Hello and welcome to the debut issue of TechScape, the Guardian’s newsletter on all things tech, and sometimes things not-tech if they’re interesting enough. I can’t tell you how excited I am to have you here with me, and I hope between us we can build not just a newsletter, but a news community.
Sometimes there’s a story that just sums up all the hopes and fears of its entire field. Here’s one.
GitHub is a platform that lets developers collaborate on coding with colleagues, friends and strangers around the world, and host the results. Owned by Microsoft since 2018, the site is the largest host of source code in the world, and a crucial part of many companies’ digital infrastructure.
Late last month, GitHub launched a new AI tool, called Copilot. Here’s how chief executive Nat Friedman described it:
A new AI pair programmer that helps you write better code. It helps you quickly discover alternative ways to solve problems, write tests, and explore new APIs without having to tediously tailor a search for answers on the internet. As you type, it adapts to the way you write code – to help you complete your work faster.
In other words, Copilot will sit on your computer and do a chunk of your coding work for you. There’s a long-running joke in the coding community that a substantial portion of the actual work of programming is searching online for people who’ve solved the same problems as you, and copying their code into your program. Well, now there’s an AI that will do that part for you.
And the stunning thing about Copilot is that, for a whole host of common problems … it works. Programmers I have spoken to say it is as stunning as the first time text from GPT-3 began popping up on the web. You may remember that, it’s the superpowerful text-generation AI that writes paragraphs like:
The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.
Centaurs It’s tempting, when imagining how tech will change the world, to think of the future as one where humans are basically unnecessary. As AI systems manage to tackle increasingly complex domains, with increasing competence, it’s easy enough to think of them as being able to achieve everything a person can, leaving the human that used to be employed doing the same thing with idle hands.
Whether that is a nightmare or a utopia, of course, depends on how you think society would adapt to such a change. Would huge numbers of people be freed to live a life of leisure, supported by the AIs that do their jobs in their stead? Or would they instead find themselves unemployed and unemployable, with their former managers reaping the rewards of the increased productivity an hour worked?
But it’s not always the case that AI is here to replace us. Instead, more and more fields are exploring the possibility of using the technology to work alongside people, extending their abilities, and taking the drudge work from their jobs while leaving them to handle the things that a human does best.
The concept’s come to be called a “centaur” – because it leads to a hybrid worker who has an AI back half and human front. It’s not as futuristic as it sounds: anyone who’s used autocorrect on an iPhone has, in effect, teamed up with an AI to offload the laborious task of typing correctly.
Often, centaurs can come close to the dystopian vision. Amazon’s warehouse employees, for instance, have been gradually pushed along a very similar path as the company seeks to eke out every efficiency improvement possible. The humans are guided, tracked and assessed throughout the working day, ensuring that they always take the optimal route through the warehouse, pick exactly the right items, and do so at a consistent rate high enough to let the company turn a healthy profit. They’re still employed to do things that only humans can offer – but in this case, that’s “working hands and a low maintenance bill”.
But in other fields, centaurs are already proving their worth. The world of competitive chess has, for years, had a special format for such hybrid players: humans working with the assistance of a chess computer. And, generally, the pairs play better than either would on their own: the computer avoids stupid errors, plays without getting tired, and presents a list of high-value options to the human player, who’s able to inject a dose of unpredictability and lateral thinking into the game.
That’s the future GitHub hopes Copilot will be able to introduce. Programmers who use it can stop worrying about simple, welldocumented tasks, like how to send a valid request to Twitter’s API, or how to pull the time in hours and minutes from a system clock, and start focusing their effort on the work that no one else has done.
But … The reason why Copilot is fascinating to me isn’t just the positive potential, though. It’s also that, in one release, the company seems to have fallen into every single trap plaguing the broader AI sector.
Copilot was trained on public data from Github’s own platform. That means all of that source code, from hundreds of millions of developers around the world, was used to teach it how to write code based on user prompts.
That’s great if the problem is a simple programming task. It’s less good if the prompt for autocomplete is, say, secret credentials that you use to sign into user account. And yet:
GitHubCopilot gave me a [Airbnb] link with a key that still works (and stops working when changing it).
The AI is leaking [sendgrid] API keys that are valid and still functional.
The vast majority of what we call AI today isn’t coded but trained: you give it a great pile of stuff, and tell it to work out for itself the relationships between that stuff. With the vast sum of code available in Github’s repository, there are plenty of examples for Copilot to learn what code that checks the time looks like. But there are also plenty of examples for Copilot to learn what an API key accidentally uploaded in public looks like – and to then share it onwards.
Passwords and keys are obviously the worst examples of this sort of leakage, but they point to the underlying concern about a lot of AI technology: is it actually creating things, or is it simply remixing work already done by other humans? And if the latter, should those humans get a say in how their work is used?
On that latter question, GitHub’s answer is a forceful no. “Training machine learning models on publicly available data is considered fair use across the machine learning community,” the company says in an FAQ.
Originally, the company made the much softer claim that doing so was merely “common practice”. But the page was updated after coders around the world complained that GitHub was violating their copyright. Intriguingly, the biggest opposition came not from private companies concerned that their work may have been reused, but from developers in the open-source community, who deliberately build in public to let their work be built upon in turn. Those developers often rely on copyright to ensure that people who use open-source code have to publish what they create – something GitHub didn’t do.
GitHub is probably right on the law, according to legal professor James Grimmelmann. But the company isn’t going to be the last to reveal a groundbreaking new AI tool and then face awkward questions over whether it actually has the rights to the data used to train it.
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“In the (hopefully unlikely) event that Twitter forces this deal to close *and* some equity partners don’t come through, it is important to avoid an emergency sale of Tesla stock,” Musk said in a tweet late on Tuesday.
In other comments on Twitter on Tuesday, Musk said “yes” when asked if he was finished selling Tesla stock. He also said he would buy Tesla stock again if the Twitter deal does not close.
Musk has committed more than $30bn of his own money to the financing of the deal, with more than $7bn of that total provided by a coterie of associates including tech tycoon Larry Ellison, the Qatar state investment fund and the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, Binance.
Musk, the world’s richest person, sold $8.5bn worth of Tesla shares in April and had said at the time there were no further sales planned. But since then, legal experts had suggested that if Musk is forced to complete the acquisition or settle the dispute with a stiff penalty, he was likely to sell more Tesla shares.
Last week Musk launched a countersuit against Twitter, accusing the platform of deliberately miscounting the number of spam accounts on the platform. Twitter has consistently stated that the number of spam accounts on its service is less than 5% of its user base, which currently stands at just under 238 million. Legal experts have said that Musk will find it hard to convince a judge that Twitter’s spam issue represents a “company material adverse effect” that substantially alters the company’s value – and therefore voids the deal.
Musk sold about 7.92m Tesla shares between 5 August and 9 August, according to multiple filings. He now owns 155m Tesla shares or just under 15% of the electric carmaker.
The latest sales bring total Tesla stock sales by Musk to about $32bn in less than one year. However, Musk remains comfortably ahead of Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest man with an estimated $250bn fortune, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.
Tesla shares have risen nearly 15% since the automaker reported better-than-expected earnings on 20 July, also helped by the Biden administration’s climate bill that, if passed, would lift the cap on tax credits for electric vehicles.
Musk also teased on Tuesday that he could start his own social media platform. When asked by a Twitter user if he had thought about creating his own platform if the deal didn’t close, he replied: “X.com”.
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.”
این هفته، اولین ثبت سفارش رسمی واردات با #رمز_ارز به ارزشی معادل ۱۰ میلیون دلار با موفقیت صورت پذیرفت. تا پایان شهریور ماه، استفاده از رمز ارزها و قراردادهای هوشمند به صورت گسترده در تجارت خارجی با کشورهای هدف عمومیت خواهد یافت. #فصل_جدید_تجارت_خارجی
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. ®
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.
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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