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The true dangers of AI are closer than we think



As long as humans have built machines, we’ve feared the day they could destroy us. Stephen Hawking famously warned that AI could spell an end to civilization. But to many AI researchers, these conversations feel unmoored. It’s not that they don’t fear AI running amok—it’s that they see it already happening, just not in the ways most people would expect. 

AI is now screening job candidates, diagnosing disease, and identifying criminal suspects. But instead of making these decisions more efficient or fair, it’s often perpetuating the biases of the humans on whose decisions it was trained. 

William Isaac is a senior research scientist on the ethics and society team at DeepMind, an AI startup that Google acquired in 2014. He also cochairs the Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference—the premier annual gathering of AI experts, social scientists, and lawyers working in this area. I asked him about the current and potential challenges facing AI development—as well as the solutions.

Q: Should we be worried about superintelligent AI?

A: I want to shift the question. The threats overlap, whether it’s predictive policing and risk assessment in the near term, or more scaled and advanced systems in the longer term. Many of these issues also have a basis in history. So potential risks and ways to approach them are not as abstract as we think.

There are three areas that I want to flag. Probably the most pressing one is this question about value alignment: how do you actually design a system that can understand and implement the various forms of preferences and values of a population? In the past few years we’ve seen attempts by policymakers, industry, and others to try to embed values into technical systems at scale—in areas like predictive policing, risk assessments, hiring, etc. It’s clear that they exhibit some form of bias that reflects society. The ideal system would balance out all the needs of many stakeholders and many people in the population. But how does society reconcile their own history with aspiration? We’re still struggling with the answers, and that question is going to get exponentially more complicated. Getting that problem right is not just something for the future, but for the here and now.

The second one would be achieving demonstrable social benefit. Up to this point there are still few pieces of empirical evidence that validate that AI technologies will achieve the broad-based social benefit that we aspire to. 

Lastly, I think the biggest one that anyone who works in the space is concerned about is: what are the robust mechanisms of oversight and accountability. 

Q: How do we overcome these risks and challenges?

A: Three areas would go a long way. The first is to build a collective muscle for responsible innovation and oversight. Make sure you’re thinking about where the forms of misalignment or bias or harm exist. Make sure you develop good processes for how you ensure that all groups are engaged in the process of technological design. Groups that have been historically marginalized are often not the ones that get their needs met. So how we design processes to actually do that is important.

The second one is accelerating the development of the sociotechnical tools to actually do this work. We don’t have a whole lot of tools. 

The last one is providing more funding and training for researchers and practitioners—particularly researchers and practitioners of color—to conduct this work. Not just in machine learning, but also in STS [science, technology, and society] and the social sciences. We want to not just have a few individuals but a community of researchers to really understand the range of potential harms that AI systems pose, and how to successfully mitigate them.

Q: How far have AI researchers come in thinking about these challenges, and how far do they still have to go?

A: In 2016, I remember, the White House had just come out with a big data report, and there was a strong sense of optimism that we could use data and machine learning to solve some intractable social problems. Simultaneously, there were researchers in the academic community who had been flagging in a very abstract sense: “Hey, there are some potential harms that could be done through these systems.” But they largely had not interacted at all. They existed in unique silos.

Since then, we’ve just had a lot more research targeting this intersection between known flaws within machine-learning systems and their application to society. And once people began to see that interplay, they realized: “Okay, this is not just a hypothetical risk. It is a real threat.” So if you view the field in phases, phase one was very much highlighting and surfacing that these concerns are real. The second phase now is beginning to grapple with broader systemic questions.

Q: So are you optimistic about achieving broad-based beneficial AI?

A: I am. The past few years have given me a lot of hope. Look at facial recognition as an example. There was the great work by Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and Deb Raji in surfacing intersectional disparities in accuracies across facial recognition systems [i.e., showing these systems were far less accurate on Black female faces than white male ones]. There’s the advocacy that happened in civil society to mount a rigorous defense of human rights against misapplication of facial recognition. And also the great work that policymakers, regulators, and community groups from the grassroots up were doing to communicate exactly what facial recognition systems were and what potential risks they posed, and to demand clarity on what the benefits to society would be. That’s a model of how we could imagine engaging with other advances in AI.

But the challenge with facial recognition is we had to adjudicate these ethical and values questions while we were publicly deploying the technology. In the future, I hope that some of these conversations happen before the potential harms emerge.

Q: What do you dream about when you dream about the future of AI?

A: It could be a great equalizer. Like if you had AI teachers or tutors that could be available to students and communities where access to education and resources is very limited, that’d be very empowering. And that’s a nontrivial thing to want from this technology. How do you know it’s empowering? How do you know it’s socially beneficial? 

I went to graduate school in Michigan during the Flint water crisis. When the initial incidences of lead pipes emerged, the records they had for where the piping systems were located were on index cards at the bottom of an administrative building. The lack of access to technologies had put them at a significant disadvantage. It means the people who grew up in those communities, over 50% of whom are African-American, grew up in an environment where they don’t get basic services and resources.

So the question is: If done appropriately, could these technologies improve their standard of living? Machine learning was able to identify and predict where the lead pipes were, so it reduced the actual repair costs for the city. But that was a huge undertaking, and it was rare. And as we know, Flint still hasn’t gotten all the pipes removed, so there are political and social challenges as well—machine learning will not solve all of them. But the hope is we develop tools that empower these communities and provide meaningful change in their lives. That’s what I think about when we talk about what we’re building. That’s what I want to see. 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.


The UK approves the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use



The UK government has approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 for emergency use, following the recommendation of the national medicines regulator.

The UK is the first country to approve the vaccine for widespread use — paving the way for some of the most “high risk” citizens, such as elderly care home residents and front-line healthcare workers, to get the jab before the end of the year.

The BBC reports that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said the vaccine is safe to be rolled out from next week. Though it’s not yet clear exactly who will get the first doses.


The request for emergency authorization was submitted by BioNTech and Pfizer to the MHRA last month — as well as to regulators in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S., none of which has yet given the go ahead.

In a statement, Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, described the Emergency Use Authorization in the U.K. as “a historic moment in the fight against COVID-19”.

“This authorization is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win, and we applaud the MHRA for their ability to conduct a careful assessment and take timely action to help protect the people of the U.K.,” he said. “As we anticipate further authorizations and approvals, we are focused on moving with the same level of urgency to safely supply a high-quality vaccine around the world. With thousands of people becoming infected, every day matters in the collective race to end this devastating pandemic.”

The UK approval is based on trial data, including a worldwide Phase 3 clinical study carried out by BioNTech/Pfizer  which demonstrated an efficacy rate for the vaccine of 95% and raised no serious safety concerns.

The vaccine was also shown to be effective both in participants who had not previously contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus and those who had — based on measuring efficacy seven days after the second dose.

Efficacy was also reported as consistent across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics, with an observed efficacy in adults age 65 and over of more than 94%, the companies said.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted the news of the formal authorization this morning — writing that the vaccine will “begin to be made available across the UK from next week”. A second tweet anticipated how vaccination in general will “ultimately” enable a return to economic life as usual.

The UK has ordered 40M doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, or enough vaccine for 20M people (as it requires two doses), though it will take time for the country to receive all the doses ordered.

“The delivery of the 40 million doses will occur throughout 2020 and 2021, in stages, to ensure an equitable allocation of vaccines across the geographies with executed contracts,” the companies wrote in a press release.

“Now that the vaccine is authorized in the U.K., the companies will take immediate action to begin the delivery of vaccine doses. The first doses are expected to arrive in the U.K. in the coming days, with complete delivery fulfilment expected in 2021,” they added.

The UK’s National Health Service is gearing up for what NHS chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, described as “the largest-scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”. Per the BBC, some 50 hospitals are on standby and vaccination centers in venues such as conference centres are also being set up.

In comments to journalists this morning, health secretary Matt Hancock said 800,000 doses of the virus will be available next week, with the bulk of the rollout coming in the new year. “We’ll deploy it at the speed that it’s manufactured,” he added.

Hancock said priority for the first batch of jabs will be given to “the most elderly” and people in care homes, including their carers. “Then essentially it comes down the age range. NHS staff are also high on that priority list, and also the clinically extremely vulnerable… those that are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus,” he added.

“The Emergency Use Authorization in the U.K. will mark the first time citizens outside of the trials will have the opportunity to be immunized against COVID-19,” said Ugur Sahin, M.D., CEO and co-founder of BioNTech in a supporting statement. “We believe that the roll-out of the vaccination program in the U.K. will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalized.

“Our aim is to bring a safe and effective vaccine upon approval to the people who need it. The data submitted to regulatory agencies around the world are the result of a scientifically rigorous and highly ethical research and development program.”

One remaining question is how long the vaccine’s protection lasts. Given how quickly the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine has been developed — in a matter of months — there’s no long term data available to answer that yet.

The same is true of COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed by other companies.

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Spotify launches ‘2020 Wrapped’ with new features including quizzes, badges and, yes, stories



Spotify is today launching its 2020 Wrapped personalized experience — the company’s popular year-end review of users’ favorite artists, songs, genres, and podcasts. This year, however, Spotify is making a few changes. For starters, Wrapped will be exclusively available on mobile for Spotify users, while a web experience will offer a version of Wrapped for non-Spotify users for the first time. To reflect Spotify’s continuing investment in podcasts, Wrapped will also this year include a deeper look into users’ podcast listening habits. And it will include new features, like in-app quizzes, a “Story of Your 2020” dedicated to users’ top song of the year, new Wrapped badges, personalized playlists, customization options for social sharing, and other additions.

The feature will launch in the Spotify mobile app for iOS and Android in global markets to give users their year-end insights. But non-users will get a taste of Wrapped with a web version, where Spotify will share its broader global listening trends, including the most-streamed artist, top three podcasts, and other popular music insights.

Image Credits: Spotify

Spotify on Tuesday had shared some of these trends, noting that Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny had claimed the top spot with more than 8.3 billion streams in 2020. The top three podcasts, meanwhile, were The Joe Rogan Experience, TED Talks Daily and The Daily.

This year, podcasts got more detailed in Spotify Wrapped, as well. Though the feature had included podcast insights in prior years, this aspect of the experience is being expanded in 2020 to include added metrics, like how many minutes users spent listening to podcasts in 2020 and the most “binge-worthy” podcasts of the year.

Image Credits: Spotify

A new in-app quizzes feature, meanwhile, will allow users to guess before the trends Wrapped reveals. These quizzes will let Spotify listeners guess which were their top podcasts, top artists and even what decade’s songs they streamed the most. Users will also be able to see what new genres they discovered during the year.

Image Credits: Spotify

Stories, naturally, will make an appearance in this year’s Wrapped, too. The company was recently spotted as testing a Stories feature in its app — a continuation of tests Spotify began last year with Storylines and again in January 2020, when it first began to allow influencers to post Stories to introduce their playlists. Now, those influencers also include musicians themselves, according to the latest tests.

In Wrapped, Spotify is introducing “Story of Your 2020,” which shows your top song from the year from its first stream to its 100th stream and several milestones in between.

Image Credits: Spotify

Premium users will gain access to new badges this year based on how they listened. Some will earn the “Tastemaker” badge, if their playlists gained followers; others will earn a “Pioneer” badge for listening to songs first, before they hit 50,000 streams. The third badge, “Collector,” will be awarded to those who added some number of songs to their playlists this year.

Image Credits: Spotify

Along with Wrapped, users will get access to three new personalized playlists. One, called Your Top Songs, features users’ favorite tracks from the year. Missed Hits, meanwhile, will recommend popular songs in 2020 that you didn’t listen to, but Spotify thinks you would like. And for listeners in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, a third playlist called On Record will introduce a mixed media experience that highlights users’ top 2020 artists.

As always, a big part of Wrapped is the social sharing component. This year, users will be able to personalize their Wrapped sharing card by picking from among four color choices before posting it to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter.

2020 Wrapped arrives today on iOS and Android. Later today, Spotify will also roll out its Wrapped creator experience for podcasters and artists.

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Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank, picks up additional £60M in funding



Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank now with more than 4.8 million customers, has closed another £60 million in funding, priced the same as and effectively an extension of the its previous top-up round in June.

This saw Monzo valued by private investors at around £1.2 billion, marked by industry observers as a down round because it was lower than the upstart bank’s previous — perhaps overheated — valuation before the Coronavirus pandemic skewed leverage in favour of investors or forced a legitimate fintech market correction, depending on your perspective.

The new funding comes from a clutch of new backers including Deliveroo and Stripe investor Novator, Kaiser, and TED Global, as well as existing investor Goodwater. They join the likes of Y Combinator, General Catalyst, Accel, Passion, Thrive and Stripe, who all re-invested earlier this year.

It means Monzo has raised £125 million in funding since COVID-19 struck (an additional £5 million was quietly added during the last top up), and this current extension will be seen as good news for the bank as it looks to continue growing and increasing revenue lines beyond interchange fees.

To that end, Monzo shared some latest numbers with TechCrunch. In addition to approaching 5 million customers overall, it now has more than 60,000 business users — up from 25,000 signups in March — and more than 100,000 customers across its paid-for current accounts, Monzo Plus and Monzo Premium.

Adds Monzo CEO, TS Anil, in a statement given to TechCrunch: “We’ve raised £125 million this year, achieved strong organic growth and are now nearing five million customers, all while becoming the most switched to bank in the U.K. and the top rated for overall service. This news demonstrates the confidence that both our customers and investors have in Monzo”.

Meanwhile, it has been a challenging time for Monzo, as it, along with many other fintech companies, has had to weather the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic downturn. This included utilising the U.K. furlough scheme and subsequently making around 80 employees redundant in the Summer. In addition, there was a round of U.S. layoffs and the shuttering of its Las Vegas-based customer support office.

Like some other banks and fintechs, the coronavirus crisis has resulted in Monzo seeing customer card spend reduce at home and (of course) abroad, meaning it is generating less revenue from interchange fees.

Separately, in May, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield announced internally that he was stepping down as CEO of the U.K. challenger bank to take up the newly created role of president. He was replaced as U.K. CEO by then U.S. CEO Anil, who also joined Monzo’s board in replacement of Bloomfield.

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