Connect with us

Uncategorized

This Week in Apps: Twitter targets creators, Clubhouse security, Spotify’s plans for paid podcasts

Published

on

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. A new forecast this week expects consumer spend to grow to $270 billion by 2025.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into what’s next for the future of one of the top social apps (Twitter), as well as Spotify’s latest announcements around its future plans for podcasts and subscriptions, along with other top stories, including the Clubhouse security problem.

Top Stories

Twitter wakes up

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter over the years has been slow to roll out new features that dramatically impact its platform — even going so far at one time to build an entirely separate app just to test a new way to link together conversation threads. Its slow momentum and failure to build features users actually want, like an edit button, has left Twitter feeling a lot like the same experience it was in its earlier years — a public SMS of sorts (albeit one with more utilities for tweet discovery and management).

This has also contributed slow user growth, which opened up Twitter last year to pressure from activist investors to oust CEO Jack Dorsey, who was then planning to move to Africa, while also still running Square. (He decided not to go because of the pandemic… and, well, to keep his job, we’d guess.) Following this more intensive scrutiny of Twitter’s operations, the company in recent months has begun to speed things up on the product front.

Last year, it rolled out to its global audience a stories-like feature called Fleets, offering a place for more ephemeral content to live on its platform. It began development on a Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, which is surging ahead with updates and new features. And it’s working on a community-led misinformation debunking effort, Birdwatch.

Twitter also began to make a series of acquisitions to build out its product teams, with additions like social app Squad, stories template maker Chroma Labs and podcasting app Breaker. And more recently, it bought newsletter platform Revue, which is already integrated on the Twitter website.

And it’s not done. This week, Twitter announced even more new products were in the works.

One, a new product called “Super Follow,” represents Twitter’s first-ever paid feature. The idea with the Super Follow is to turn Twitter into a platform where creators can monetize their fan base — with a “Super Follow” subscription, fans can access member-only perks. These can include whatever the creator wants — newsletters, videos, deals, community access and even paywalled content like tweets, fleets and audio chats in Twitter Spaces.

Along with this, Twitter introduced “Communities,” which, in addition to allowing social networking around interests, give Super Follow-using creators a place to organize their own private networks.

And it’s finally working on tools to auto-block and mute the trolls, too. 🙌

To put it mildly, this strategy represents one of the more radical shake-ups to Twitter’s platform to date. It not only challenges other networks — like Facebook, Discord, Patreon, Substack and Clubhouse — it positions Twitter’s slew of new features not just as fun add-ons, but rather as general-purpose tools that allow anyone to build and grow their own communities whichever way they want.

The one big miss on this front is that Twitter no longer has its own social video app to throw in the mix, too. Sadly, the company shut down both Vine and now, Periscope. Though Twitter itself supports video, Vine’s closure led to a hole in the market that’s since been filled by TikTok. And unfortunately, sharing TikTok links on Twitter is poor experience — they just display as previews that take you to a new TikTok tab when clicked. To get TikTok videos to play in-line, you have to download them first — something not all creators permit.

Nevertheless, Twitter is expecting the changes to help it to double its revenues by 2023, and grow its daily user base to 315 million, up from the 192 million it has today.

Spotify looks to new subscriptions for revenue growth

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

Twitter isn’t the only one looking to new subscriptions to make more money. Spotify this week also announced a good handful of updates, including a high-end Premium add-on for higher-quality music streams, called Spotify HiFi.

The company also confirmed its plans to test paid podcast subscriptions. The big bet here is that some podcasts are so compelling and have such a loyal fanbase that listeners will pay for their content, or maybe just their extras. These, of course, will no longer really be “podcasts” at this point — they’re paid audio programs. The feature will be introduced to Spotify’s creation app Anchor this spring.

But overeager adoption of paywalls by podcasters (who can’t make a living from their ad sales) could push more users to new social audio platforms, like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, where content is free and conversations are more participatory. Anchor’s solution for audience engagement is to roll out Q&As and polls. But why bother clicking, when you can hit up a Clubhouse room and talk?

Clubhouse’s exclusivity leads to discovery of security problems

The demand for Clubhouse access is becoming so high that people are figuring out ways to reverse-engineer the experience, TechCrunch reported this week. A developer found a way to broadcast Clubhouse audio feeds in real time to users who couldn’t get in because they didn’t have an invite or an iPhone. Though Clubhouse blocked the effort later in the week, the fact that a developer was able to gain access to Clubhouse audio feeds in the first place was an indication that the app isn’t as locked down as one might think.

In addition, other researchers have figured out ways to “ghost listen” to rooms without displaying user profiles — essentially, eavesdropping. And users in China appear to be able to listen to a room conversation facilitated by Clubhouse’s service provider Agora by using a VPN — even though they can’t technically “join” a room due to the app itself being banned.

Clubhouse’s appeal has a lot to do with how its social audio spaces aren’t recorded, so people can be themselves. There’s an expectation that you are only speaking to a group who’s listening and there’s no way to go back for a transcript or recording later. In other words, it’s not a podcast — it’s live. It’s social. And it’s semi-private.

These security breaches prove that’s not entirely true.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple added guidance for app developers to help them complete App Store privacy labels. Specifically, it added information about data types, like email and messages, and gameplay content. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Google added a privacy label to Gmail this week, too.

Apple’s “Sign in with Apple” button is now a part of the U.S. DoJ antitrust investigation against the company, reports The Information. Apple requires the option on all apps that offer sign-in buttons from other companies, like Facebook and Google, which has upset some developers. Investigators are looking to better understand how use of the button makes it more difficult for Apple device users to switch to other platforms.

Apple Entrepreneur Camp applications opened up for female founders and developers. The camp will run online July 20-29, 2021, offering attendees code-level guidance, mentorship, plus access to Apple engineers.

Apple tweaked the subscription “buy sheet” in iOS 14.5 beta. The new screen aims to make the price of an app’s subscription more clear to end users.

Apple hid an Easter egg in its Apple Store app to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.

Platforms: Google

Google this week announced the next set of features coming to Android in its spring 2021 release. Flagship items include a password checkup tool and a way to schedule your texts (!!!). The latter means you can compose a message at any time, then pick the time you want it to send. iMessage, your turn! Other improvements included updates to the screen reader TalkBack, Maps (which gets a dark mode default option), Assistant and Android Auto.

Google launches an Android Sleep API for use in health and wellness apps. The new API will use the phone’s light and motion sensors in combination with an onboard API model to generate information like a “sleep confidence” determination and daily sleep segments.

Food & Drink

Food delivery app DoorDash stock falls after its first earnings. The company reported $970 million in revenue versus $938 million expected and a loss per share of $2.67. But shares dropped as much as 13% on DoorDash’s forecast, which said some of the earlier tailwinds it saw under stay-at-home orders in the U.S. will turn around as the country gets the vaccine under control.

Food delivery apps got a boost during the Lunar New Year holiday week in China, thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions that kept people at home and prompted more remote gift deliveries, in particular food orders from services like Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me.

Augmented Reality

An iPhone app called Museum Alive, reviewed by The Verge, includes narration from Sir David Attenborough as an extension of his Natural History Museum Alive film. The app includes interactive AR exhibits with extinct animals in their own habitats.

Fintech

Mobile investing app Robinhood reports seeing 6 million new customers on Robinhood Crypto just this year. By comparison, the number peaked at 401,000 customers in a single month in 2020, with a monthly average of 200,000 customers trading on Robinhood Crypto for the first time.

Google emailed users of the old Google Pay app and website that they’ll lose transactional capabilities on April 5 and will need to switch to the updated Google Pay app instead.

Social

Image Credits: Snap

At Snap’s investor day, the company projected 50% annual revenue growth for the next several years. The company spoke of the app’s main features — Camera, Map, Chat, Stories and Spotlight — each which it believes to be multibillion-dollar revenues streams in the long-term. It also talked about its investments in AR, Snap Ads, Shows, Stories and its TikTok rival, Spotlight. Investors responded favorably to the news, with shares up 11% on Tuesday, pushing the company’s valuation over $100 billion.

Instagram adds its TikTok rival, Reels, to its slimmed-down Instagram Lite app aimed at emerging markets. Some are already dubbing it “bloatware.”

TikTok partners with Portland Timbers and Thorns FC in its first U.S. soccer deal. The multi-year deal will have the clubs distributing video content in collaboration with TikTok, and will see the clubs featuring the TikTok logo on their jerseys.

TikTok owner ByteDance agrees to $92 million privacy settlement with U.S. TikTok users after a year of litigation. The claims in the lawsuits said TikTok was using a broad array of biometric data and content from user devices for ad targeting and profit. TikTok said it disagrees with the assertions but wanted to put an end to the lengthy litigation.

TikTok’s latest transparency report for H2 2020 said the app removed over 300,000 election misinformation videos, and another 400,000 from the For You page. The percentage of deletions were in line with the prior report, despite the busy election season it covered.

The Washington Post reports conservative backer Rebekah Mercer, whose family also funds Breitbart, now controls two of the three board seats at right-wing Twitter alternative, Parler. The app’s founding CEO John Matze was pushed out last month, and Mercer has since exerted more control over the company’s direction.

Twitter banned 100 accounts linked to Russian troll farms. The accounts were caught up in part of a larger enforcement action Twitter took against 373 accounts with connections to Armenia, Iran and Russia. The Russian accounts were being used to amplify talking points in favor of the Russian government.

Facebook tests new tools to combat child exploitation. One tool will pop up a message for people who use search terms linked to child exploitation that reminds them of the consequences and points them to resources to get help from offender diversion organizations. Another will alert users to the legal ramifications of sharing viral, meme child exploitative content. The company also updated its child safety policies and updated its reporting menu across FB and IG to include a section for a report that “involves a child.”

Top social apps including TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest added new features to support those with eating disorders as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 22-28). Among the changes, TikTok and Instagram added features to encourage body inclusivity; TikTok now redirects some eating disorder searches to point to support resources; Instagram added links to local helplines in Australia, Canada and the U.K.; Pinterest donated credits to encourage people to tune into NED Awareness events; and more.

Photos

Flickr rolled out a widget for both iOS and Android devices. The widget lets you enjoy a rotating selection of photos from Explore on your home screen — great for someone looking for variety, instead of a static home screen.

Messaging / Communications

Telegram adds an auto-delete option for all messages, which lets users automatically delete messages after either 24 hours or seven days. The feature was previously available only for its encrypted Secret Chats. It also added expiring invite links and an option to create broadcast-only groups.

WhatsApp details what will happen when users don’t agree to the privacy changes by the May 15, 2021 deadline. It said for a short time (a few weeks), the users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but won’t be able to read or send messages, to give them more time to agree.

More Google Hangouts users are being migrated over to the Google Chat “preview” experience. The company had said it would split Hangouts into two services, Chat and Meet. The transition began last year, but personal account holders had only been told “early 2021” for their migration date. Early reports (see below) say the new experience is lacking when it comes to video call integration and lack of SMS support.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: YouTube

YouTube announced it will roll out parental control features for families with tweens and teens that will allow them to graduate more safely from the YouTube Kids app to “real YouTube.” Parents will be able grant kids more access through their “supervised” Google Account, then choose from one of of three levels of YouTube access ranging from a selection that’s more tween-friendly to another that’s more appropriate for older teens. By using the account, parents are also agreeing to allow YouTube to collect personal data from the kids — something it couldn’t do in YouTube Kids.

Disney’s adult-friendly Star channel launched outside the U.S. to Disney+ subscribers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The additional channel combines content from Disney Television Studios, FX, 20th Century Studios and 20th Television, and bumps Disney+ price up by a small amount (a few pounds in the U.K., e.g.). Parental controls were also added to block kids from accessing the more adult fare.

South Korean media reported the country’s current prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, has joined Clubhouse, making him the most senior political leader to join the growing app.

Gaming

Image Credits: GameSnacks

Google’s mobile-friendly online games, GameSnacks, developed by its Area 120 in-house incubator, are being integrated into Chrome on iOS and Android Pay in select emerging markets. The HTML5-powered games are a way that Google is routing around app stores, and instead delivering gaming content to users without the associated app store fees. It’s also a more lightweight model for gaming, which helps in some markets where storage space and bandwidth are concerns. The company is experimenting with bringing the games to Google Assistant next.

Chinese mobile games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in $5.8 billion during Q24 2020, up 34.3% from a year ago, and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, per Sensor Tower data. Top titles include big names like Call of Duty (a collaboration between Tencent and Activision) and Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. as well as those from smaller studios such as Mihoyo’s Genshin Impact and Magic Tavern’s Project Makeover.

In the ongoing Epic Games versus Apple legal showdown in the U.S., Epic is now trying to locate former iOS software chief Scott Forstall to testify, after Apple said Forstall didn’t respond to its request to appear.

Meanwhile, a U.K. court blocked Epic Games from challenging Apple’s Fortnite ban. The court said Epic’s lawsuit against Apple would be better to pursue in the U.S., but allowed the suit against Google to continue.

Epic Games is sending players V-Bucks to settle its Fornite loot box class action lawsuit. The settlement is supposed to be for U.S. players only, but Epic is offering the V-Bucks to global players.

Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, which lets users stream games across platforms including Windows, Mac, Android, web browsers on iPhone and iPad and desktop, has now arrived on Amazon’s Fire TV devices in an expansion of its early access program.

App Annie announces new features to help customers discover gaming launches, as well as measure and visualize performance of games. The features include RPD (revenue per download), Align Apps by Launch, Cumulative Downloads and Cumulative Revenue, and a Soft Launches Report.

A floating gaming toolbar has been found in the code of the Android 12 Developer Preview. Full details are not available but one button is a picture of a game controller while the other is suspected to be some sort of option to record your current gaming session.

Social casino game Coin Master from Moon Active tops $2 billion in lifetime player spending, reports Sensor Tower. The title booked $1.2 billion in 2020 alone, up 122.4% year-over-year, boosted by pandemic boredom and in-game spending.

Zynga is creating its own first-party walled garden for ad tech, due to Apple’s push for app tracking transparency. More companies could do the same, argues Mobile Dev Memo.

Health & Fitness

The New York Department of Financial Services said in an investigative report that Facebook has now taken steps to prevent it from collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, The WSJ reported. The company had been collecting the data through its SDK installed in numerous apps, then matches the sensitive, personal data to users’ Facebook accounts for ad targeting. One app involved, period tracker Flo, separately settled with the FTC in January over its involvement.

Media

Australia’s ABC News app hit the top of the App Store following the upheaval related to Facebook’s ban of Australian news sources on its platform. The app become No. 1 in News and No. 2 Overall, ahead of Facebook and its other apps, including Messenger and Instagram.

Funding and M&A

💰 YouTuber David Dobrik’s retro photo app raised $20 million in a Series A round led by Spark Capital. The app’s gimmick is that it allows you to snap photos in an old-fashioned camera interface where photos don’t “develop” until the next morning. The TestFlight, capped at 10,000 users, was full within a weekend of launching.

💰 Celebrity video platform memmo raised $10 million Series A, in a round led by Left Lane Capital. The concept is similar to U.S.-based Cameo, but Stockholm-based memmo’s strategy is both global and localized.

💰 Snack, a TikTok-like dating app, raised $3.5 million in a round led by Kindred Ventures and Coelius Capital. The startup was founded by early (Match Group-owned) Plenty of Fish exec Kimberly Kaplan, and targets Gen Z by way of a video feed with likes and comments that lead to DMs.

💰 AI-powered transcription service Otter, available on web and mobile, raised $50 million ($40 million in new funds) Series B. The service got a boost from the pandemic and its Zoom integration.

💰 Spain’s Wallapop raised $191 million at an $840 million valuation for its classifieds marketplace. The funding was led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver. The app was previously going to merge with U.S.-based LetGo, but later shelved those plans. (LetGo instead was bought by OfferUp.)

🤝 Austrian app marketer App Radar acquired Spanish rival TheTool. At the time of the deal, TheTool provided data insights for some 400 app marketing clients. The assets-only deal will allow App Radar to expand its presence across Europe.

💰 Indian edtech startup Doubtnut raised $31 million for its website and app that help students learn math and science. The app lets students take a photo of the problem, then uses ML and image recognition to deliver the answer in the form of short videos.

🤝 Design platform Canva, which works on both web and mobile, acquired Kaleido, the maker of a drag-and-drop background removal service, remove.bg, for photos and videos. It also bought Smartmockups in the Czech Republic, which lets anyone create mockups for t-shirts, mugs and other items.

🤝 Podcast host and ad network Acast bought RadioPublic, a maker of tools for podcasters, including a website maker, marketing tools, and the RadioPublic podcast app. The latter will remain live and the team will stay in the U.S.

💰 Copenhagen-based Podimo, a subscription service for podcasts, raised €11.2 million in funding. The app offers access to over 600 exclusive shows, and shares its revenue from subscriptions with its creators.

❓Beijing-based tutoring app Yuanfudao is said to be raising funding at a $20 billion+ valuation. The funding would follow a prior $2.2 billion round that valued the business at $15.5 billion.

📈Roblox shares to begin trading March 10. The cross-platform gaming service, which is popular on mobile, has opted for a direct listing instead of an IPO.

Downloads

Quill

Image Credits: Quill

A new Slack competitor, Quill, launched out of stealth this week, TechCrunch reported, with its apps for the web, Mac, Windows, Linux and Android and iOS on mobile. Like Slack, Quill lets co-workers communicate through channels, video and voice. But it also addresses some of the issues Slack overlooks. One, “structured channels,” lets admins enforce threads, for example. It also automatically moves up active conversations, limits notifications, has improved pinning, supports moving threads between channels and places video and chat side-by-side, to name a few. You can even interact with Quill via SMS and email.

ANDY’s apps

Image Credits: ANDY

Andy Allen, former head of Product at WeTransfer, teamed up with Mark Dawson, the lead graphics engineer from Allen’s former prior company Fifty Three, to create a new set of “default” apps with ANDY. That is, the company’s new apps aim to update your basic set — like weather, calculator and timer.

“Most of the default apps haven’t changed over the last 10 years. Yet we’re still using them. I see that as a sign that we’ll still need basic apps like weather, calculator and timer in another 10 years,” notes Allen.

Image Credits: ANDY

What makes ANDY apps different is that they’re built inside a game engine to unlock new experiences that makes them feel more like games themselves. They’re also skinnable, with three skins available at launch and more to come every few months. The apps require a subscription to work — either $14.99/yr for all apps and basic skins or $69.99/yr for all apps plus basic and limited-edition skins, as well as limited-edition collector cards. The company plans to expand its app collection over time.

YouWidget

Image Credits: YouWidget

Spotted this week by the folks at iMore, the new YouWidget delivers a YouTube iOS widget that puts a live video feed on your home screen along with other stats. For YouTubers and fans alike, the app could be useful in helping to track a specific channel’s releases and their other subscriptions. But even if you don’t need live videos, the app offers a widget with statistics for any channel — including subscriber counts, views and video counts.

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

Continue Reading
Comments

Uncategorized

Facebook faces ‘mass action’ lawsuit in Europe over 2019 breach

Published

on

Facebook is to be sued in Europe over the major leak of user data that dates back to 2019 but which only came to light recently after information on 533M+ accounts was found posted for free download on a hacker forum.

Today Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) announced it’s commencing a “mass action” to sue Facebook, citing the right to monetary compensation for breaches of personal data that’s set out in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Article 82 of the GDPR provides for a ‘right to compensation and liability’ for those affected by violations of the law. Since the regulation came into force, in May 2018, related civil litigation has been on the rise in the region.

The Ireland-based digital rights group is urging Facebook users who live in the European Union or European Economic Area to check whether their data was breach — via the haveibeenpwned website (which lets you check by email address or mobile number) — and sign up to join the case if so.

Information leaked via the breach includes Facebook IDs, location, mobile phone numbers, email address, relationship status and employer.

Facebook has been contacted for comment on the litigation.

The tech giant’s European headquarters is located in Ireland — and earlier this week the national data watchdog opened an investigation, under EU and Irish data protection laws.

A mechanism in the GDPR for simplifying investigation of cross-border cases means Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) is Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU. However it has been criticized over its handling of and approach to GDPR complaints and investigations — including the length of time it’s taking to issue decisions on major cross-border cases. And this is particularly true for Facebook.

With the three-year anniversary of the GDPR fast approaching, the DPC has multiple open investigations into various aspects of Facebook’s business but has yet to issue a single decision against the company.

(The closest it’s come is a preliminary suspension order issued last year, in relation to Facebook’s EU to US data transfers. However that complaint long predates GDPR; and Facebook immediately filed to block the order via the courts. A resolution is expected later this year after the litigant filed his own judicial review of the DPC’s processes).

Since May 2018 the EU’s data protection regime has — at least on paper — baked in fines of up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover for the most serious violations.

Again, though, the sole GDPR fine issued to date by the DPC against a tech giant (Twitter) is very far off that theoretical maximum. Last December the regulator announced a €450k (~$547k) sanction against Twitter — which works out to around just 0.1% of the company’s full-year revenue.

That penalty was also for a data breach — but one which, unlike the Facebook leak, had been publicly disclosed when Twitter found it in 2019. So Facebook’s failure to disclose the vulnerability it discovered and claims it fixed by September 2019, which led to the leak of 533M accounts now, suggests it should face a higher sanction from the DPC than Twitter received.

However even if Facebook ends up with a more substantial GDPR penalty for this breach the watchdog’s caseload backlog and plodding procedural pace makes it hard to envisage a swift resolution to an investigation that’s only a few days old.

Judging by past performance it’ll be years before the DPC decides on this 2019 Facebook leak — which likely explains why the DRI sees value in instigating class-action style litigation in parallel to the regulatory investigation.

“Compensation is not the only thing that makes this mass action worth joining. It is important to send a message to large data controllers that they must comply with the law and that there is a cost to them if they do not,” DRI writes on its website.

It also submitted a complaint about the Facebook breach to the DPC earlier this month, writing then that it was “also consulting with its legal advisors on other options including a mass action for damages in the Irish Courts”.

It’s clear that the GDPR enforcement gap is creating a growing opportunity for litigation funders to step in in Europe and take a punt on suing for data-related compensation damages — with a number of other mass actions announced last year.

In the case of DRI its focus is evidently on seeking to ensure that digital rights are upheld. But it told RTE that it believes compensation claims which force tech giants to pay money to users whose privacy rights have been violated is the best way to make them legally compliant.

Facebook, meanwhile, has sought to play down the breach it failed to disclose in 2019 — claiming it’s ‘old data’ — a deflection that ignores the fact that people’s dates of birth don’t change (nor do most people routinely change their mobile number or email address).

Plenty of the ‘old’ data exposed in this latest massive Facebook leak will be very handy for spammers and fraudsters to target Facebook users — and also now for litigators to target Facebook for data-related damages.

Continue Reading

Uncategorized

Geoffrey Hinton has a hunch about what’s next for AI

Published

on

Back in November, the computer scientist and cognitive psychologist Geoffrey Hinton had a hunch. After a half-century’s worth of attempts—some wildly successful—he’d arrived at another promising insight into how the brain works and how to replicate its circuitry in a computer.

“It’s my current best bet about how things fit together,” Hinton says from his home office in Toronto, where he’s been sequestered during the pandemic. If his bet pays off, it might spark the next generation of artificial neural networks—mathematical computing systems, loosely inspired by the brain’s neurons and synapses, that are at the core of today’s artificial intelligence. His “honest motivation,” as he puts it, is curiosity. But the practical motivation—and, ideally, the consequence—is more reliable and more trustworthy AI.

A Google engineering fellow and cofounder of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Hinton wrote up his hunch in fits and starts, and at the end of February announced via Twitter that he’d posted a 44-page paper on the arXiv preprint server. He began with a disclaimer: “This paper does not describe a working system,” he wrote. Rather, it presents an “imaginary system.” He named it, “GLOM.” The term derives from “agglomerate” and the expression “glom together.”

Hinton thinks of GLOM as a way to model human perception in a machine—it offers a new way to process and represent visual information in a neural network. On a technical level, the guts of it involve a glomming together of similar vectors. Vectors are fundamental to neural networks—a vector is an array of numbers that encodes information. The simplest example is the xyz coordinates of a point—three numbers that indicate where the point is in three-dimensional space. A six-dimensional vector contains three more pieces of information—maybe the red-green-blue values for the point’s color. In a neural net, vectors in hundreds or thousands of dimensions represent entire images or words. And dealing in yet higher dimensions, Hinton believes that what goes on in our brains involves “big vectors of neural activity.”

By way of analogy, Hinton likens his glomming together of similar vectors to the dynamic of an echo chamber—the amplification of similar beliefs. “An echo chamber is a complete disaster for politics and society, but for neural nets it’s a great thing,” Hinton says. The notion of echo chambers mapped onto neural networks he calls “islands of identical vectors,” or more colloquially, “islands of agreement”—when vectors agree about the nature of their information, they point in the same direction.

“If neural nets were more like people, at least they can go wrong the same ways as people do, and so we’ll get some insight into what might confuse them.”

Geoffrey Hinton

In spirit, GLOM also gets at the elusive goal of modelling intuition—Hinton thinks of intuition as crucial to perception. He defines intuition as our ability to effortlessly make analogies. From childhood through the course of our lives, we make sense of the world by using analogical reasoning, mapping similarities from one object or idea or concept to another—or, as Hinton puts it, one big vector to another. “Similarities of big vectors explain how neural networks do intuitive analogical reasoning,” he says. More broadly, intuition captures that ineffable way a human brain generates insight. Hinton himself works very intuitively—scientifically, he is guided by intuition and the tool of analogy making. And his theory of how the brain works is all about intuition. “I’m very consistent,” he says.

Hinton hopes GLOM might be one of several breakthroughs that he reckons are needed before AI is capable of truly nimble problem solving—the kind of human-like thinking that would allow a system to make sense of things never before encountered; to draw upon similarities from past experiences, play around with ideas, generalize, extrapolate, understand. “If neural nets were more like people,” he says, “at least they can go wrong the same ways as people do, and so we’ll get some insight into what might confuse them.”

For the time being, however, GLOM itself is only an intuition—it’s “vaporware,” says Hinton. And he acknowledges that as an acronym nicely matches, “Geoff’s Last Original Model.” It is, at the very least, his latest.

Outside the box

Hinton’s devotion to artificial neural networks (a mid-2oth century invention) dates to the early 1970s. By 1986 he’d made considerable progress: whereas initially nets comprised only a couple of neuron layers, input and output, Hinton and collaborators came up with a technique for a deeper, multilayered network. But it took 26 years before computing power and data capacity caught up and capitalized on the deep architecture.

In 2012, Hinton gained fame and wealth from a deep learning breakthrough. With two students, he implemented a multilayered neural network that was trained to recognize objects in massive image data sets. The neural net learned to iteratively improve at classifying and identifying various objects—for instance, a mite, a mushroom, a motor scooter, a Madagascar cat. And it performed with unexpectedly spectacular accuracy.

Deep learning set off the latest AI revolution, transforming computer vision and the field as a whole. Hinton believes deep learning should be almost all that’s needed to fully replicate human intelligence.

But despite rapid progress, there are still major challenges. Expose a neural net to an unfamiliar data set or a foreign environment, and it reveals itself to be brittle and inflexible. Self-driving cars and essay-writing language generators impress, but things can go awry. AI visual systems can be easily confused: a coffee mug recognized from the side would be an unknown from above if the system had not been trained on that view; and with the manipulation of a few pixels, a panda can be mistaken for an ostrich, or even a school bus.

GLOM addresses two of the most difficult problems for visual perception systems: understanding a whole scene in terms of objects and their natural parts; and recognizing objects when seen from a new viewpoint.(GLOM’s focus is on vision, but Hinton expects the idea could be applied to language as well.)

An object such as Hinton’s face, for instance, is made up of his lively if dog-tired eyes (too many people asking questions; too little sleep), his mouth and ears, and a prominent nose, all topped by a not-too-untidy tousle of mostly gray. And given his nose, he is easily recognized even on first sight in profile view.

Both of these factors—the part-whole relationship and the viewpoint—are, from Hinton’s perspective, crucial to how humans do vision. “If GLOM ever works,” he says, “it’s going to do perception in a way that’s much more human-like than current neural nets.”

Grouping parts into wholes, however, can be a hard problem for computers, since parts are sometimes ambiguous. A circle could be an eye, or a doughnut, or a wheel. As Hinton explains it, the first generation of AI vision systems tried to recognize objects by relying mostly on the geometry of the part-whole-relationship—the spatial orientation among the parts and between the parts and the whole. The second generation instead relied mostly on deep learning—letting the neural net train on large amounts of data. With GLOM, Hinton combines the best aspects of both approaches.

“There’s a certain intellectual humility that I like about it,” says Gary Marcus, founder and CEO of Robust.AI and a well-known critic of the heavy reliance on deep learning. Marcus admires Hinton’s willingness to challenge something that brought him fame, to admit it’s not quite working. “It’s brave,” he says. “And it’s a great corrective to say, ‘I’m trying to think outside the box.’”

The GLOM architecture

In crafting GLOM, Hinton tried to model some of the mental shortcuts—intuitive strategies, or heuristics—that people use in making sense of the world. “GLOM, and indeed much of Geoff’s work, is about looking at heuristics that people seem to have, building neural nets that could themselves have those heuristics, and then showing that the nets do better at vision as a result,” says Nick Frosst, a computer scientist at a language startup in Toronto who worked with Hinton at Google Brain.

With visual perception, one strategy is to parse parts of an object—such as different facial features—and thereby understand the whole. If you see a certain nose, you might recognize it as part of Hinton’s face; it’s a part-whole hierarchy. To build a better vision system, Hinton says, “I have a strong intuition that we need to use part-whole hierarchies.” Human brains understand this part-whole composition by creating what’s called a “parse tree”—a branching diagram demonstrating the hierarchical relationship between the whole, its parts and subparts. The face itself is at the top of the tree, and the component eyes, nose, ears, and mouth form the branches below.

One of Hinton’s main goals with GLOM is to replicate the parse tree in a neural net—this is would distinguish it from neural nets that came before. For technical reasons, it’s hard to do. “It’s difficult because each individual image would be parsed by a person into a unique parse tree, so we would want a neural net to do the same,” says Frosst. “It’s hard to get something with a static architecture—a neural net—to take on a new structure—a parse tree—for each new image it sees.” Hinton has made various attempts. GLOM is a major revision of his previous attempt in 2017, combined with other related advances in the field.

“I’m part of a nose!”

GLOM vector

Hinton face grid

MS TECH | EVIATAR BACH VIA WIKIMEDIA

A generalized way of thinking about the GLOM architecture is as follows: The image of interest (say, a photograph of Hinton’s face) is divided into a grid. Each region of the grid is a “location” on the image—one location might contain the iris of an eye, while another might contain the tip of his nose. For each location in the net there are about five layers, or levels. And level by level, the system makes a prediction, with a vector representing the content or information. At a level near the bottom, the vector representing the tip-of-the-nose location might predict: “I’m part of a nose!” And at the next level up, in building a more coherent representation of what it’s seeing, the vector might predict: “I’m part of a face at side-angle view!”

But then the question is, do neighboring vectors at the same level agree? When in agreement, vectors point in the same direction, toward the same conclusion: “Yes, we both belong to the same nose.” Or further up the parse tree. “Yes, we both belong to the same face.”

Seeking consensus about the nature of an object—about what precisely the object is, ultimately—GLOM’s vectors iteratively, location-by-location and layer-upon-layer, average with neighbouring vectors beside, as well as predicted vectors from levels above and below.

However, the net doesn’t “willy-nilly average” with just anything nearby, says Hinton. It averages selectively, with neighboring predictions that display similarities. “This is kind of well-known in America, this is called an echo chamber,” he says. “What you do is you only accept opinions from people who already agree with you; and then what happens is that you get an echo chamber where a whole bunch of people have exactly the same opinion. GLOM actually uses that in a constructive way.” The analogous phenomenon in Hinton’s system is those “islands of agreement.”

“Geoff is a highly unusual thinker…”

Sue Becker

“Imagine a bunch of people in a room, shouting slight variations of the same idea,” says Frosst—or imagine those people as vectors pointing in slight variations of the same direction. “They would, after a while, converge on the one idea, and they would all feel it stronger, because they had it confirmed by the other people around them.” That’s how GLOM’s vectors reinforce and amplify their collective predictions about an image.

GLOM uses these islands of agreeing vectors to accomplish the trick of representing a parse tree in a neural net. Whereas some recent neural nets use agreement among vectors for activation, GLOM uses agreement for representation—building up representations of things within the net. For instance, when several vectors agree that they all represent part of the nose, their small cluster of agreement collectively represents the nose in the net’s parse tree for the face. Another smallish cluster of agreeing vectors might represent the mouth in the parse tree; and the big cluster at the top of the tree would represent the emergent conclusion that the image as a whole is Hinton’s face. “The way the parse tree is represented here,” Hinton explains, “is that at the object level you have a big island; the parts of the object are smaller islands; the subparts are even smaller islands, and so on.”

Figure 2 from Hinton’s GLOM paper. The islands of identical vectors (arrows of the same color) at the various levels represent a parse tree.
GEOFFREY HINTON

According to Hinton’s long-time friend and collaborator Yoshua Bengio, a computer scientist at the University of Montreal, if GLOM manages to solve the engineering challenge of representing a parse tree in a neural net, it would be a feat—it would be important for making neural nets work properly. “Geoff has produced amazingly powerful intuitions many times in his career, many of which have proven right,” Bengio says. “Hence, I pay attention to them, especially when he feels as strongly about them as he does about GLOM.”

The strength of Hinton’s conviction is rooted not only in the echo chamber analogy, but also in mathematical and biological analogies that inspired and justified some of the design decisions in GLOM’s novel engineering.

“Geoff is a highly unusual thinker in that he is able to draw upon complex mathematical concepts and integrate them with biological constraints to develop theories,” says Sue Becker, a former student of Hinton’s, now a computational cognitive neuroscientist at McMaster University. “Researchers who are more narrowly focused on either the mathematical theory or the neurobiology are much less likely to solve the infinitely compelling puzzle of how both machines and humans might learn and think.”

Turning philosophy into engineering

So far, Hinton’s new idea has been well received, especially in some of the world’s greatest echo chambers. “On Twitter, I got a lot of likes,” he says. And a YouTube tutorial laid claim to the term “MeGLOMania.”

Hinton is the first to admit that at present GLOM is little more than philosophical musing (he spent a year as a philosophy undergrad before switching to experimental psychology). “If an idea sounds good in philosophy, it is good,” he says. “How would you ever have a philosophical idea that just sounds like rubbish, but actually turns out to be true? That wouldn’t pass as a philosophical idea.” Science, by comparison, is “full of things that sound like complete rubbish” but turn out to work remarkably well—for example, neural nets, he says.

GLOM is designed to sound philosophically plausible. But will it work?

Chris Williams, a professor of machine learning in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, expects that GLOM might well spawn great innovations. However, he says, “the thing that distinguishes AI from philosophy is that we can use computers to test such theories.” It’s possible that a flaw in the idea might be exposed—perhaps also repaired—by such experiments, he says. “At the moment I don’t think we have enough evidence to assess the real significance of the idea, although I believe it has a lot of promise.”

The GLOM test model inputs are ten ellipses that form a sheep or a face.
LAURA CULP

Some of Hinton’s colleagues at Google Research in Toronto are in the very early stages of investigating GLOM experimentally. Laura Culp, a software engineer who implements novel neural net architectures, is using a computer simulation to test whether GLOM can produce Hinton’s islands of agreement in understanding parts and wholes of an object, even when the input parts are ambiguous. In the experiments, the parts are 10 ellipses, ovals of varying sizes, that can be arranged to form either a face or a sheep.

With random inputs of one ellipse or another, the model should be able to make predictions, Culp says, and “deal with the uncertainty of whether or not the ellipse is part of a face or a sheep, and whether it is the leg of a sheep, or the head of a sheep.” Confronted with any perturbations, the model should be able to correct itself as well. A next step is establishing a baseline, indicating whether a standard deep-learning neural net would get befuddled by such a task. As yet, GLOM is highly supervised—Culp creates and labels the data, prompting and pressuring the model to find correct predictions and succeed over time. (The unsupervised version is named GLUM—“It’s a joke,” Hinton says.)

At this preliminary state, it’s too soon to draw any big conclusions. Culp is waiting for more numbers. Hinton is already impressed nonetheless. “A simple version of GLOM can look at 10 ellipses and see a face and a sheep based on the spatial relationships between the ellipses,” he says. “This is tricky, because an individual ellipse conveys nothing about which type of object it belongs to or which part of that object it is.”

And overall, Hinton is happy with the feedback. “I just wanted to put it out there for the community, so anybody who likes can try it out,” he says. “Or try some sub-combination of these ideas. And then that will turn philosophy into science.”

Continue Reading

Uncategorized

Pakistan temporarily blocks social media

Published

on

Pakistan has temporarily blocked several social media services in the South Asian nation, according to users and a government-issued notice reviewed by TechCrunch.

In an order titled “Complete Blocking of Social Media Platforms,” the Pakistani government ordered Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Telegram from 11am to 3pm local time (06.00am to 10.00am GMT) Friday.

The move comes as Pakistan looks to crackdown against a violent terrorist group and prevent troublemakers from disrupting Friday prayers congregations following days of violent protests.

Earlier this week Pakistan banned the Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan after arresting its leader, which prompted protests, according to local media reports.

An entrepreneur based in Pakistan told TechCrunch that even though the order is supposed to expire at 3pm local time, similar past moves by the government suggests that the disruption will likely last for longer.

Though Pakistan, like its neighbor India, has temporarily cut phone calls access in the nation in the past, this is the first time Islamabad has issued a blanket ban on social media in the country.

Pakistan has explored ways to assume more control over content on digital services operating in the country in recent years. Some activists said the country was taking extreme measures without much explanations.

Continue Reading

Trending