Feb 21, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Congratulations on accomplishing everything on your to-do list for the week. (I'm assuming the only thing on the list was "make it to Friday.")

Today's Login is 1,357 words, a 5-minute read

1 big thing: How art can help us understand AI

Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

Activists and journalists have been telling us for years that we are handing too much of our human autonomy over to machines and algorithms. Now artists have a showcase in the heart of Silicon Valley to highlight concerns around facial recognition, algorithmic bias and automation.

Why it matters: Art and technology have been partners for millennia, as Steve Jobs liked to remind us. But the opening of "Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI" tomorrow at the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park puts art in the role of technology's questioner, challenger — and sometimes prosecutor.

The big picture: "Uncanny Valley" confronts exhibition goers with powerful images of data monetization, algorithmic bias and the loss of humanity.

For one of several pieces in the exhibit, Agnieszka Kurant relied on millions of collaborators.

  • Titled "AAI" (short for "artificial artificial intelligence," a Jeff Bezos coinage referring to human-powered pseudo-AI), the piece consists of several colorful mounds that were constructed over several months by different colonies of termites out of a range of materials including sand, gold particles and broken crystals.
  • Kurant said the piece is inspired by the exploitation of labor in late capitalism, as well as the mining of rare materials.
  • "Essentially these sculptures are models for this hidden exploitation and the entire society becoming one gigantic factory," Kurant said.

Another piece by Kurant, "Conversions #1," uses sentiments from tweets from activists around the world to manipulate liquid crystal paint on an interactive canvas.

  • "Even our protests against the status quo are becoming a source of extraction of information about us and are becoming monetized," Kurant said.

Other pieces of note:

  • Simon Denny built a version of an Amazon patent — specifically a 2016 design for a cage to allow a human worker to navigate through an automated warehouse. Viewed through a phone app or an iPad supplied by the museum, the cage reveals a trapped King Island brown thornbill — an Australian endangered bird.
  • Trevor Paglen's "They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead" consists of hundreds of faces used to train an artificial intelligence engine, all without any of the subjects' consent. "What we are looking at here is dirty data," curator Claudia Schmuckli said.
  • Ian Cheng's "BOB (Bag of Beliefs)" presents an on-screen "virtual serpent" —inspired by the designs of animator Hayao Miyazaki — that viewers can interact with via a mobile app. Given enough attention and care, the critter will leave the exhibit's monitors and crawl onto spectators' own devices. The piece aims "to remind viewers that an AI entity like BOB should not be treated as omniscient or static. Rather, it should be approached like a child or an animal."
  • Lynn Hershman Leeson's piece "Shadow Stalker" illustrates the volume of personal information on the web. Enter your email and the exhibit starts showing a list of places you've been, people you know and your phone numbers (albeit with some parts redacted). Another piece from Leeson, a video, highlights the dangers of predictive policing.

"Tech is never neutral," said Schmuckli. "That is a myth."

My thought bubble: This exhibition has a way of cutting to the heart of the issues in ways that all of the legislative proposals and interest group statements don't, even as they raise similar concerns.

Details: The exhibit runs through Oct. 25. If you are going to be in the Bay Area between now and then, it's definitely worth checking out.

2. More companies skip tech conferences over virus

Sony and Oculus parent Facebook both said on Thursday that they are pulling out of next month's Game Developer Conference in San Francisco over coronavirus concerns. Meanwhile, AT&T is joining IBM in skipping next week's RSA security conference in San Francisco.

The big picture: While these two shows are still slated to continue, other events have been scrapped altogether, including Barcelona's Mobile World Congress, one of the tech industry’s biggest global events, and Facebook's global marketing conference.

Several Chinese companies have also pulled out due to travel restrictions, gamesindustry.biz reported.

What they're saying:

  • Facebook/Oculus: "We're removing our booth footprint and advising all employees to refrain from traveling to the show. We plan to host GDC partner meetings remotely in the coming weeks."
  • Sony (per gamesindustry.biz): "We felt this was the best option as the situation related to the virus and global travel restrictions are changing daily. We are disappointed to cancel our participation, but the health and safety of our global workforce is our highest concern. We look forward to participating in GDC in the future."
  • GDC organizers: "We believe that, based on the strict U.S. quarantine around coronavirus and a large number of enhanced on-site measures, we are able to execute a safe and successful event for our community."
3. SoftBank cuts take to close T-Mobile-Sprint deal

T-Mobile and Sprint announced a revised merger agreement that will see SoftBank, Sprint's majority shareholder, getting a smaller share of the combined company, while most other shareholders will receive the previously agreed-upon exchange rate. The companies said they hope to close the deal as early as April 1.

Why it matters: The amended deal reflects the decline in Sprint's business, while leaving most other shareholders intact and removing another hurdle to the deal's closure.

Under the revised deal:

  • SoftBank will agree to reduce its stake, trading approximately 11 Sprint shares for each T-Mobile share, up from the originally agreed-upon 9.75 shares.
  • Other shareholders will still get the original exchange ratio.
  • Upon close, Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile's majority shareholder, is expected to hold about 43% of shares, SoftBank about 24%, and public shareholders about 33%.
  • The company said the revisions will have "no impact" on the cost savings, long-term profitability or cash generation expected under the merger.

Under the revised deal, SoftBank can get back some of its previously surrendered shares if T-Mobile reaches certain stock price targets.

The bigger picture: The new deal comes after a judge rejected a challenge from a number of states that had sought to block the deal on antitrust grounds.

California's Public Utilities Commission still has to approve the deal, while a judge also must sign off on a settlement reached with the Justice Department. That settlement will see the combined company sell some of its prepaid assets to Dish Network so that company can build a new competitor in the wireless market.

4. Google sued by New Mexico over kids' data

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas accused Google in a lawsuit of illegally amassing schoolchildren's personal data through G Suite for Education products that the tech giant lets kids in the state use for free, Axios' Orion Rummler reports.

The big picture: There are at least 80 million students and teachers using these products across the world, Google revealed in a blog post last January.

Details: Balderas alleges that Google is collecting kids' geolocation information, contact lists, visited websites, voice recordings and terms searched on Google and YouTube without parental consent.

  • Google provides Chromebook laptops and G Suite products — including Gmail, Drive, and Docs — to New Mexico schools for free, Balderas said in a Thursday press release.

What they're saying:

"These claims are factually wrong. G Suite for Education allows schools to control account access and requires that schools obtain parental consent when necessary. We do not use personal information from users in primary and secondary schools to target ads. School districts can decide how best to use Google for Education in their classrooms and we are committed to partnering with them."
— Jose Castaneda, Google spokesperson, in a statement to Axios
"Students and parents are a vulnerable audience who have little say in what products kids must use, and companies are taking advantage of them. We have long had a law in place, COPPA, to protect kids' data, and it is important that state leaders like AG Balderas step up to protect children."
— James P. Steyer, founder of nonprofit Common Sense

Go deeper:

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Samsung's Galaxy S20 went up for preorder at midnight from Samsung's website and all the major carriers.

Trading Places


6. After you Login

We all have those days sometimes.

Ina Fried