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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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.” ®
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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Microsoft’s second attempt at its interesting dual-screen Android smartphone corrects some mistakes of the original, but falls short of a revolution due to a series of oddities created by its physical laptop-like form.
Looking more like a tiny convertible computer than a phone, the Surface Duo 2 starts at £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319), a lot for a regular smartphone but slightly cheaper than folding-screen rivals.
It opens like a book, with each half just 5.5mm thick, and a hinge that allows it to fold all the way over.
Inside are a pair of 90Hz OLED screens each measuring 5.8in on the diagonal. They can be used on their own or combined as one display measuring 8.3in – a similar size to an iPad mini. Both screens are covered in traditional scratch-resistant smartphone glass and have large, old-fashioned bezels top and bottom.
Having two separate displays rather than one that folds in half creates a major drawback: a gap in the middle of the screen big enough that you can see through it, which is much harder to ignore than the crease in the middle of a flexible display as found on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.
You can use two different apps at the same time on the two screens. The theory is sound, but I found few pairings were useful beyond simple messaging apps and a browser. More useful was using one screen for a note-taking app and the other for a full keyboard like a mini laptop.
Some apps spanned across both displays, like Outlook, can put different information on each screen, such as your inbox on one side and an open message on the other. Some games, including Asphalt 9 and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass streaming service, put controls on one screen and the action on the other. But there are very few apps and games optimised for this setup.
Connectivity: 5G, USB-C, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5.1 and location
Water resistance: IPX1 (dripping water)
Dimensions closed: 145.2 x 92.1 x 11.0mm
Dimensions open: 145.2 x 184.5 x 5.5mm
2021’s top Android chip
The Duo 2 has last year’s top Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 8GB of RAM, matching the performance of top-flight Android smartphones from 2021 and capable of running two apps running side-by-side without slowdown.
Battery life is more variable than a traditional phone. It lasts about 32 hours between charges, with both screens used for about four hours with a variety of messaging, browsing and work apps. It lasts about a third longer if you mostly use only one screen. That’s a considerably shorter battery life than a regular smartphone and behind the Z Fold 3.
Microsoft does not provide an expected lifespan for the Duo 2’s battery; those in similar devices typically maintain at least 80% of their original capacity for in excess of 500 full charge cycles. Microsoft charges an out-of-warranty service fee of £593.94 to repair devices and £568.44 to replace the battery. The previous generation Surface Duo scored only two out of 10 on iFixit’s repairability scale.
The Duo 2 runs Android 11 – not the latest Android 12 – and generally behaves like a standard Android smartphone or tablet with a few small additions that make it easier to use each screen separately. One of the best is the ability to drag the gesture bar at the bottom of an app to move it between screens or to drop it on to the gap between the screens to span it across both displays.
The software can be a bit unpredictable at times, such as opening the keyboard or text box of an app on another screen or hiding a second app from the screen when you try to type. But it is generally a fast and responsive experience given how unusual the device is.
The Duo 2 will receive three years of software updates from release, including monthly security patches, which is disappointingly at least a year short of what rivals, including Samsung and Apple, offer. Microsoft’s last planned update for the Duo 2 will be 21 October 2024.
The Duo 2 has a triple camera on the back and a 12-megapixel selfie camera above the right-hand screen.
The rear main 12MP camera and 2x telephoto cameras are good, capable of producing detailed shots in a range of lighting conditions. The 16MP ultra-wide camera is reasonable, but a bit soft on detail and struggles with challenging scenes. The camera app has most of the features you’d expect, such as portrait mode, night mode and slow-mo video, and can shoot regular video at up to 4K at 60 frames a second.
The 12MP selfie camera is capable of shooting detailed photos even in middling light, and has access to the dedicated night mode when it gets dark.
Overall, the camera system on the Duo 2 is solid, but it can’t hold a candle to the best in the business.
The Duo 2 supports Microsoft’s Slim Pen stylus, which can be magnetically stored and charged on the back of the device when not in use.
The stereo speakers are decently loud but a bit tinny, fine for watching YouTube videos.
The width of the device makes it a challenge to fit into smaller pockets.
The Surface Duo 2 costs £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319) with 128GB, £1,429 ($1,599/A$2,469) with 256GB or £1,589 ($1,799/A$2,769) with 512GB of storage.
The Surface Duo 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, but is still a very odd proposition that’s neither a good phone nor a good tablet.
The individual screens are short and stout, forcing lots of scrolling in apps when using it like a phone and making one-handed use very difficult. The gap at the hinge makes combining them into one big tablet screen awkward too.
Using two apps side-by-side works well, but few combinations proved useful or faster than just quick switching between two apps on one screen on a normal phone. There is more potential in apps like Outlook that provide a multi-pane view, but few apps or games are optimised for the dual-screen system.
Microsoft is only offering a disappointing three years of software and security updates from release for the Duo 2, too, losing it a star.
It is good to see Microsoft trying something different. But ultimately the Duo 2’s two screens are just not yet as good or useful as either a single phone screen or a bigger folding screen, making it an expensive halfway house.
Pros: two screens, two apps side-by-side, multiple modes, top performance, hardened glass screens, decent camera, head-turning design.
Cons: gap between screens, few optimised apps, average battery life, bulky camera lump, chunky in pocket, hard to use one-handed, no real water resistance, only three years of software updates from release.