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Scared about the threat of AI? It’s the big tech giants that need reining in | Devdatt Dubhashi and Shalom Lappin

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In his 2021 Reith lectures, the third episode of which airs tonight, the artificial intelligence researcher Stuart Russell takes up the idea of a near-future AI that is so ruthlessly intelligent that it might pose an existential threat to humanity. A machine we create that might destroy us all.

This has long been a popular topic with researchers and the press. But we believe an existential threat from AI is both unlikely and in any case far off, given the current state of the technology. However, the recent development of powerful, but far smaller-scale, AI systems has had a significant effect on the world already, and the use of existing AI poses serious economic and social challenges. These are not distant, but immediate, and must be addressed.

These include the prospect of large-scale unemployment due to automation, with attendant political and social dislocation, as well as the use of personal data for purposes of commercial and political manipulation. The incorporation of ethnic and gender bias in datasets used by AI programs that determine job candidate selection, creditworthiness, and other important decisions is a well-known problem.

But by far the most immediate danger is the role that AI data analysis and generation plays in spreading disinformation and extremism on social media. This technology powers bots and amplification algorithms. These have played a direct role in fomenting conflict in many countries. They are helping to intensify racism, conspiracy theories, political extremism and a plethora of violent, irrationalist movements.

Such movements are threatening the foundations of democracy throughout the world. AI-driven social media was instrumental in mobilising January’s insurrection at the US Capitol, and it has propelled the anti-vax movement since before the pandemic.

Behind all of this is the power of big tech companies, which develop the relevant data processing technology and host the social media platforms on which it is deployed. With their vast reserves of personal data, they use sophisticated targeting procedures to identify audiences for extremist posts and sites. They promote this content to increase advertising revenue, and in so doing, actively assist the rise of these destructive trends.

They exercise near-monopoly control over the social media market, and a range of other digital services. Meta, through its ownership of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google, which controls YouTube, dominate much of the social media industry. This concentration of power gives a handful of companies far-reaching influence on political decision making.

Given the importance of digital services in public life, it is reasonable to expect that big tech would be subject to the same sort of regulation that applies to the corporations that control markets in other parts of the economy. In fact, this is not generally the case.

The social media agencies have not been restricted by the antitrust regulations, truth in advertising legislation, or laws against racist incitement that apply to traditional print and broadcast networks. Such regulation does not guarantee responsible behaviour (as rightwing cable networks and rabid tabloids illustrate), but it does provide an instrument of constraint.

Three main arguments have been advanced against increased government regulation of big tech. The first holds that it would inhibit free speech. The second argues that it would degrade innovation in science and engineering. The third maintains that socially responsible companies can best regulate themselves. These arguments are entirely specious.

Some restrictions on free speech are well motivated by the need to defend the public good. Truth in advertising is a prime example. Legal prohibitions against racist incitement and group defamation are another. These constraints are generally accepted in most liberal democracies (with the exception of the US) as integral to the legal approach to protecting people from hate crime.

Social media platforms often deny responsibility for the content of the material that they host, on the grounds that it is created by individual users. In fact, this content is published in the public domain, and so it cannot be construed as purely private communication.

When it comes to safety, government-imposed regulations have not prevented dramatic bioengineering advances, like the recent mRNA-based Covid vaccines. Nor did they stop car companies from building efficient electric vehicles. Why would they have the unique effect of reducing innovation in AI and information technology?

Finally, the view that private companies can be trusted to regulate themselves out of a sense of social responsibility is entirely without merit. Businesses exist for the purpose of making money. Business lobbies often ascribe to themselves the image of a socially responsible industry acting out of a sense of concern for public welfare. In most cases this is a public relations manoeuvre intended to head off regulation.

Any company that prioritises social benefit over profit will quickly cease to exist. This was showcased in Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s recent congressional testimony, indicating that the company’s executives chose to ignore the harm that some of their “algorithms” were causing, in order to sustain the profits they provided.

Consumer pressure can, on occasion, act as leverage for restraining corporate excess. But such cases are rare. In fact, legislation and regulatory agencies are the only effective means that democratic societies have at their disposal for protecting the public from the undesirable effects of corporate power.

Finding the best way to regulate a powerful and complex industry like big tech is a difficult problem. But progress has been made on constructive proposals. Lina Khan, the US federal trade commissioner advanced antitrust proposals for dealing with monopolistic practices in markets. The European commission has taken a leading role in instituting data protection and privacy laws.

Academics MacKenzie Common and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen offer a balanced discussion of ways in which government can restrict disinformation and hate speech in social media, while sustaining free expression. This is the most complex, and most pressing, of the problems involved in controlling technology companies.

The case for regulating big tech is clear. The damage it is doing across a variety of domains is throwing into question the benefits of its considerable achievements in science and engineering. The global nature of corporate power renders the ability of national governments in democratic countries to restrain big tech increasingly limited.

There is a pressing need for large trading blocs and international agencies to act in concert to impose effective regulation on digital technology companies. Without such constraints big tech will continue to host the instruments of extremism, bigotry, and unreason that are generating social chaos, undermining public health and threatening democracy.

  • Devdatt Dubhashi is professor of data science and AI at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. Shalom Lappin is professor of natural language processing at Queen Mary University of London, director of the Centre for Linguistic Theory and Studies in Probability at the University of Gothenburg, and emeritus professor of computational linguistics at King’s College London.

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Best podcasts of the week: what does the bloodsucking saga Twilight tell us about society? | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Big Hit Show
“Twilight is stupid; if you like it, you’re also stupid.” Why is there so much vitriol towards female Twihards? (Spoiler: misogyny.) In the first run of a series unpicking pop culture’s biggest moments – from the Obamas’ media company – Alex Pappademas starts by dissecting the wildly popular tale of teenage vampire love – and what the reactions to it say about us. Even if you’re not a fan, he raises some great questions. Hollie Richardson

Fake Psychic
Journalist Vicky Baker captivated listeners with Fake Heiress and now she investigates the fascinating story of Lamar Keene, the go-to spiritualist of 1960s America. When he hung up his questionable crystal ball he decided to reveal the tricks of supposed psychics, and Baker asks if that too was a con while pondering the authenticity of the psychics who followed. Hannah Verdier

Deep Cover: Mob Land
Animal lover, lawyer and switcher of identities Bob Cooley is the subject of Jake Halpern’s new season of the reliably mysterious podcast. Cooley was a top Chicago mob lawyer in the 70s and 80s, but what was the price when he offered to switch to the FBI’s side? This dive into corruption quizzes the key figures around him. HV

Chutzpod
This lively, engaging podcast attempts to “apply a Jewish lens to life’s toughest questions”. Hosts Rabbi Shira Stutman and one-time West Wing actor Joshua Malina cover topics ranging from reality TV shows to the Jewish “New Year of the Trees”, via the recent hostage stand-off at a synagogue in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville. Alexi Duggins

Backstage Pass with Eric Vetro
Eric Vestro is a vocal coach who’s worked with the likes of John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Ariana Grande. Here, he entertainingly lifts the curtain on their craft, talking to them about their journey in a manner that feels genuinely intimate given their pre-existing relationships. Expect some enjoyably daft voice exercises too. AD

Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade.
Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade. Photograph: Chris Radburn/Reuters

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

It’s fair to say that in the last couple of years the British monarchy has been put under a microscope for the way they handle their own family members, whether that be an heir to the throne and his American wife, or a prince embroiled in a civil sex abuse case. In a two parter titled Royally Flush, however, the Broccoli Productions’ Human Resources podcast goes back in time to investigate the royal family’s role in the slave trade in Britain, questioning how influential they were in trying to prevent abolition.

This is clearly a pandemic production as audio quality can sometimes be shaky, but the content is an important listen. As the country gears up to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, writer and host, Moya Lothian-McLean takes us on an unexplored trip down memory lane, presenting fascinating insights into why – despite ample evidence that the monarchy was historically instrumental in propping up the slave trade in Britain – we haven’t heard so much as a sorry coming from Buckingham Palace, according to the program maker.

Talking points

  • Never underestimate the skill that goes into making a good podcast. Over a year since Meghan and Harry’s audio production company Archewell signed a podcast deal with Spotify, they’ve only managed to release a single podcast. Hence, presumably the job ads Spotify posted this week, looking for full-time staff to help Archewell.

  • Why not try: Smartless | Screenshot

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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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