay bare the implications the constant home surveillance has on those coming to the Ring equipped doors. Feeling entitled, they turn against delivery workers, who are now managed by the algorithm’s of their employer and the boss behaviour of the customers.

After the Vorratsdatenspeicherung got struck down, again, by European courts, lawmakers in Germany have now proposed the quick freeze. Instead of saving every communication data of everyone, this proposal would only allow to «freeze» data of those accused of capital crimes. The SPD-led ministry of the interior can’t let got of a terrible idea, even if it’s smells funny. The end of the saga is all but clear.

A browser extension by the Verbraucherzentrale Bayern is automatically removing cookie banners. Unfortunately, it’s removing some legitimate content too.

Is proctoring, the use of surveillance technology during digital exams, an encroachment on human rights? The Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte certainly thinks so, and is suing the University of Erfurt.

EOL of humanity

Germany has a party which was founded on sunflowers and doing things better. Fast-forward some decades, and this party has become so ingrained in the political process that their leaders now claim that extracting further coal is somehow good for the climate. On their latest party congress, those brown-turned-greens sanctioned the mining around Lützenrath. With this, Germany will certainly fail the 1.5 degree goal. Well done.

Scientists have now discovered that the ice in Antarctica may be melting even faster than previously thought. That is, in the next decade.

After van Gogh in London, activists of the Letzte Generation targeted a Monet in the Barberini museum in Potsdam, Germany. Rightfully claiming that all these nice paintings will be worth nothing once we ruined the planet.

How handy that those thought midgets who are somehow paid to write bullshit in feuilletons can be enraged at climate activists throwing soup at paintings. Meanwhile, Christian Lindner, the German minister of finance and fast cars, wants to deploy fracking in world heritage sites.

It’s postulated that radical actions harm the cause, which might not be true after all. What is true however is that we should scandalise not those who throw soup, but those who destroy the last bits of future we might have.

A UN report found that in East Africa alone, 89 million humans don’t have access to enough food.

Can I talk to you about e-mails?

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Social Mediargh

Facebook lost 70% of its value this year. By now, it seems certain that Zuckerberg will destroy the company.

Facebook was involved in a very strange news cycle too. Here's the gist: The Indian newspaper The Wire published a story accusing Facebook of giving the Indian government access to internal moderation tools. Facebook denied it. The Wire doubled down. Facebook denied it again, in more detail. The Wire tripled down and then pulled out of the conversation.

By now, The Wire has retracted the story, saying they were duped by a (now ex-) employee trying to discredit the newspaper. That’s significant, as The Wire is an independent newspaper, and any dent in its credibility has an outsized impact. Amit Malviya has already announced that he will sue the newspaper for defamation.

The other side of the story is that Facebook is so broken that they have to respond to these allegations in great detail. Otherwise no one will believe them when they talk about integrity.

Kanye West, after losing his Twitter and Instagram accounts for spewing antisemitic hate, was quick to announce he is going to buy Parler, that is the far-right social media network, not the adjacent cloud hosting provider which is known (hardly) as Parlement.

Meanwhile, Twitter, the hellsite, is now, indeed, owned by Elon Musk. The drama will continue, though. Musk immediately fired the senior leadership, and announced to lay off some staff, too.

The layoffs at Twitter would take place before a Nov. 1 date when employees were scheduled to receive stock grants as part of their compensation. Such grants typically represent a significant portion of employees’ pay.

There’s one problem though: California requires a sixty day notice for layoffs. Smells like court spirit.

Racists, transphobes and the rest of the bigotry parade were quick to jump on the opportunity. Use of racial slurs jumped 500% in the hours after news of the investigation broke. For Musk, taking over Twitter will become hell.

Why the bigots come back, Twitter’s most active users have been leaving for years. Ryan Broderick summarised why Twitter can be a pain to be on, and what’s happening to social media at large.

Twitter has never been able to deal with the fact its users both hate using it and also hate each other. There’s a lot of explanations for why. You could argue that by actively courting journalists and politicians early on, it just absorbed the toxic negativity of those spheres. But I think it’s largely about boundaries. TikTok, though its search is beginning to open up the platform more, is relatively siloed. Your TikTok experience and my TikTok experience are, presumably, totally different. And even if we see the same meme or trends on the app, chances are we’re seeing different lenses of it. While on Twitter, because there are no guardrails, content is constantly careening across the whole network. This is what people call the Main Character Effect of Twitter. It is not only possible, but very common for the majority of the site to see the same tweet.

Ich verzeihe Musk nicht dass wir wegen ihm ständig über Mastodon schreiben.

A whistleblower lay bare the founding of Truth Social.

German police might raid your home for a like on social media.

Tollwerk has published the comprehensive explanation why should never use fake unicode formatting on social media (or anywhere for that matter), as it is a huge accessibility problem.

The Internet at Large, taz, and Correctiv investigated a German IT company which seems to play a vital role in Iran’s internet infrastructure.

A quick primer: Over the last few years, Iran’s regime has been working hard to centralise its Internet infrastructure. Currently, there are only four connections between Iran’s network, and the rest of the world.

Two of them lead to Germany. A smaller research focused autonomous system to Frankfurt. And then there is the case of ArvanCloud. ArvanCloud is an Iranian cloud computing provider. As the investigation now reveals a German company, Softqloud (I guess every cloud trademark sold out already), runs data centres, works as a façade to process payments and registered one of those four autonomous systems which connects Iran to the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, accessibility overlays are still a thing. Promising easy fixes for hard problems, they hiurt those the claim to help.

ZDF Magazin Royale and Frag den Staat leaked the NSU report. It’s heavily redacted, but nonetheless documents the utter failure of Germany’s Verfassungsschutz to, you know, actually protect the constitution. EXIF Recherche published a great run-down of the things the report (does not) include. Whatever the police says, they don’t keep us save, we keep us save.

If you were seeking a fortune be being brave and followed’s advert, you’ll by now have lost 66% of the money you invested.

But if you need to use Pantone colours in Adobe products, you’ll only have to pay $20 per month or all your colours will turn to black. How emo. Who’s to blame for this? Probably everyone involved.

Breaking the STEM boys club, one Wikipedia article at a time.

Typefaces can symbolise racism, and it is past time to stop using those that cater to such tropes.

Someone has written tweets for venture capitalists and earned $200,000 with it. The story is hilarious and depressing, an account of how investment changed and got even more broken than before, and requiem for reality.

Anti-abortion activists have tried to paint a picture of the foetus at ten weeks as an almost complete human being. But how does the reality look like? The Guardian documented it in fascinating pictures, that have very little resemblance to the «pro-life» propaganda.

White tissue in a petri dish. It shows five blobs, each a bit larger than the previous one. A centimetre measure lies under the bowl to clarify the scale. The smallest blob has a diameter of about half a centimetre. The largest is almost eight centimetres long.
Tissue from five weeks of pregnancy to nine weeks. Photograph: MYA Network

In viruses: Monkeypox is still a thing. In Uganda, there’s a new outbreak of Ebola. By a vaccine-resistant strain.

Technology was fun once.

It might be fun again: Kilogram. It’s like Imgur, but every image is compressed to 1 kilobyte or less.

And, finally.

we gave morning people way too much power

That’s all for this issue. Stay sane, hug your friends, and be kind to lettuces.