YouTube is ground zero for the attention economy

The attention economy helps explain much of the news, politics, and media we see these days. The way people receive information has changed more in the last five years than in perhaps the whole of human history, and certainly since the invention of the printing press.

And YouTube, it seems, is ground zero for the hyper-refinement of data driven, attention seeking algorithms:

In some ways, YouTube’s algorithm is an immensely complicated beast: it serves up billions of recommendations a day. But its goals, at least originally, were fairly simple: maximize the likelihood that the user will click on a video, and the length of time they spend on YouTube. It has been stunningly successful: 70 percent of time spent on YouTube is watching recommended videos, amounting to 700 million hours a day. Every day, humanity as a collective spends a thousand lifetimes watching YouTube’s recommended videos.

The design of this algorithm, of course, is driven by YouTube’s parent company, Alphabet, maximizing its own goal: advertising revenue, and hence the profitability of the company. Practically everything else that happens is a side effect. The neural nets of YouTube’s algorithm form connections—statistical weightings that favor some pathways over others—based on the colossal amount of data that we all generate by using the site. It may seem an innocuous or even sensible way to determine what people want to see; but without oversight, the unintended consequences can be nasty.

Guillaume Chaslot, a former engineer at YouTube, has helped to expose some of these. Speaking to TheNextWeb, he pointed out, “The problem is that the AI isn’t built to help you get what you want—it’s built to get you addicted to YouTube. Recommendations were designed to waste your time.”

More than this: they can waste your time in harmful ways. Inflammatory, conspiratorial content generates clicks and engagement. If a small subset of users watches hours upon hours of political or conspiracy-theory content, the pathways in the neural net that recommend this content are reinforced.

The result is that users can begin with innocuous searches for relatively mild content, and find themselves quickly dragged towards extremist or conspiratorial material. A survey of 30 attendees at a Flat Earth conferenceshowed that all but one originally came upon the Flat Earth conspiracy via YouTube, with the lone dissenter exposed to the ideas from family members who were in turn converted by YouTube.

Algorithms Are Designed to Addict Us, and the Consequences Go Beyond Wasted Time

Conspiracy theories are YouTube theories. Maybe that should be their new name.

What is going on in Western China?

Torture – metal nails, fingernails pulled out, electric shocks – takes place in the “black room.” Punishment is a constant. The prisoners are forced to take pills and get injections. It’s for disease prevention, the staff tell them, but in reality they are the human subjects of medical experiments. Many of the inmates suffer from cognitive decline. Some of the men become sterile. Women are routinely raped.

A Million People Are Jailed at China’s Gulags. I Managed to Escape. Here’s What Really Goes on Inside

Now this is worth a trade war.

It’s time to impeach Trump

I’ve been cautious about impeachment, but if this isn’t impeachable, nothing is.

President Trump directed the acting White House chief of staff to freeze more than $391 million in aid to Ukraine in the days before Mr. Trump was scheduled to speak by phone with the new Ukrainian president, two senior administration officials said Monday.

Trump Ordered Aid to Ukraine Frozen Days Before Call With Its Leader

The man used the power of the United States and taxpayer funds to pressure a foreign government into helping his political campaign. He’s betrayed his oath. It’s time.

The astronomy community has identified the spy satellite revealed by Trump

President Trump tweeted an apparently classified image of an Iranian launch pad on August 30. He has the right to do so. But he probably did not expect everything that the tweet would reveal.

Now astronomers have easily identified the exact satellite that took the image. By measuring the semi-major and semi-minor axes of the ellipse (as viewed in the image) of the circular launch platform, they were able to determine the angle of view. This matched precisely with a satellite known as USA 224, previously of unknown capability. Google Earth shows the launch pad as about 60 meters in diameter, which therefore suggests a satellite resolution capability of 10 centimeters per pixel. That resolution is very impressive and also previously unknown.

Unreal.

The detail in the image is surprising, even to satellite imagery experts. In an interview with NPR, Melissa Hanham of the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna said, “… I did not believe <the image> could come from a satellite.” Hanham also said that “I imagine adversaries are going to take a look at this image and reverse-engineer it to figure out how the sensor itself works and what kind of post-production techniques they’re using.”

Thanks to Trump, We’ve Got a Better Idea of the Capabilities of US Surveillance Satellites

Free speech under assault from both the left and right

The Economist pens an essay on freedom of expression that is worth reading in full:

Who is the greater threat to free speech: President Donald Trump or campus radicals? Left and right disagree furiously about this. But it is the wrong question, akin to asking which of the two muggers currently assaulting you is leaving more bruises. What matters is that big chunks of both left and right are assaulting the most fundamental of liberties—the ability to say what you think. . . .

. . .Human beings are not free unless they can express themselves. Minds remain narrow unless exposed to different viewpoints. Ideas are more likely to be refined and improved if vigorously questioned and tested. Protecting students from unwelcome ideas is like refusing to vaccinate them against measles. When they go out into the world, they will be unprepared for its glorious but sometimes challenging diversity.

As societies polarise, free speech is under threat. It needs defenders

Peter Thiel goes after Google on AI

Peter Thiel in a NYT op-ed:

A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”

Good for Google, Bad for America

And he’s not wrong. But it’s also not possible to prevent China from ultimately obtaining this technology.

Thiel is correct in the short-term, but also dangerously short-sighted. What’s the plan here? Further isolation and an arms race? Liberal democracies need to be focused on global frameworks (rule of law, free speech, free trade, free movement of people and information) that prevent war and human misery. This is an opportunistic easy rhetorical point, not a strategy.

Simple Facts in the Mueller Report

This simple fact should be repeated over and over until every American knows it:

At a July 27, 2016, campaign rally, Mr. Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — referring to Clinton emails reportedly stored on a personal server. “Within approximately five hours” of Mr. Trump’s remarks, according to the Mueller report, Russian military intelligence began a cyberattack against “Clinton’s personal office.”

4 Disturbing Details You May Have Missed in the Mueller Report

Rep. Justin Amash Holds His Ground

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) met with his constituents for the first time since advocating impeachment, and as Conor Friedersdorf writes for The Atlantic, got the best of the debate.

After a Trump supporter declared that, although many admired his courage, they were unlikely to vote for him in the next election, Rep. Amash responded:

I represent the entire district. So it doesn’t matter to me if a person voted for me or didn’t vote for me, or donated to me or didn’t donate to me. I think I’ve been pretty clear about that. That’s not going to change my principles and who I am … I agree with you that many of the people cheering me on aren’t going to support my campaign. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. This is what it means to be a bigger person. It doesn’t matter to me that some people won’t support me or are hypocritical. You have to do the right thing regardless.

Justin Amash and the Moral Minority

It’s not always clear whether a hill is worth dying on. But, for better or worse, Rep. Amash has decided this is such a hill.

Elizabeth Warren and the Corporate Executive Accountability Act

Elizabeth Warren has introduced the Corporate Executive Accountability Act and is pushing it in a Washington Post Op-Ed:

I’m proposing a law that expands criminal liability to any corporate executive who negligently oversees a giant company causing severe harm to U.S. families. We all agree that any executive who intentionally breaks criminal laws and leaves a trail of smoking guns should face jail time. But right now, they can escape the threat of prosecution so long as no one can prove exactly what they knew, even if they were willfully negligent.

If top executives knew they would be hauled out in handcuffs for failing to reasonably oversee the companies they run, they would have a real incentive to better monitor their operations and snuff out any wrongdoing before it got out of hand.

Elizabeth Warren: Corporate executives must face jail time for overseeing massive scams

The bill itself is pretty short. Here’s a summary:

  • Focuses on executives in big business. Applies to any executive officer of a corporation with more than $1B in annual revenue. Definition of executive officer is same as under traditional federal regulations, plus anyone who “has the responsibility and authority to take necessary measures to prevent or remedy violations.”
  • Makes execs criminally liable for a lot of things. Makes it criminal for any executive officer “to negligently permit or fail to prevent” any crime under Federal or State law, or any civil violation that “affects the health, safety, finances, or personal data” of at least 1% of the population of any state or the US.
  • Penalty. Convicted executives go to prison for up to a year, or up to three years on subsequent offenses.

This is pretty breathtaking in its sweep of criminal liability. It criminalizes negligence. And it applies that negligence standard to any civil violation that “affects” the health, safety, finances, or personal data of at least 1% of a state.

Under this standard every single executive at Equifax, Facebook, Yahoo, Target, etc. risks jail for up to a year. Just read this list. Will be interesting to see where this goes.