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Update May 2018


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Technology
 

May 26, 2018 - June 1, 2018

Facebook: We’re better at policing nudity than hate speech

 

Michael Liedtke

San Francisco (AP) — Getting rid of racist, sexist and other hateful remarks on Facebook is more challenging than weeding out other types of unacceptable posts because computer programs still stumble over the nuances of human language, the company revealed this month.

Facebook also released statistics that quantified how pervasive fake accounts have become on its influential service, despite a long-standing policy requiring people to set up accounts under their real-life identities.

From October to December alone, Facebook disabled nearly 1.3 billion accounts — and that doesn’t even count all the times the company blocked bogus profiles before they could be set up.

Had the company not shut down all those fake accounts, its audience of monthly users would have swelled beyond its current 2.2 billion and probably created more potentially offensive material for Facebook to weed out.

Facebook’s self-assessment showed its screening system is far better at scrubbing graphic violence, gratuitous nudity and terrorist propaganda. Automated tools detected 86 percent to 99.5 percent of the violations Facebook identified in those categories.

For hate speech, Facebook’s human reviewers and computer algorithms identified just 38 percent of the violations. The rest came after Facebook users flagged the offending content for review.

All told, Facebook took action on nearly 1.6 billion pieces of content during the six months ending in March, a tiny fraction of all the activity on its social network, according to the company.

The report marked Facebook’s first breakdown on how much material it removes for violating its policies. It didn’t disclose how long it takes Facebook to remove material violating its standards. The report also doesn’t cover how much inappropriate content Facebook missed.

“Even if they remove 100 million posts that are offensive, there will be one or two that have some really bad stuff and those will be the ones everyone winds up talking about on the cable-TV news,” said Timothy Carone, who teaches about technology at the University of Notre Dame.

Instead of trying to determine how much offending material it didn’t catch, Facebook provided an estimate on how frequently it believes users saw posts that violated its standards, including content that its screening system didn’t detect. For instance, the company estimated that for every 10,000 times that people looked at content on its social network, 22 to 27 of the views may have included posts that included impermissible graphic violence.

The report also doesn’t address how Facebook is tacking another vexing issue — the proliferation of fake news stories planted by fabricators trying to sway elections and public opinion.

Fake accounts on Facebook have been drawing more attention because Russian agents allegedly used them to buy ads to try to influence the 2016 election in the U.S.

Even though it has been focusing on shutting down bogus accounts, Facebook has said that 3 to 4 percent of its active monthly users are fake. That means as many as 88 million fake Facebook accounts were still slipping through the cracks in the company’s policing system through March.

It’s not surprising that Facebook’s automated programs have the greatest difficulty trying to figure out differences between permissible opinions and despicable language that crosses the line, Carone said.

“It’s like trying to figure out the equivalent between screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater when there is none and the equivalent of saying something that is uncomfortable but qualifies as free speech,” he said.

Facebook said it removed 2.5 million pieces of content deemed unacceptable hate speech during the first three months of this year, up from 1.6 million during the previous quarter. The company credited better detection, even as it said computer programs have trouble understanding context and tone of language.

Facebook took down 3.4 million pieces of graphic violence during the first three months of this year, nearly triple the 1.2 million during the previous three months. In this case, better detection was only part of the reason. Facebook said users were more aggressively posting images of violence in places like war-torn Syria.

The increased transparency comes as the Menlo Park, California, company tries to make amends for a privacy scandal triggered by loose policies that allowed a data-mining company to harvest personal information on as many as 87 million users. The content screening has nothing to do with privacy protection, though, and is aimed at maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere for users and advertisers.


May 19, 2018 - May 25, 2018

How Google aims to simplify your life with AI

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks about managing kids’ screen time at the Google I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday, May 8. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Ryan Nakashima and Mae Anderson

Mountain View, Calif. (AP) — Google put the spotlight on its artificial intelligence smarts at its annual developers conference last week, announcing new consumer features aimed at simplifying your life.

Many of the updates have a practical bent, designed to ease tasks such as composing emails, making lists, navigating city streets and lessening the digital distractions that have increasingly addled people’s lives as a result of previous tech industry innovations.

One of the biggest crowd-pleasers for the thousands of software developers who gathered at the outdoor conference was an augmented reality feature on Google Maps that helps people get walking directions. Users will be able to follow arrows — or possibly a cartoon-like creature — that appear on a camera view showing the actual street in front of them.

Some new features for Android phones also aim to improve people’s digital well-being, including a new “shush” mode that automatically puts a phone in “do not disturb” mode if you flip it face down on a table. And a “wind down” mode will fade the screen to grey at a designated time to help you disconnect before bed.

The company’s digital concierge, known only as the Google Assistant, is getting new voices — including one based on that of musician John Legend — later this year. It will also encourage kids to be polite by thanking them when they say please, similar to a feature Amazon is bringing to its Alexa voice assistant.

The assistant may also soon be talking with ordinary people at businesses for tasks such as restaurant reservations, although the feature is still in development.

Google said it will roll out the technology, called Duplex, as an experiment in coming weeks. “We really want to work hard to get this right,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who kicked off the conference, known as Google I/O.

Other changes are more immediate. Gmail is getting an autocomplete feature that uses machine learning to offer suggestions for finishing half-completed sentences. For example, “I haven’t seen you” might be autocompleted to “I haven’t seen you in a while and I hope you’re doing well.” You can accept the completion by hitting the tab key.

The Google Photos app aims to get smarter about suggesting who you might want to share photos with. Whenever it recognizes a photo of one of your Google contacts, it can suggest sharing the photo with that person. It will also convert photos to PDFs and automatically add color to black-and-white photos or make part of a color photo black and white. The changes are coming in the next two months.

The search giant aims to make its assistant and other services so useful that people can’t live without them — or the search results that drive its advertising business. But it also wants to play up the social benefits of AI and how it’s being used to improve health care, preserve the environment and make scientific discoveries.

Pichai didn’t emphasize the privacy and data security concerns that have put companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google in the crosshairs of regulators. But he did say the company “can’t just be wide eyed about the innovations technology creates.”

“We know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately,” he said. “Our core mission is to make information more useful, accessible and beneficial to all of society.”


May 12, 2018 - May 18, 2018

China’s JD.com looks to Silicon Valley center for innovation

Dr. Hui Cheng, the head of robotics research at JD.’s Silicon Valley Research Center. (Michael Toth via AP)

This undated image provided by JD.com shows an autonomous delivery vehicle. (JD.com via AP)

Anne D’innocenzi

New York (AP) - Self-driving delivery vehicles that are polite to pedestrians? Faster and more precise robotic arms? JD.com, the largest challenger to Alibaba’s e-commerce empire in China, is investing in technology to speed up warehouse operations and delivery to shoppers who want service quickly.

In China, it’s testing drone delivery, has opened an automated warehouse that’s improved on manual sorting, and it’s testing deliveries using unmanned vehicles at universities in Beijing. It also uses these self-driving vehicles that look like rolling ice cream carts to move goods inside its warehouses.

Though it does not sell in the United States, the Beijing-based online retailer is also leaning on its 2-year-old research and development lab in Silicon Valley to recruit top talent and get access to tech startups. The goal: Bring that expertise back to China.

Dr. Hui Cheng, the head of robotics research at JD.’s Silicon Valley Research Center, recently spoke with The Associated Press about the priorities of the lab, the “spoiled” Chinese consumer and the prospect of talking robots. Under Cheng, who previously worked on Amazon Go’s cashier-less store project, JD is working on areas like artificial intelligence.

Cheng says the center’s main goal is to serve people in China and Southeast Asia. He says he’s not planning to use the center as a foothold to launch in the U.S. and directly challenge Amazon.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q. How is the Chinese consumer different from the American consumer?

A. (Chinese consumers) are a bit spoiled. It’s all about free service. Also, they’re expecting high-quality products. We can directly deliver to people’s doors, a bit different from the U.S. where they just drop it off. Our delivery employees are in charge of certain geographical areas and are very familiar with the customers in those areas. They know when they’ll be home. They call when they get there. They’re very accommodating.

Q. What are your main priorities at the Silicon Valley center?

A. We’ve been testing indoor and outdoor autonomous deliveries. Robotic arms. We’re developing state-of-the-art technologies in many areas like artificial intelligence and natural-language processing.

Q. What about the autonomous cars?

A. We are emphasizing social robots. How are they going to be part of the social environment? How are they going to interact with pedestrians? How will they be polite? We don’t want them to be considered threatening or dangerous.

Q. Will they be able to talk?

A. We are developing a lot of natural-dialogue capabilities so they will know how to speak in the future.

Q. Has the Uber pedestrian crash slowed research into autonomous vehicles?

A. Our vehicles operate on sidewalks at about five or six miles per hour and they’re much smaller than passenger cars. They’re extremely safe.

Q. Are you testing drone work in Silicon Valley?

A. There’s some cutting-edge technology (in Silicon Valley), but we are not actively testing or developing software in drones.


May 5, 2018 - May 11, 2018

How Facebook ads target you

Facebook made $40 billion in advertising revenue last year, second only to Google when it comes to its share of the global digital advertising market. Even with a recent decision to stop working with outside data brokers to help advertisers target ads based on things like offline purchases or credit history, this number is expected to grow sharply this year. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Barbara Ortutay

New York (AP) - If you want to tailor a Facebook ad to a single user out of its universe of 2.2 billion, you could.

Trying to pitch your boutique bed and breakfast to a 44-year-old “trendy mom” who lives in Seattle, leans conservative and is currently traveling in the Toronto area but hasn’t booked a hotel for the night yet? Go right ahead. Interested in mail-ordering pet treats to a 32-year-old cat owner in Madison, Wisconsin who enjoys Japanese food, doesn’t like pizza and has an anniversary coming up in the next two months? Not a problem.

Targeting ads, it turns out, is almost infinitely customizable - sometimes in surprising ways. The ads you might see can be tailored to you down to the most granular details - not just where you live and what websites you visited recently, but whether you’ve gotten engaged in the past six months, are interested in organic food or share characteristics with people who have recently bought a BMW, even if you’ve never expressed interest in doing so yourself.

Facebook made $40 billion in advertising revenue last year, second only to Google when it comes to its share of the global digital advertising market. Even with a recent decision to stop working with outside data brokers to help advertisers target ads based on things like offline purchases or credit history, this number is expected to grow sharply this year.

Here are some ways advertisers can target you through Facebook:

Monitoring your Facebook activity

By now you’ve probably gathered that Facebook uses things like your interest, age and other demographic and geographic information to help advertisers reach you. Then there’s the stuff your friends do and like - the idea being that it’s a good indicator for what you might do and like. So, if you have a friend who has liked the New Yorker’s Facebook page, you might see ads for the magazine on your Facebook feed.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Facebook and advertisers can also infer stuff about you based on things you share willingly. For example, Facebook categorizes users into an “ethnic affinity” based on what it thinks might be their ethnicity or ethnic influence. It might guess this through TV shows or music you’ve liked. Often, Facebook is wrong - and while it’s possible to remove it, you can’t change it. There is also no “ethnic affinity” option for whites.

While there are plenty of good reasons advertisers may want to target people of a particular ethnicity, this became a problem for Facebook in 2016, when ProPublica found that it let advertisers exclude specific ethnic groups from seeing their ads. When it comes to housing and employment ads, this is illegal.

In late 2017, Facebook said it was temporarily blocking advertisers’ ability to target based on ethnic affinity, along with other things such as religious or LGBT affinity. Advertisers can still target those groups - just not exclude them. Facebook, which said it is conducting an audit of how the feature can be misused, did not say when it would lift the block.

While some advertisers want to reach large swaths of people, others like more specific targeting. As Facebook explains in a guide for advertisers, it’s possible to refine an ad’s audience on things like what people post on their timelines, apps they use, ads they click, demographics such as age, gender and location, and even the mobile device they use or their network connection. Based on this information, advertisers can either include or exclude categories such as homeowners, “trendy moms,” people who moved recently, conservatives, or people interested in cooking, for example.

That said, Facebook warns advertisers not to narrow their audience too much by being overly specific, which can make the ads less effective - since fewer people will see them.

Following you off Facebook

An ad offering called “custom audiences” lets advertisers target anyone who has already bought stuff from them or has visited their websites. They can also target anyone who has shared an email address or downloaded their app. So, if you use Netflix, you may see an ad on Facebook for a new TV show that might interest you. Or, if you gave your email address when you bought a pair of slippers from Land’s End, you might get an ad for an upcoming slipper sale, since Facebook has your email address too.

Then there are “lookalike audiences.” These are people who are similar to a business’s existing customer base, but are not customers themselves. This can help advertisers reach people in different countries, for example. Advertisers can use this tool by first uploading their customers’ data through the “custom audiences” feature. Then, Facebook’s algorithms look for people similar to them. In addition, advertisers can also install a Facebook “pixel” on their site, a piece of code that tracks what people do off of Facebook.

Dynamic ads

A new type of ad Facebook launched recently, this lets businesses target people who have already shown interest in them. It uses “retargeting” - that sometimes-annoying way that a handbag you looked on a website can follow you around the internet regardless of whether you want to buy it. Dynamic ads, though, go a step further, and know if you were just browsing or if you put that handbag in your online shopping cart, and may nudge you with a 10 percent of coupon.

As Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg explained in a recent earnings call, dynamic ads let Holiday Inn target people who searched for hotels on its website but hadn’t yet booked. The ads these Facebook users saw had a video personalized to the dates and places they searched for. The result: the hotel chain got three times the return on what it spent on these ads than on their previous ad campaigns, according to Sandberg.


April 28, 2018 - May 4, 2018

Question of sales tax on online purchases goes to high court

In this April 13, 2018, photo, packages from Internet retailers are delivered with the U.S. Mail in an apartment building mail room in Washington. Clicking “checkout” on an online purchase could cost more after a Supreme Court case being argued. (AP Photo/Jessica Gresko)

Jessica Gresko

Washington (AP) - Sales Tax: $0.

Online shoppers have gotten used to seeing that line on checkout screens before they click “purchase.” But a case before the Supreme Court could change that.

At issue is a rule stemming from two, decades-old Supreme Court cases: If a business is shipping to a state where it doesn’t have an office, warehouse or other physical presence, it doesn’t have to collect the state’s sales tax.

That means large retailers such as Apple, Macy’s, Target and Walmart, which have brick-and-mortar stores nationwide, generally collect sales tax from customers who buy from them online. But other online sellers, from 1-800 Contacts to home goods site Wayfair, can often sidestep charging the tax.

More than 40 states are asking the Supreme Court to reconsider that rule in a case being argued Tuesday. They say they’re losing out on “billions of dollars in tax revenue each year, requiring cuts to critical government programs” and that their losses compound as online shopping grows. But small businesses that sell online say the complexity and expense of collecting taxes nationwide could drive them out of business.

Large retailers want all businesses to “be playing by the same set of rules,” said Deborah White, the president of the litigation arm of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents more than 70 of America’s largest retailers.

For years, the issue of whether out-of-state sellers should collect sales tax had to do mostly with one company: Amazon.com. The online giant is said to account for more than 40 percent of U.S. online retail sales. But as Amazon has grown, dotting the country with warehouses, it has had to charge sales tax in more and more places.

President Donald Trump has slammed the company, accusing it of paying “little or no taxes” to state and local governments. But since 2017, Amazon has been collecting sales tax in every state that charges it. Third-party sellers that use Amazon to sell products make their own tax collection decisions, however.

The case now before the Supreme Court could affect those third-party Amazon sellers and many other sellers that don’t collect taxes in all states - sellers such as jewelry website Blue Nile, pet products site Chewy.com, clothing retailer L.L. Bean, electronics retailer Newegg and internet retailer Overstock.com. Sellers on eBay and Etsy, which provide platforms for smaller sellers, also don’t collect sales tax nationwide.

States generally require consumers who weren’t charged sales tax on a purchase to pay it themselves, often through self-reporting on their income tax returns. But states have found that only about 1 percent to 2 percent actually pay.

States would capture more of that tax if out-of-state sellers had to collect it, and states say software has made sales tax collection simple.

Out-of-state sellers disagree, calling it costly and extraordinarily complex, with tax rates and rules that vary not only by state but also by city and county. For example, in Illinois, Snickers are taxed at a higher rate than Twix because foods containing flour don’t count as candy. Sellers say free or inexpensive software isn’t accurate, more sophisticated software is expensive and that collecting tax nationwide would also subject them to potentially costly audits.

“For small businesses on tight margins, these costs are going to be fatal in many cases,” said Andy Pincus, who filed a brief on behalf of eBay and small businesses that use its platform.

The case now before the Supreme Court involves South Dakota, which has no income tax and relies heavily on sales tax for revenue. South Dakota’s governor has said the state loses out on an estimated $50 million a year in sales tax that doesn’t get collected by out-of-state sellers.

In 2016 the state passed a law requiring those sellers to collect taxes on sales into the state, a law challenging the Supreme Court precedents. The state, conceding it could win only if the Supreme Court reverses course, has lost in lower courts.

South Dakota says the high court’s previous decisions don’t reflect today’s world. The court first adopted its physical presence rule on sales tax collection in a 1967 case dealing with a catalog retailer. At the time, the court was concerned in part about the burden collecting sales tax would place on the catalog company. The court reaffirmed that ruling in 1992.

It’s unclear how the justices might align on the question this time. But three justices - Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy - have suggested a willingness to rethink those decisions. Kennedy has written that the 1992 case was “questionable even when decided” and “now harms states to a degree far greater than could have been anticipated earlier.”

“Although online businesses may not have a physical presence in some states, the Web has, in many ways, brought the average American closer to most major retailers,” he wrote in suggesting the days of inconsistent sales tax collection may be numbered. “A connection to a shopper’s favorite store is a click away regardless of how close or far the nearest storefront.”
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Facebook: We’re better at policing nudity than hate speech


How Google aims to simplify your life with AI


China’s JD.com looks to Silicon Valley center for innovation


How Facebook ads target you


Question of sales tax on online purchases goes to high court


 



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