Jun 4, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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D.C. readers: Join Axios' Bob Herman tomorrow at 8am for Beyond 2020: Making Care Affordable on the future of health care and drug pricing.

  • Bob will sit down with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), along with former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Chester 'Chip' Davis Jr., CEO of the Association for Accessible Medicines.
  • RSVP here

Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com or the rest of the Future team: Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,015 words, <4 minutes

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The anti-deepfake playbook

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Experts are advising 2020 presidential campaigns to form rapid-response plans to combat an urgent threat from deepfakes, Kaveh reports.

Over a year since prominent deepfake videos first attracted wide attention — and weeks after a simple alteration of a Nancy Pelosi speech went viral — an Axios survey shows that the 2020 campaigns are largely unprepared for the potential crisis.

The big picture: As we reported this morning, do-it-yourself deepfakes are within reach of anyone with some tech savvy and a decent computer. Though the most convincing videos take extra effort, a basic alteration — like the slowdown that made Pelosi seem intoxicated — will do the trick, too.

These can cause all manner of mayhem, both overt and subtle.

  • A video altered to show a candidate dropping a racial slur could dominate news cycles or kill a campaign entirely.
  • And mushrooming fakery could give candidates cover to call baloney on a video or audio clip that's actually real.

"Disinformation is one of the largest threats to the Western liberal order," says Lisa Kaplan of the Alethea Group, a political consulting outfit focused on misinformation. "All campaigns need to realize that they're likely to be a target at some point."

What's happening: Axios contacted all 24 Democratic presidential campaigns, plus the campaigns of President Trump and Republican challenger Bill Weld. None could cite any specific steps they had taken to ward off deepfakes.

But experts say the threat of provocateurs altering videos is imminent and call for a critical focus on defenses:

  • Establish a video record of everything candidates say in public, so that a manipulated clip can be outed as fake.
    • Campaigns often film their own big events, but don't systematically record and store every public encounter involving their candidates.
    • A next step: Several startups are developing technology that authenticates the master cut as a video is being filmed, creating a permanent record of the original that can be stored on a blockchain.
  • Prepare a robust response plan in case a corrupted video starts to go viral. Kaplan, who previously helped Sen. Angus King's campaign game out scenarios for his 2018 re-election, said that not every fake calls for hard pushback: Sometimes the best reaction is none at all.
  • Cultivate close contacts with social media companies, which hold the keys to the algorithms that help fake videos go viral, or else stop them in their tracks.
    • Ultimately, these firms' policies will dictate how far fake videos go. It took Facebook a day and a half to solicit fact-checks and reduce the spread of the Pelosi video; critics continue to complain that it did not entirely take the video down.
    • "It was just the wrong call," said Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert at UC Berkeley, of Facebook's decision to leave the video on the site.

Heading off a fake video once it's started circulating can keep it from causing further damage, but it cannot reverse the harm already done, experts warn. "Intrinsic to the nature of the threat is that you can't unsee the video," says Christopher Porter of the cybersecurity company FireEye.

What's next: House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff today announced that a committee hearing next week will tackle the threat of deepfakes on the 2020 elections.

2. Big Tech gets a breather

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In trading today, Big Tech clawed back a chunk of yesterday's bloodletting on Wall Street following the news of multiple antitrust investigations against them. But, if history is a teacher, they still face years and possibly a decade of scrutiny of their market behavior.

  • Facebook shares rose 2% following a 7.5% plunge yesterday. Amazon was up by 2.2%, gaining back almost half of yesterday's 4.6% plummet. Google rose 1.5% after its 6.1% fall yesterday.
  • Now, writes Axios' Dan Primack, the question is no longer how far the techlash goes, but whether other industries will get caught up in the maelstrom.
  • A "consensus is forming that American antitrust law needs a much more inclusive refresh. Consumer-focused tech is hardly the only U.S. industry with just a few dominant players," Primack wrote.

Those other industries include pharmaceuticals, beer, banks, airlines and agriculture, any or all of which could be scrutinized for a concentration of market power.

Writes Axios' David McCabe: Over the last 72 hours, broad U.S. antitrust action against Big Tech moved firmly from speculation to reality, as both Congress and regulatory agencies appeared to set themselves up for inquiries.

  • Driving the news: The House Judiciary Committee yesterday said it was investigating whether the Big Tech platforms are engaged in monopolistic practices.
  • The announcement followed reporting that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission had split up investigations of the tech giants.
  • DOJ reportedly got Apple and Google, while FTC got Amazon and Facebook.

The bottom line: While the pressure on Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple has been mounting for years, the one-two punch of the announcements marks a major escalation in tensions. The result could be as serious as one or more of the firms being broken up, but even if it doesn't, it could seriously distract their efforts to grow and anticipate new waves of tech innovation.

3. Toiling in the data factory for $1.50 an hour

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Last month, we reported on a new global underclass of AI labor — thousands of workers across the globe who make artificial intelligence applications work by painstakingly labeling data and objects in photos. These workers toil for as little as $2.50 an hour, we wrote.

Now, Vice's Dexter Thomas and Karen Ye are out with a new video on the same phenomenon in China — workers who are paid about $1.50 an hour to apply labels to dashcam footage that powers driverless technology.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The faux burger shortage (Jacob Bunge, Heather Haddon — WSJ)

Bracing for another transportation recession (Dion Rabouin — Axios)

Why even higher pay won't get some people to move (Richard Florida — CityLab)

YouTube's open gate for pedophiles (Max Fisher, Amanda Taub — NYT)

Beauty and madness on the moon (Oliver Morton — Wired)

5. 1 jumping thing: Pogo transportation

A promotional photo by Cangoroo. Photo: Cangoroo

A Swedish company says it has a vertical twist on urban personal mobility — the pogo stick.

  • Cangoroo says that by the end of this month, it will debut an app-based pogo stick fleet in the Swedish cities of Stockholm and Malmö, where it's headquartered, reports Jason Plautz at Smart Cities Dive.
  • After an investment seed round, it will move on to London and San Francisco this summer or fall.
  • The cost will be 30 cents a minute, plus a dollar fixed fee.

The startup, launched by a public relations firm, is combatting questions about the venture's seriousness.

  • "Cangoroo is 100% real," the company says in a statement posted on its website.
  • "Our choice of shared pogo sticks as our first product is a planned out strategy in order to stand out in today’s media landscape and build an engaging brand in the generic 'last mile transportation' category."

Our thought bubble: We have our doubts, but are ready to get on one if they actually come.

Bryan Walsh