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User not working • The Register

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? Twas the night after Christmas, but I felt all alone.

I’d opted for on-call rather than spend it at home.

Paid double to sit idle, my colleagues did say:

No one will work late on this Christmas Day.

The office is empty, pretty much – it’s a laugh!

(It’s a Boxing Day news feed with a skeleton staff.)

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Then the night support phone started bleeping.

“Ah fucking shite-house.”

It’s Christmas 2031 and things have changed a lot in the world of newspapers. For a start, it has been almost a decade since we ditched the paper element. No matter that paper by then had become the cheapest and – thanks to Scandinavian forestry regulations (when you fell a tree, you must plant two new ones) – most environmentally impactless medium for publishing.

The real problem had been the rising electricity bills for running the printing presses and the sheer expense of delivering physical copies up and down the country, not to mention dumping heaps of them on aeroplanes.

It was much cheaper for us to shunt the costs onto readers, who not only paid us for their digital news subscription but also had to buy their own devices required to read it and settled their own electricity bills, charging up their tablets and smartphones nightly via the environmentally friendly wonders of nuclear power stations.

One thing has not changed: Britons generally do not want to read newspapers on Christmas Day. That’s why we don’t publish on 25 December. It has nothing to do with it being a Bank Holiday or a religious thing; it certainly has nothing to do with giving staff time off.

Think about it: the bulk of morning newspaper content is produced the night before. In order not to publish on Christmas Day, we take Christmas Eve off work. But since British readers like to read newspapers on Boxing Day, it means it’s all hands on deck the night before, ie, on Christmas Day itself.

That said, it’s now almost midnight on 25 December 2031 and tomorrow morning’s edition has already been done. All that’s left are a handful of staff to trickle stories from international news agencies into our live feed through the night. Easy pickings for a production support bod such as myself for a double-time and overtime boost to his modest income! There’s little chance of anyone needing support as there are so few staff around tonight.

Of course, when I say “staff”, I mean the AIs.

Even back in 2021, you could see the way things were going. Sports stories were already being written by robot: any randomiser fed from a database of sporting clichés can write a pretty effective report on a football match. It’s not a big ask.

Come to think of it, looking back, it was Christmas 2021 that might have set the ball rolling. I’d joined a Zoom call with the night production team and as we awaited the others to arrive, the production director started absent-mindedly humming a popular Christmas ditty:

“He knows when you are sleepiiiing,” she chundered, good-naturedly. “He know when you’re awaaaake…”

“Really?” I interjected. “My Fitbit does that too.”

She fell silent for a few moments, frowning slightly. With less gusto, she continued this musical murmur:

“He knows when you are bad or good…”

“So Santa Claus is an artificial intelligence too?” I snapped back.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. It’s a medical condition known as Tourette Anum Captiosus. But rather than show irritation, the production director just went quiet again and remained lost in her own thoughts for the rest of the meeting.

Over the following years, the production director replaced 90 per cent of her staff with robots, and the newspaper’s editor did the same with the reporters.

You’d think I would be kicking myself for putting the idea in their heads those 10 Christmases ago. Not at all. What riles me is that I never got paid a finder’s fee.

My colleagues on customer support are happy with how things have turned out. There is still plenty of work for them – more so, in fact, as the complexity of the AI systems and interfaces between them require constant attention. Gone are the days when you would just glance at the load balancing status every now and again while waiting for the next user to log a call. In fact, that’s what they enjoy the best: not getting those tiresome calls to help users discover that they haven’t plugged their mouse back in after recharging their phone.

Which brings me back to the present. I am alone on customer support tonight as the systems, when not taking care of themselves, can be monitored and doctored remotely by colleagues snug in their beds. Me, I’ve only been hauled out of retirement because I am the only minion left alive prepared to volunteer for the in-person customer-facing role for the handful of humans still working alongside the robots.

Woe betide any human who rings the support line tonight: they get me.

My crotch glows in the gloom. In 2031, incoming messages don’t ring or vibrate your smartphone; they illuminate your clothing. (Another of my great ideas turned into a runaway success without remuneration. Curses.)

Double-tapping on my bollocks, I read that the user asking for assistance is not one of the humans. It is one of the robots.

Obviously these are not walking, talking, RUR-style, “Robbie-the” contraptions, but AIs existing in software somewhere in cloud data centres. I think. Not sure. Anyway, if they can write news stories, they can certainly interact with me via the medium of conventional wordage. One such AI writing the newspaper has alerted me to a problem with one of its interfaces. Could I come down and check it out?

Fearing that this call might be somewhat over my head since I’m about as likely to rewrite a Perl script for interfacing two systems as I am to sex goldfish using Microsoft Office, I head downstairs. In the newsroom, there are plenty of humming cabinets and blinking LEDs, plus a few desks. One of them has a man slumped over it. He is tonight’s designated human operator.

To one side of the slumped reporter is a mostly empty bottle of Haig. Phew, I thought, thank goodness he hadn’t drunk all of it!

To his other side is the empty bottle of Haig he had already finished off. Ah.

On the display in front of him, a window pops up with a message for me from the AI: “Thank you for coming downstairs. My interface has broken down. Can you see what the problem is? We’re on deadline.”

His interface is the highly experienced but currently snoring journalist, fast asleep and not responding to shoulder-shaking, ear-flicking or shouting “Wake up you dozy bastard.”

He is smiling in his sleep, too, which I suppose means he’ll live through it. At least he’ll have keycap impressions on his right cheek for days after this, so there.

The thing is, he’s supposed to be supervising the text copy served up by the AIs and choosing where they might go in the next edition, or determining the order in which they should be added to the overnight live feed. The AIs can’t do this without him because that’s the way we set up the workflow.

A sharp kick to the larger of his two already vast buttocks does the trick. He awakes dozily and stands up. I proceed to prod his mighty arse with the tip of my Docs to coax him towards the WC, where he pukes most of the whisky into the waste bin, pees in the sink and has a sip of water from the latrine.

Refreshed, he returns to his desk of power: one man to control the mindless machines. And he’s shredding through the stories again.

By the time I have returned to my own desk upstairs, the AI has updated the log to say it was solved satisfactorily and can be closed. All that’s required is for me to complete the report with a summary of the incident.

Computer called me to say that user had broken down. Booted up, cleaned out and refreshed settings. User now working OK but recommend replacement.

Merry Christmas. I predict a long winter ahead.

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. When he is not predicting the near future, he is working hard to bring about his own eventual obsolescence by continuing to work in this thankless industry. Pass me that whisky, would you? More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.



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Iran reveals use of cryptocurrency to pay for imports • The Register

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Iran has announced it used cryptocurrency to pay for imports, raising the prospect that the nation is using digital assets to evade sanctions.

Trade minister Alireza Peyman Pak revealed the transaction with the tweet below, which translates as “This week, the first official import order was successfully placed with cryptocurrency worth ten million dollars. By the end of September, the use of cryptocurrencies and smart contracts will be widespread in foreign trade with target countries.”

It is unclear what Peman Pak referred to with his mention of widespread use of crypto for foreign trade, and the identity of the foreign countries he mentioned is also obscure.

But the intent of the announcement appears clear: Iran will use cryptocurrency to settle cross-border trades.

That’s very significant because Iran is subject to extensive sanctions aimed at preventing its ability to acquire nuclear weapons and reduce its ability to sponsor terrorism. Sanctions prevent the sale of many commodities and technologies to Iran, and financial institutions aren’t allowed to deal with their Iranian counterparts, who are mostly shunned around the world.

As explained in this advisory [PDF] issued by the US Treasury, Iran has developed numerous practices to evade sanctions, including payment offsetting schemes that let it sell oil in contravention of sanctions. Proceeds of such sales are alleged to have been funnelled to terrorist groups.

While cryptocurrency’s anonymity has been largely disproved, trades in digital assets aren’t regulated so sanctions enforcement will be more complex if Iran and its trading partners use crypto instead of fiat currencies.

Which perhaps adds more weight to the argument that cryptocurrency has few proven uses beyond speculative trading, making the ransomware industry possible, and helping authoritarian states like Iran and North Korea to acquire materiel for weapons.

Peyman Pak’s mention of “widespread” cross-border crypto deals, facilitated by automated smart contracts, therefore represents a challenge to those who monitor and enforce sanctions – and something new to worry about for the rest of us. ®



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Edwards Lifesciences is hiring at its ‘key’ Shannon and Limerick facilities

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The medtech company is hiring for a variety of roles at both its Limerick and Shannon sites, the latter of which is being transformed into a specialised manufacturing facility.

Medical devices giant Edwards Lifesciences began renovations to convert its existing Shannon facility into a specialised manufacturing centre at the end of July.

The expansion will allow the company to produce components that are an integral part of its transcatheter heart valves. The conversion is part of Edwards Lifesciences’ expansion plan that will see it hire for hundreds of new roles in the coming years.

“The expanded capability at our Shannon facility demonstrates that our operations in Ireland are a key enabler for Edwards to continue helping patients across the globe,” said Andrew Walls, general manager for the company’s manufacturing facilities in Ireland.

According to Walls, hiring is currently underway at the company’s Shannon and Limerick facilities for a variety of functions such as assembly and inspection roles, manufacturing and quality engineering, supply chain, warehouse operations and project management.

Why Ireland?

Headquartered in Irvine, California, Edwards Lifesciences established its operations in Shannon in 2018 and announced 600 new jobs for the mid-west region. This number was then doubled a year later when it revealed increased investment in Limerick.

When the Limerick plant was officially opened in October 2021, the medtech company added another 250 roles onto the previously announced 600, promising 850 new jobs by 2025.

“As the company grows and serves even more patients around the world, Edwards conducted a thorough review of its global valve manufacturing network to ensure we have the right facilities and talent to address our future needs,” Walls told SiliconRepublic.com

“We consider multiple factors when determining where we decide to manufacture – for example, a location that will allow us to produce close to where products are utilised, a location that offers advantages for our supply chain, excellent local talent pool for an engaged workforce, an interest in education and good academic infrastructure, and other characteristics that will be good for business and, ultimately, good for patients.

“Both our Shannon and Limerick sites are key enablers for Edwards Lifesciences to continue helping patients across the globe.”

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Meta’s new AI chatbot can’t stop bashing Facebook | Meta

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If you’re worried that artificial intelligence is getting too smart, talking to Meta’s AI chatbot might make you feel better.

Launched on Friday, BlenderBot is a prototype of Meta’s conversational AI, which, according to Facebook’s parent company, can converse on nearly any topic. On the demo website, members of the public are invited to chat with the tool and share feedback with developers. The results thus far, writers at Buzzfeed and Vice have pointed out, have been rather interesting.

Asked about Mark Zuckerberg, the bot told BuzzFeed’s Max Woolf that “he is a good businessman, but his business practices are not always ethical. It is funny that he has all this money and still wears the same clothes!”

The bot has also made clear that it’s not a Facebook user, telling Vice’s Janus Rose that it had deleted its account after learning about the company’s privacy scandals. “Since deleting Facebook my life has been much better,” it said.

The bot repeats material it finds on the internet, and it’s very transparent about this: you can click on its responses to learn where it picked up whatever claims it is making (though it is not always specific).

This means that along with uncomfortable truths about its parent company, BlenderBot has been spouting predictable falsehoods. In conversation with Jeff Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal, it insisted Donald Trump was still president and would continue to be “even after his second term ends in 2024”. (It added another dig at Meta, saying Facebook “has a lot of fake news on it these days”.) Users have also recorded it making antisemitic claims.

BlenderBot’s remarks were foreseeable based on the behavior of older chatbots such as Microsoft’s Tay, which Twitter users quickly taught to be a racist conspiracy theorist, forcing the company to apologize for its “wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images”. GPT-3, another AI system, has also delivered racist, misogynist and homophobic remarks. A South Korean startup’s chatbot, designed to resemble a 20-year-old college student, had to be suspended after it rattled off racial slurs and anti-LGBTQ+ remarks.

Given the cesspool that is the internet, Meta appears to have expected similar things from its own service. Before logging on, users must acknowledge that BlenderBot is “likely to make untrue or offensive statements”. As Vice notes, Meta researchers have described the AI tech behind the bot as having “a high propensity to generate toxic language and reinforce harmful stereotypes, even when provided with a relatively innocuous prompt”.

“Everyone who uses Blender Bot is required to acknowledge they understand it’s for research and entertainment purposes only, that it can make untrue or offensive statements, and that they agree to not intentionally trigger the bot to make offensive statements,” said a Meta spokesperson in a statement.

My own conversation with BlenderBot did not veer into that territory, but it did highlight another flaw in the service: its utter inanity.

The bot began by asking me what subject I liked in school. The bot is open about which “persona” it is using in the conversation; our discussion involved a persona it described as “I like to read. I went to college.” When I asked it tough questions, such as which colleges accepted AI bot students, it offered nonsensical replies (“in some ways, aren’t we all chatbots?” No) and offered further reading by saying, “Here’s the link”, without providing a link. It also kept steering the conversation back to chatbots.

It did, however, maintain its firm stance against its own creators. When I said I wasn’t a fan of Facebook’s ethics, it wholeheartedly agreed: “Me too! That is why I stopped using it and just stick with reading books instead.”



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