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Adapt’s mission to empower tech users with an ethical approach to AI

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Sam Cox finds out how the Adapt research centre puts the human at the centre of future digital technologies.

The Adapt research centre for AI-driven digital content technology is led by Trinity College Dublin but spread across eight third-level institutions in total. It is one of five Science Foundation Ireland research centres to receive next-stage funding in 2021.

Part of Adapt researchers’ work is to show how they are achieving impact. To convey data and stories to the Government and the public that demonstrate they are ‘doing the right thing’ with public investment.

Adapt’s metrics to date are impressive. The number of researchers the centre supports is doubling, from 199 up to almost 400. For every €1 publicly invested in Adapt, more than €5 is leveraged back to the Irish economy. And its combined research publications exceed 1,700 articles.

All of this represents advancement in the digital technology industry and illustrates Ireland’s increasingly significant global position in the area of AI and digital content technology.

‘Adapt’s research spans an arc from AI and content technologies to the fundamental principles for society’
– PROF VINCENT WADE

In its first phase, Adapt’s research focused on the digital technologies of the future. As these technologies become more and more seamless in our lives, we are examining how they are integrated into our world. But what does successful integration look like?

Adapt’s research will address these challenges under three areas, and the additional funding affords the team the opportunity to augment and expand its research expertise and talent reach across Europe.

Above all, human empowerment will be at the core of what their success means. Talking to centre director Prof Vincent Wade, he said Adapt is about making technology that “empowers us and does not make us feel slaves to the digital”. This might sound dramatic, but at the heart of their ethic is keeping the human in focus. As such, the first strand of Adapt’s research strategy focuses on digitally enhanced engagement.

Sustainable data use

Speaking about the evolution of Adapt into its second phase of funding, Wade stressed that their research is more interactive, and so much more fluid. “It is how to empower individuals to use this technology. How society can live in a digitally successful way. How to be protected in privacy and control, and to have the right governance in place to do this correctly. Adapt’s research spans this arc, from AI and content technologies to the fundamental principles for society.”

Wade emphasised the move towards systems only knowing what they need to know at the time they need to know it, and nothing else. He highlights that past perspectives often relied on collecting as much data as possible in order to personalise systems, but this no longer has to be the case.

Once the right information for the situation is in a program, superfluous data collection isn’t necessary and, in the interest of personal data rights, shouldn’t be collected. Increasing use of synthetic or generative data reduces privacy issues even further. Reducing the carbon footprint of the models is another benefit of this approach, as less data needs to be stored and processed. Sustainable data use and privacy-preserving models is the future, marking a move away from service providers who may be in the market of selling data.

Wade’s own area of research involves personalisation and adapting these technologies to the user. His three main metrics of success in this area are effectiveness, efficiency and user satisfaction. Effectiveness means that if you were trying to learn something online, at the end you feel you can solve the problem. Efficiency asks whether you were able to learn that concept faster than if you had just taken the general course. And user satisfaction is all about feeling supported and more confident. Did you feel in control? Did you feel that was helpful?

Poor personalisation in the past has been about prior experience. Wade explains that if the system knew you liked steak, then it would recommend more meat dinners. The more you like something, the more the system recommends it. To be satisfying, it is essential to know how humans operate. Designing systems that understand what a person is looking for, and which can integrate seamlessly into devices to empower the individual, is a central aim.

Machine translation

Language, then, is a key area for Adapt. Researchers here seek to capture, communicate and translate language in a way that feels genuine for its users.

With language at the heart of most human interaction – and as more and more of the world fits into your pocket – machine translation is closing the gap in an increasingly global economy. Adapt is at the forefront of bridging these cultural gaps.

The centre’s second strand of research looks at digital content transformation, and enabling content to flow freely across different languages, cultures and modalities via machine translation. Deputy director Prof Andy Way leads this area. He talks about the progress within his field and the billions of words translated every day by Google. Translation on this scale involves the balance of speed and accuracy to function effectively in the real world.

‘Adapt set up eight machine translation systems to support the sharing of all information that was known about Covid-19 in its early days’

This was no clearer than in Adapt’s rapid response to Covid-19. As with many researchers across the world, they contributed to helping where possible during the pandemic. Adapt set up eight machine translation systems to cross the language barrier and support the sharing of all information that was known about the virus in its early days.

Machine translation technologies often see only incremental improvements in accuracy and speed, with the effect of these changes perhaps not even registering with users. What does a 1pc increase in accuracy over the system six months ago actually mean on an individual basis? The priority, Way explained, isn’t necessarily how much better the translations are, but how much better users feel when seeing them. This is especially the case in the work of professional translators.

The user interface, the accessibility, the manner in which it empowers its translators – all of these are the metrics that are essential to the design. Up to now, empirical evidence measured fewer keystrokes, fewer edits required, and the reduction in the length of time spent editing, but these fail to assess the cognitive load on human translators. If a document took 45 minutes to translate rather than an hour, how did the translator perceive that time frame, and what did their interactions with the technology entail?

Augmenting the human experience to help translators do their work more quickly, rather than replacing workers with artificial intelligence trained on huge data sets, allows people to increase their free time. You can do the same work but more efficiently.

Real communication in a virtual world

If you think the complexity of spoken word can confuse a system, try introducing tone and body language. This is the work of Prof Naomi Harte who is heading up the digital content transformation strand at Adapt.

Speaking of Zoom video interaction, Harte said: “I’m interested in turn-taking. You speak, I speak, you speak. Human conversation doesn’t work like that – we overlap all the time. You send me little signals: ‘You can keep talking because I’m listening’. And then you send signals that I might need to stop because you want to take a go. And then I’ve worked out what I’m going to say before you’re finished.”

Speech, Harte pointed out, is multimodal. Think back to any conversation in a loud pub. While you’re looking at your friend speak, you can understand what they’re saying. If someone gets in the way, they become unintelligible. Often, unbeknownst to you, you have started to lip-read and integrate that information into your understanding. Head nods, facial expressions and hand gestures all feed into our communication processes.

‘I can read psychology literature but that’s no replacement for someone with that deep understanding that complements what I do’
– PROF NAOMI HARTE

Now, more than ever, many of us may have become acutely aware of this through our collective Zoom fatigue. Without our usual multimodal cues, it has become increasingly exhausting to communicate over the web.

“It’s the online equivalent of when you’re on a footpath and you don’t know whether to go left or right. Natural communication is challenging online. It’s great in one way – you still see people and engage with them – but there are a lot of complexities there,” said Harte.

Understanding these complexities and integrating their solutions into our technologies requires a multidisciplinary approach. “That’s one of the beauties of Adapt,” said Harte. “I can interact with people who have stronger knowledge in that area. I’m the engineer, at the end of the day, and I can read psychology literature but that’s no replacement for someone with that deep understanding that complements what I do. That’s the power of a centre like this.”

The answer to these complexities isn’t just more data. While many companies may boast about 98pc accuracy, or the ability to have better systems than their competitors, Harte’s work entails looking at the last 2pc. Those who are forgotten by the mainstream consumer.

“We look at niche groups, such as ageing speakers. Children’s speech is also very challenging. As a human, I don’t need to turn a knob in my brain to understand a strong accent, or someone who uses grammar incorrectly. Bad grammar turns a speech recognition system on its knees, whereas humans can still understand,” Harte explained.

Her team’s work in Adapt going forward is about addressing language with the least amount of data. This allows the technology to be applied across the board: to languages that are dying out, languages where use varies from its dictionary definition, or any communication with fewer speakers. Adaptive signal processing is central to Harte’s research and involves understanding the underlying commonalities of a signal and adapting to recognise them. Success isn’t just empowerment for the majority but considering the often-overlooked and making sure no one is left behind.

AI and society

When designing technologies for all of society, the bigger questions inherently branch into ethics. Within the centre, PhDs have included expertise in areas as diverse as religion, business, law and sociology. This is to be the focus of the third research strand.

Prof Dave Lewis says that these questions were present in the earlier iterations of Adapt but today, as we prepare for the societal transformations of a digitally mediated world post-Covid-19, this has become an increasing focus. And it’s not just because of obligations such as GDPR. It is the pressing need to anticipate the future implications of AI on society and related data governance obligations that merits this increase. No one currently has the answer.

What are the rules that organisations should have and should be conforming to as AI is rolled out with increasing frequency? The debate happens at multiple levels, and important questions have to be asked. Can businesses be trusted to implement these solutions, or do they need to happen at a governmental level? Are international bodies such as the European Union the solution instead?

Just as there are international recommendations concerning human rights or environmental practices, Lewis thinks that privacy, ethics and governance need to be considered at a global level. Some of these solutions are technical. One example is a consent receipt: a web cookie that contains the details of what you have signed (or signed away) when you hurriedly click ‘I agree’ on a webpage, and provides some user protection.

Other examples are more fundamental. Issues such as trustworthy AI and AI terminology: “Does everyone mean the same thing when they say AI? We’re now at the stage where we’re getting noticed at an international level and getting ratified. We’re providing and contributing to these technical standards, and we’re convening a lot of these [international] working groups,” said Lewis.

For Lewis and Adapt, it’s important to capture the range of the experiences that are affecting all levels of society. At the academic level, discussions and debates around best practice, where advice is also shared, are commonplace. But he also stressed that science that engages the public is crucial to a centre like Adapt.

Adapt has a Citizens’ Think-Ins programme designed to engage with the public and different communities to find out what they think. This has been made considerably more difficult since Covid-19 but capturing both sides of the coin is essential, as is ongoing engagement: being both transparent and accountable. It’s not enough to ask groups what they think, Lewis highlights. It is essential to feed this information back into the research.

With smart technology now ubiquitous, empowerment must be on the user’s terms. In delivering this, Adapt’s vision is for a technological world that is transparent, user-friendly, and ethical.

By Sam Cox

Sam Cox was named the science and technology winner in the 2020 National Student Media Awards (Smedias). This award category is sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland and includes a €1,000 bursary to support and encourage up-and-coming science and technology journalism.

The 2021 Smedias are now open for entries. The deadline for applications is 15 April 2021.

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NFT sales hit 12-month low after cryptocurrency crash | Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

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Non-fungible tokens have been swept up in the cryptocurrency crash as sales reached a 12-month low in June.

NFTs confer ownership of a unique digital item – often a piece of virtual art – upon someone, even if that item can be easily copied. Ownership is recorded on a digital, decentralised ledger known as a blockchain.

Sales of NFTs totalled just over $1bn (£830m) in June, according to the crypto research firm Chainalysis, their worst performance since the same month last year when sales were $648m. Sales reached a peak of $12.6bn in January.

“This decline is definitely linked to the broader slowdown in crypto markets,” said Ethan McMahon, a Chainalysis economist.

“Times like this inevitably lead to consolidation within the affected markets, and for NFTs we will likely see a pullback in terms of the collections and types of NFTs that reach prominence.”

The cryptocurrency market, worth about $3tn last November, is now worth less than $1tn.

NFTs rely on a blockchain – the decentralised ledger first used by bitcoin to track ownership of the cryptocurrency – to record who owns them and allow them to be traded. Most are based on the Ethereum blockchain, which is maintained through a carbon-intensive system called proof of work.

NFT chart

At its peak, the NFT market was attracting vaulting sums including $2.9m for a token of the first tweet by Twitter’s cofounder Jack Dorsey. A digital collage by the visual artist Beeple sold for $69m; the main token for the “play to earn” video game Axie Infinity hit a total value of $9.75bn; and Coca-Cola raised more than $575,000 from selling digital items such as a customised jacket to be worn in the metaverse.

According to the Chainalysis data, NFT sales peaked in January. In April an attempt to sell on the Dorsey NFT was abandoned when bids topped out at $14,000.

However, demand for so-called blue chip NFT collections has held up, according to DappRadar, a firm that tracks NFTs and blockchain-based video games.

The price of the cheapest NFT in the Bored Ape Yacht Club has declined by only 1%, to $90,00o, over the last month, according to DappRadar’s head of research, Pedro Herrera. “Blue chip collections are performing vastly better than the vast majority of NFTs,” he said.

NFT sales reached $40bn last year and the 2022 total has already exceeded that, at more than $42bn, according to Chainalysis. Sales in January and February accounted for more than half of the 2022 total so far.

The cryptocurrency market has come under pressure amid volatility in the wider stock markets, amid fears over rising inflation and higher interest rates, which have dampened appetite for riskier assets including tech stocks and digital assets.

Faith in crypto assets has also been shaken by the collapse of Terra, a so-called stablecoin whose value was supposed to be pegged to the US dollar, and troubles at crypto-related financial institutions such as the Celsius Network, a lender that has paused withdrawals.

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We speak to Purism’ CEO about the Librem 5 USA smartphone • The Register

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Interview In June, Purism began shipping a privacy-focused smartphone called Librem 5 USA that runs on a version of Linux called PureOS rather than Android or iOS. As the name suggests, it’s made in America – all the electronics are assembled in its Carlsbad, California facility, using as many US-fabricated parts as possible.

While past privacy-focused phones, such as Silent Circle‘s Android-based Blackphone failed to win much market share, the political situation is different now than it was seven years ago.

Supply-chain provenance has become more important in recent years, thanks to concerns about the national security implications of foreign-made tech gear. The Librem 5 USA comes at a cost, starting at $1,999, though there are now US government agencies willing to pay that price for homegrown hardware they can trust – and evidently tech enthusiasts, too.

We first wrote about the Librem 5 smartphone in 2017, considering it a privacy-centric device with a Linux OS. The Librem 5 USA, as noted, tries to use American companies with US fabrication “whenever possible.” It has a 5.7-inch 720×1440 screen with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a user-replaceable 4,500mAh battery.

The goal is to produce a phone that can be trusted from the hardware to the OS and apps, something that Apple and Google have become vocal about, too.

The Register spoke with Todd Weaver, founder and CEO of Purism, about how things are going.

Weaver said Purism is about two weeks away from actually holding stock and selling phones, which isn’t something the company, which began with crowdfunding, has previously had to do. In the past, people have pledged funds with orders, and it has later fulfilled them; now it’s building inventory in anticipation of sales.

“We’re actually transitioning to holding stock and pushing sales,” he explained. “We’ve never had to do that before. We’ve never had to do outbound sales.”

The phone, to start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware

Previously, said Weaver, the company’s growth has been a result of inbound requests for its products based on the material it has published about its projects.

“The phone, to kind of start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware,” said Weaver. “It runs on a CPU that is not normally in phones.”

That would be a quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 i.MX8M running at 1.5GHz. Weaver said Purism isolated the device’s baseband modem from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth “so that you can actually turn it off with a hardware kill switch. That basically becomes the ultimate in security.”

A key thing to realize here is that baseband modems are effectively small computers running in handsets and handle the cellular communications; if a modem is compromised or made to run rogue firmware, it can potentially take over the rest of the device, hence Purism’s desire to isolate it, if the user so wishes. In fact, it has three hardware kill switches: one to cut off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one for cellular, and one for the microphone and cameras. All three will cut off GPS, too.

The main printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) is made by Purism in the US, and its microprocessor, from Dutch semiconductor maker NXP, is also made stateside.

The chip, Weaver explained, “is normally in airplanes, in commercial-grade devices, and in cars. It’s a quad-core CPU. But the reason we had to do that was we wanted to properly isolate. So in every other phone that’s made, the baseband modem – the cellular modem – is attached to memory and CPU. Fundamentally the carriers have firmware access that’s lower than the operating system.”

To make the phone secure, Weaver said, to protect privacy and individual freedoms, Purism had to consider security at the hardware level and move up the stack.

“There are all sorts of ways that has to be solved,” he said. “We solve it from the hardware, software, applications, data, and even services.”

The point, said Weaver, is to be able to just take the device and have peace of mind and control over your own digital life.

“We started in 2014, initially just crowdfunding laptops,” said Weaver. “My goal was to produce phones. But I knew that I had to increment through because we had to show that we can manufacture devices. We can do hardware, software, and services. Our model is very similar to Apple in that regard – we produce hardware and we have an operating system that’s married to it, so that it works.

“And then we also include services that fully respect you. If you had an iPhone or an Android phone and a Purism phone like Librem 5 sitting all next to each other, the iPhone will leak probably about three gigabytes of data without doing anything. Android devices are worse. Ours will leak exactly zero bits – nothing is sent without your explicit interaction, to make a request for weather information or browsing the web.”

Research last year suggested Android and iOS beam back telemetry to base even when users opt out of these transmissions, and a complaint was raised in 2020 over what appeared to be Android’s mysterious wireless data transfers.

While working toward phone manufacturing with the release of the Librem laptop, mini PC, and servers, Weaver explained his company was refining PureOS, its Linux distribution. “It’s our operating system that doesn’t have any mystery code in it,” said Weaver. “It’s all the source code, from the bootloader on up.”

Librem 14

Purism’s quest against Intel’s Management Engine black box CPU now comes in 14 inches

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Purism, said Weaver, has been working on modifying the PureOS Linux kernel to conserve energy when idle.

“A lot of the things Android initially did to Linux, we are doing to mainline Linux, so that we can actually have these things idle down better,” he said. “Basically, it’s a better way to do nothing.”

He also said the processor tends toward the toasty side. “We pushed really hard with NXP, modified a bunch of Linux kernel development, so that we could get that cooler. It’s just that CPU runs hot. The next iteration, we’ll be using probably I.MX9 … that’s still probably two years away.”

Weaver also said some thought is being given to the possibility of soldering the currently modular modem in place, which would allow for thinner devices and would please government agencies that see a removable component as a security issue.

Asked what sorts of things are possible with a Librem phone that Android and iOS devices don’t offer, Weaver cited the way tethering works. Mobile providers often charge extras for tethering, but with a Librem 5 phone data is just data. He also pointed to disk encryption with user-controlled keys and chat applications that can handle multiple protocols, such as SMS, MMS, XMPP, and Matrix.

For people who want an alternative to Android or iOS, Weaver said it’s an easy sale. “I almost have to back them off to say that, you know, not all your apps are going to run there,” he said. “It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat.”

It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat

Given the benefit Apple and Google get from their respective app stores, it’s not surprising that Purism is trying to deal with what Weaver calls “the App Gap” – the vast number of mobile apps not available on PureOS at the moment.

“Initially, we developed a lot of the core applications,” said Weaver. “We also wrote a library that allows for all the existing GNU/Linux-based applications to shrink down and run on our mobile phone. So by doing that, you don’t have to write a new application, it’s just include our library, and it will now work on the phone.”

That takes some effort, Weaver conceded, and Purism has produced documentation and helped Linux developers adapt their existing apps.

Purism is also enhancing its PureOS Store by partnering with a group that’s funding Interledger, an open payment network federation system.

“We’re actually going to be adding to PureOS Store, which is equivalent to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, where we allow for people to charge a subscription or charge for an app,” said Weaver. “And then we also have the ability to pay bounties even, for apps that are really needed that aren’t yet developed. So basically, the solution to fill the App Gap is cash.”

“You have to incentivize developers by ‘Hey, you can get paid,'” he elaborated. “The ecosystem grows and also actually puts money towards that effort. Our business model – by selling hardware with high enough margin, having services that are attached – allows us to basically reinvest to fill the App Gap.”

Privacy has always been a tough sell in the tech industry, at least in a mass market context. But over the past decade, the Snowden revelations about the extent of government information gathering, constant privacy scandals, the online ad industry’s unrepentant intrusiveness, pushback against Big Tech and surveillance capitalism, and the always sorry state of data security have buoyed interest in privacy. Add to that trade tensions with China and the supply chain nationalism that has followed, not to mention competition and privacy regulations emerging in the US, UK, and EU, and it looks like an opportunity.

“We’re not make-or-break off any one of those issues,” said Weaver, “but by fundamentally targeting civil liberties, individual freedoms, and privacy rights, then all of those things come out, and as they do, we see an influx of sales.”

“We have devices in every letter-agency in the US and some governments from outside the US,” said Weaver. “And those devices can vary from air gap laptops, to phones and even phone service.”

Weaver declined to discuss Purism’s financial situation in detail, but said the Librem 5 crowdfunding campaign raised $2 million.

“Since then, we’ve grown by triple digits year over year and even during COVID-19, we had a growth year,” he explained. “So overall, our sales have continued to increase. And we’ve grown mostly from revenue, but we’ve also taken on north of $12 million in investment.”

Weaver said the total available market is huge – billions of people have cell phones.

‘When you’re looking at somebody who cares about privacy rights, or they care about ‘I don’t like Big Tech,’ or ‘I don’t like the duopoly a mobile phone the space,’ or ‘I don’t like the intrusion,’ or I would like to advance civil liberties,’ every one of those areas is a potential customer,” said Weaver. “And those areas are immense. So we have not had a demand problem. We have had a supply problem, from parts to actual availability.

“We lost probably about two years on specific parts to actually manufacture this device in the US. China still has a shortage. We’ve never had that lack of interest. Once we get to the point of actually holding stock, then we’re going to be able to resume promoting.”

Soon, then. ®

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This start-up is offering stressed techies the chance to switch off at its cabins

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Slow Cabins is coming to Ireland and aiming to tap into the trend for low-impact, sustainable, digital-free tourism.

A hospitality rental company targeting techies who want to digitally detox is preparing to welcome its first guests in Ireland.

Founded in 2017, Slow Cabins seeks to offer people the opportunity to spend time away from their tech lives in relaxed, remote and eco-friendly surroundings.

It is currently taking bookings in Ireland and will open its first cabins here from 1 August. As well as Ireland, the start-up has operations in Belgium and the Netherlands.

All of its cabin locations are secret to purposely encourage guests to switch off and detox from their day-to-day stresses. Guests book their cabins without knowing the exact location, but all cabins are located within a two-and-a-half hour drive from major cities.

Within about two weeks of the trip, guests receive details with the exact location of their cabin. Even then, they may have to park their cars and hike to get to their accommodation.

The idea behind Slow Cabins comes from low-impact and sustainable tourism. Cabins are equipped with queen-sized beds, log burners, solar panels, dry toilets, fire pits, grills and large windows. Each cabin is powered naturally by sunlight and water.

“Recent European studies show that our resilience improves and stress levels decrease by up to 70pc after a stay in nature,” said Slow Cabins Ireland director Matthew Parkinson.

“Getting away from it all brings peace, energy and a sense of perspective. And that’s where Slow Cabins have an interesting role to play in a fast ‘always-on’ society. Profit is not our only goal, but rather a means to create more positive social and environmental impact,” he added.

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