Dec 4, 2021

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, where I'm waiting on Omicron lab data like this famous GIF.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,644 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: How AI could end foreign-language subtitles

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

AI companies are developing methods to translate and synthesize voices in ads, movies and TV.

Why it matters: The advances in voice synthesis could help fix bad movie dubbing — and they come as international content is becoming increasingly important to studios and streaming platforms as part of the globalization of entertainment.

  • But they raise concerns about the possibility of deepfaking audio, as well as how a celebrity's voice might be used after their death.

What's happening: Foreign-language hits like "Squid Game" and "La Casa de Papel" are drawing record audiences, but subtitles are still a stumbling block for studios trying to tap a growing international market.

  • More Netflix subscribers watched dubbed versions of "Squid Game" than subtitled versions.
  • With blockbusters sucking up a lot of bandwidth, smaller producers of foreign-language content are having a hard time finding enough translators and voice-over actors to meet demand.
  • "We're still stuck in the mindset of the one-to-many broadcasting model," says Ryan Steelberg, co-founder and president of AI company Veritone.

Between the lines: Veritone has developed a product called MARVEL.ai that allows content producers to generate and license what it calls "hyper-realistic" synthetic voices.

  • This means, for example, a podcast creator could have audio ad copy translated into another language and then MARVEL.ai will generate a synthetic version of their voice reading the ad in the new language.
  • "It gives you the ability to hyper-personalize audio on a much bigger scale and at less cost," says Steelberg.

How it works: Text-to-speech technology has existed for decades, but Veritone's product makes use of "speech-to-speech," what Steelberg calls "voice as a service."

  • Veritone has access to petabytes of data from media libraries and uses that to train its AI product, creating a synthetic version of the original voice that can be tuned for different kinds of sentiment or emotion, or with translation, speak a foreign language.
  • "It's no longer going to be another person's new voice speaking on behalf of, say, Tom Cruise," says Steelberg. "It's really going to be Tom Cruise's voice speaking another language."
  • Nvidia has been developing technology that would allow AI to alter video or animation in a way that takes an actor's lips and facial expression and matches it with the new language — so no more out-of-sync dubbing like in 1970s-era kung-fu movies.

What's next: This technology will likely first be used in advertisements, but as it migrates to higher-quality content, it will open up potential opportunities and pitfalls for celebrity talent.

  • "In terms of dubbing and post-production, synthetic voices will become mainstream, and you'll see that built into contracts for talent," says Steelberg.
  • That won't just be to ensure Hollywood stars (and their agents) get a cut for any use of their synthesized voice, but also to prevent those voices from being hijacked for malign purposes as the technology becomes more accessible.

What to watch: How the voices and other creative attributes of deceased celebrities might be harnessed by AI.

  • Holograms of dead musicians like Frank Zappa are already being used to front "live" shows that have brought in tens of millions in revenue, while Kenny G recently released a "duet" with the jazz great Stan Getz, who died 30 years ago.
  • Sample notes from Getz's existing library were used to generate a new, synthetic melody — albeit one that jazz writer Ted Gioia called a "Frankenstein record."

The bottom line: We should get used to hearing celebrities speak in almost any language soon — and those celebrities should get used to going through their wills with a fine-toothed comb.

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2. Defending against drones is becoming a business

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Companies are developing ways to defend airports and other critical infrastructure from accidental incursions and deliberate attacks by aerial drones.

Why it matters: Drones provide cheap and easy ways to monitor land, deliver goods and simply explore. But as they proliferate, figuring out a method to prevent them from going where they shouldn't will become increasingly important.

Driving the news: Intelligence documents published in October indicate a small quadcopter-type drone was used in an attempted attack on a Pennsylvania power substation last year — the first known time a drone was used against the electrical grid.

  • Drones have been repeatedly sighted near airports, where they can interfere with takeoffs and landings. One such event shut down London's Gatwick airport for two days in 2018, and a drone attack on a Saudi airport in October injured 10 people.
  • "Drones are the easiest way someone can breach security these days," says Aaditya Devarakonda, CEO of the drone defense company Dedrone.

By the numbers: Dedrone found a 217% increase in unauthorized drone access to nine selected U.S. facilities between 2019 and 2020, and it says the number has only increased since then.

How it works: Dedrone's first line of defense is sensors capable of picking up the radio frequency signals used to communicate with and control a drone, or it uses radar or visual images.

  • "That can inform the strategy and how they would deploy security personnel at a site like an airport," says Devarakonda.
  • For government organizations that need to protect important assets, Dedrone offers machines that can jam the frequencies drones use to operate, which can neutralize or even turn them back.

What's next: The Federal Aviation Administration — which sees more than 100 drones buzzing near airports per month — recently began work at the Atlantic City Airport in New Jersey on better drone detecting technology.

The bottom line: Devarakonda worries real change won't come until there's a drone equivalent of 9/11. "If some bad person wants to do it," he says, "it's very easy."

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3. UN: 63% of the world uses the internet

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The percentage of the global population using the internet surged from 54% to 63% between 2019 and 2021, according to the UN's International Telecommunication Union. That means hundreds of millions of people logged on for the first time during the pandemic, writes Axios' Dave Lawler.

Breaking it down: Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a big divide globally between residents of urban (76%) and rural (39%) areas. 15- to 24-year-olds (71%) are also more likely to use the internet than older people (57%).

  • Africa (33%) is far behind. Internet usage is at least 60% in every other region.
  • Mobile broadband is the main source of internet access in the developing world, and 4G networks now reach 88% of the world's population. Still, 390 million people aren't covered even by 2G.

Yes, but: More countries are interrupting or censoring the internet that their citizens access.

4. U.S. faces urgent anti-hacker crisis

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The Biden administration is accelerating efforts to fill nearly 600,000 vacant cybersecurity positions in the public and private sectors. The openings are bogging down efforts to protect digital infrastructure, Axios' Sophia Cai writes.

Why it matters: Following a deluge of ransomware attacks targeting critical government and corporate infrastructure, clogs in the talent pipeline are leaving government and big business even more susceptible to hacking.

  • The issue has emerged repeatedly in Senate and House hearings but received little public attention until recently.

What we're watching: Private companies like GuidePoint Security are trying one way to fill the void: training veterans leaving the military for careers in cybersecurity.

  • “It takes way too long to bring people into the federal government,” Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly told the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Driving the news: A job-tracking database funded by the Commerce Department shows there are nearly 600,000 U.S. cyber job openings.

  • The Department of Homeland Security currently has about 1,500 cybersecurity-related vacancies, affecting the agency's efforts to protect the homeland.

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5. Worthy of your time

What humanity should eat to stay healthy and save the planet (Gayathri Vaidyanathan — Nature)

  • Mostly plants, with a little fish and meat, are good for you and the Earth.

How "climate migrants" are roiling American politics (Ben Lefebvre — Politico)

  • Americans fleeing the effects of extreme weather could shift the political balance in some states.

The gene-synthesis revolution (Yiren Lu — New York Times Magazine)

  • mRNA vaccines were just the start for a new, far-reaching industry.

Health care is about to be disrupted by...smart toilets (Jessica Cherner — Architectural Digest)

  • Yes, in the future, even your toilet will have an opinion about your health.
6. 1 tech thing: You are not (necessarily) your Spotify Wrapped

My "top" five songs of 2021, as determined by Spotify, and more specifically, my 4-year-old son. Credit: Bryan Walsh/Axios

Spotify Wrapped — the music streaming service's personalized year-end review of your listening habits, which was released Wednesday — is probably the most fun use of surveillance capitalism out there.

Yes, but: The lists should also remind us that there's a difference between the data we generate — which machines can record and analyze — and our actual, inner tastes —which they can't. Yet.

What's happening: Above, you can see my top five Spotify tracks, which range from a legitimate hip-hop banger to an omnipresent tune from the "Frozen" soundtrack to goofy Halloween-themed kids' songs.

  • What they have in common is that none of them represent my actual musical tastes.
  • I dabble lightly in hip-hop, rarely choose to listen to Disney soundtracks unless forced, and honestly had no idea pirate-themed novelty Halloween songs was even a genre until now.

So how did they end up as my top-five desert island discs for 2021?

  • The hip-hop tracks are for our family's impromptu evening dance parties, while the other stuff is played on demand for a very demanding 4-year-old user who doesn't have a Spotify account.
  • I'm hardly alone in this — complaining about your kids messing up your Spotify Wrapped is now a mainstay of modern American parenting.

The big picture: Machines are only as smart as the data we feed them, but just as the map is not the territory, the data is not always an accurate reflection of actual reality.

The bottom line: Though Spotify did indicate I listen to the National more than 97% of users, which sounds about right.