December 02, 2022

We'll get into how good or not AI is at doing work in just a second. For now, let me just say it's very good at playing games (and Middle Ages rap).

Today's Login is 1,291 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The smartest AI is dumb without people

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

It's easy to see the latest algorithms write a story or create an image from text and think that they are ready to take on a whole range of human tasks. But experts insist that AI systems' growing power makes it more important than ever to keep humans in the loop.

Why it matters: AI-based computer systems are being used to handle an array of increasingly consequential tasks. While machine learning-trained systems do many things well, they can also be confidently wrong — a dangerous combination.

  • Many of today's most powerful AI systems aim to offer a convincing response to any question, regardless of accuracy.
  • "If you don’t know, you should just say you don’t know rather than make something up," says Stanford researcher Percy Liang, who spoke at a Stanford event Thursday.

Liang has launched a project to evaluate the latest machine learning models on a range of factors, from accuracy to transparency.

  • The goal, he said, is to create something equivalent to Consumer Reports, where people can go to understand the strengths and weaknesses of foundational AI models, such as those from Meta, Google and OpenAI.

Factuality is just one part of this picture. It also matters a great deal what basis an AI system has for providing an answer, and who benefits.

  • Historically, computer systems have been designed mostly for the people using them.
  • But an algorithm choosing a criminal sentence, for example, needs not only to serve the judge it's advising but also crime victims, perpetrators, and society as a whole.
  • Many Americans would feel, for example, that it should take into account the impact of incarcerating a significant portion of the African American adult male population.

This doesn't mean "asking a neural network to understand racism," James Landay, the co-founder of Stanford's Institute for Human-Centered AI, told a daylong gathering with reporters on Thursday. "It's asking the team building a system to understand racism."

Between the lines: For all the talk of computers replacing or even replicating human activity, the most powerful use of them may be to help humans do their jobs better.

  • "Just simply mimicking human beings is meager," Stanford professor Erik Brynjolfsson said at the event. "Paradoxically it’s also too hard."
  • That's because computers excel at tasks where humans falter, from processing vast amounts of data to spotting patterns that even a skilled researcher might miss.
  • At the same time, computers and robots still can't match humans at everything from gauging the delicate pressure needed to pick a blueberry to walking on a bumpy trail.

Zoom out: An equitable distribution of the fruits of AI will depend on whether it's used to replace humans, which tends to drive down pay, or to augment them, which drives it up, Brynjolfsson argues.

  • Over the past century, we've largely used technology to make individual workers more productive, and that's raised the standard of living, he says.
  • In recent years, though, we've been building more machines that substitute for humans. That's concentrated wealth further in fewer hands.

Be smart: Pairing humans and computers may have advantages for society, Brynjolfsson said, but it can also get better results for businesses.

  • In automating call centers, Brynjolfsson points out, you can substitute machines for people and frustrate customers. Or you can take the path of a company he is advising, Cresta, whose system monitors calls and offers suggestions to human call center workers.

2. Tim Cook's does damage control on Capitol Hill

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Amid an onslaught of criticism from Republicans and Big Tech rivals, Apple CEO Tim Cook met with lawmakers on Thursday to try to shore up support on Capitol Hill, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

The big picture: Tech leaders are beginning to take stock of a new political landscape in Washington as Republicans prepare to take over the House and ready hearings to spotlight what they see as biased treatment at Big Tech's hands.

Driving the news: Some lawmakers have criticized Apple for an update to its AirDrop feature on phones in China last month that could make it harder for protesters to share video.

  • The company says the update, which turns off the ability to AirDrop anyone outside of a user's contact list after ten minutes, is for security purposes and will be rolled out globally.

What they're saying: "I told [Cook] we want an American company to be everywhere. And we understand that, that means they're going to be operating in places that don't share our values," Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told Axios in an interview in the Capitol. "But that they still have to represent our values, and they should never be an instrument for the suppression of dissent."

On the Republican side, Apple remains in the crosshairs for App Store rules that lawmakers say unfairly block conservatives and the apps they prefer.

  • Cook arrived in D.C. after settling (for now) a brawl with Twitter owner Elon Musk over App Store fees.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he and Cook spoke about China, Section 230, and the need for greater encryption and security in tech.

  • "There was recent news on Tim Cook and Elon Musk coming to an understanding but we need more than an understanding," he told Axios.
  • "We need assurances that their platform will not exclude people based on their own ideology. That's what I asked for, and I received it," he said. "[I got] assurances that he would not have a thumb on the scale, and specifically that he would be Switzerland."

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who will soon take the reins of the House Judiciary committee, told Axios his meeting with Cook was "very good" and they spoke about the "AirDrop issue" and the "App Store issue."

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

3. Coinbase halts NFT function in fight with Apple

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Coinbase has killed a non-fungible token (NFT) function on its mobile wallet because Apple demanded a cut, Axios Crypto's Brady Dale reports.

Driving the news: The company nixed a "Send NFT" function in its Coinbase Wallet, because it costs money (ether) to send an NFT, even though Coinbase wasn't getting a cut.

  • The iPhone maker — which has come under fire for the stiff cut it charges larger app makers — has claimed that "gas" fees required to send NFTs should be paid within the app, according to Coinbase.

The big picture: A growing chorus of companies are mad about the fees that Apple (and Google) take for any digital goods transaction that takes place within a mobile app.

  • Spotify and Epic Games have been fighting it a long time, and Elon Musk has joined that fight now that he's running Twitter.
  • Even the French are upset with the Cupertino-based giant.

What they're saying: "Apple’s claim is that the gas fees required to send NFTs need to be paid through their In-App Purchase system, so that they can collect 30% of the gas fee," Coinbase Wallet posted in a Twitter thread.

Zoom in: To send an NFT costs the sender a little money to pay the many computers that are going to run that blockchain computation.

  • This is called "gas," but is actually paid in the coin of the blockchain realm (when it's on Ethereum, gas is paid in ether).

Catch up quick: In October, updates to the Apple app store guidelines gave a firm "no" to selling NFTs without cutting Apple in.

4. Take note

On Tap

  • Whatever it is, I will take a pint. Make that two. (It's been a long week.)


5. After you Login

Yesterday was a really long day. Luckily, when I finished Christmas Vacation was playing on TV.

Thanks to Scott Rosenberg and Peter Allen Clark for editing and Nick Aspinwall for copy editing this newsletter.