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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Google, Apple and Microsoft reported record-breaking quarterly sales and profits on Tuesday night as the firms continue to benefit from a pandemic that has created a “perfect positive storm” for big tech.
Apple made a $21.7bn (£15.6bn) profit for the three-month period that ended in June, its best fiscal third quarter in its 45-year history, boosted by strong sales of the iPhone 12 and growth in its services business.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported second-quarter revenue of $61.8bn (£44.5bn), a 62% increase on the same period a year earlier, and a profit of over $18.5bn (£13.3bn), more than twice its profits for the same period last year. The company’s advertising revenues rose 69% from last year.
Microsoft, too, beat expectations, reporting revenues of over $46bn (£33bn) for the quarter – a rise of 21% compared to the same quarter last year.
The results come after Tesla reported a record profit on Monday in one of the busiest ever weeks for quarterly US earnings results. The big tech blowout earnings continue with Facebook on Wednesday and Amazon on Thursday.
Collectively, the market value of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook is now worth more than a third of the entire S&P 500 index of America’s 500 largest traded companies, as their share prices have soared during the pandemic.
Thomas Philippon, an economist and professor of finance at New York University, said big tech firms have been the biggest economic winners from the pandemic as global lockdowns have pushed more businesses and consumers to use their services.
“They were already on the rise and had been for the best part of a decade, and the pandemic was unique,” Philippon said. “For them it was a perfect positive storm.”
Analysts at Morgan Stanley reckon Alphabet is on course to achieve full-year net income of $65bn, a 59% increase on 2020. Its annual sales are, the bank reckons, on track for $243bn – a $60bn increase on last year.
Alphabet’s shares have risen by 75% in the past year to a record $2,670, but analysts predict they could climb higher still despite regulators around the world threatening to curb its dominance of the internet search market. Morgan Stanley said the stock could reach as high as $3,060, and even under a worse case scenario is unlikely to fall below $1,800.
Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said pandemic lockdowns had boosted Google as consumers spent more time online researching potential purchases. He said survey data showed that 54% of retailers ranked Google search products, including YouTube, as “their first place to go to research products online, up from 50% in past surveys”.
“Google websites growth is likely to rebound in ’21 as we believe there are several underappreciated products driven by mobile search, strong YouTube contribution, and continued innovation, such as Maps monetisation,” Nowak said in a note to clients.
Apple has been making so much money that over the past eight years it has bought back $421bn worth of shares, but it still has about $80bn of cash sitting on its balance sheet.
When Microsoft reported a 31% rise in profits at its last quarterly results, its chief executive, Satya Nadella, said it was “just the beginning” as the shift to digital technology was “accelerating” fast.
The share price rise of the big tech firms has made billions for their super-rich founders and early investors. Forbes magazine calculated recently that there are now 365 billionaires who made their fortunes in technology, compared with 241 before the pandemic.
Collectively, the world’s tech billionaires hold personal fortunes of $2.5tn, up 80% on $1.4tn in March 2020. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, remains the world’s richest person with an estimated $212bn fortune, and is closely followed in the league table of the wealthy by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk with $180bn, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with $151bn, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with about $138bn.
Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets.
He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it”.
The Tech Support Scams YouTube channel has been erased from existence in a blaze of irony as host and creator Jim Browning fell victim to a tech support scam that convinced him to secure his account – by deleting it.
“So to prove that anyone can be scammed,” Browning announced via Twitter following the attack, “I was convinced to delete my YouTube channel because I was convinced I was talking [to YouTube] support. I never lost control of the channel, but the sneaky s**t managed to get me to delete the channel. Hope to recover soon.”
To fool Browning, the ruse must have been convincing: “I track down the people who scam others on the Internet,” he writes on his Patreon page. “This is usually those ‘tech support’ call frauds using phone calls or pop-ups. I explain what I do by guiding others in how to recognise a scam and, more importantly, how to turn the tables on scammers by tracking them down.”
Browning has made a name for himself with self-described “scam baiting” videos, in which he sets up honeypot systems and pretends to fall for scams in which supposed support staffers need remote access to fix a problem or remove a virus – in reality scouring the hard drive for sensitive files or planting malware of their own.
“I am hoping that YouTube Support can recover the situation by 29th July,” Browning wrote in a Patreon update, “and I can get the channel back, but they’ve not promised anything as yet. I just hope it is recoverable.”
Whether Browning is able to recover the account, and the 3.28 million subscribers he had gathered over his career as a scam-baiter, he’s hoping to turn his misfortune into another lesson. “I will make a video on how all of this went down,” he pledged, “but suffice to say, it was pretty convincing until the very end.”
Tech support scams have been going on for about as long as people have needed technical support, but a report published by Microsoft last month suggested the volume may be declining. The same report found that the 18-37 age group was the most likely to fall victim – and that 10 per cent of those surveyed had lost money to a scammer.
YouTube was approached for an explanation of how deleted accounts could be restored and what precautions it has in place to prevent its users – even those with considerable experience in the field of con-artistry – from falling victim to tech support scams, but was unable to provide comment in time for publication.
Browning did not respond to a request for comment. ®
A member of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group spotted the humpback whale while out conducting a survey on marine life off the Donegal coast.
Marine mammal observer Dr Justin Judge described the moment he spotted a lone humpback whale off the coast of Donegal as “a dream sighting.”
Judge spotted the whale at 9.30 on the morning of 9 July while representing the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer.
The group of researchers and observers was out on the waters around 60 kilometres north-northwest of Malin Head when they saw the whale. They were carrying out the annual Western European Shelf Pelagic Acoustic (WESPAS) survey.
“This is a dream sighting for a marine mammal observer,” Judge said. He explained that the creature would be nicknamed Orion – which had a personal meaning for Judge and his family.
“The individual humpback whale ‘Orion’ has been named after the Greek mythological hunter, since the whale was moving with the fish stocks for food. It is also my son’s middle name so fitting on both fronts,” Judge said.
He added that the team had also observed “a lot of feeding action from a multitude of cetacean species that day, including bottlenose, common, Risso’s and white-sided dolphins, grey seals and minke whales.”
To date, the IWDG has documented 112 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, many of which are recorded year after year. Humpback whales are frequent visitors to Irish waters as they are an ideal feeding area for humpback whales stopping off in the area on their migration across the Atlantic.
The beasts are identifiable thanks to the distinctive pattern on the underside, which is unique to every individual whale.
“Observing any apex predator in its natural environment is exciting but a new humpback whale for Irish waters, this is special,” WESPAS survey scientist, Ciaran O’Donnell of the Marine Institute said.
The Marine Institute’s WESPAS survey is carried out annually, and surveys shelf seas from France northwards to Scotland, and west of Ireland. WESPAS is the largest single vessel survey of its kind in the Northeast Atlantic, covering upwards of 60,000 nautical miles every summer. The survey is funded through the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund under the Data Collection Programme which is run by the Marine Institute.