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What’s artificial intelligence best at? Stealing human ideas | Technology

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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.

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Copilot

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).

And:

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.

If you want to read more please subscribe to receive TechScape in your inbox every Wednesday.



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How to keep a support contract • The Register

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On Call Let us take a little trip back to the days before the PC, when terminals ruled supreme, to find that the more things change the more they stay the same. Welcome to On Call.

Today’s story comes from “Keith” (not his name) and concerns the rage of a user whose expensive terminal would crash once a day, pretty much at the same time.

The terminal in question was a TAB 132/15. It was an impressive bit of kit for the time and was capable of displaying 132 characters of crisp, green text on a 15-inch CRT housed in a futuristic plastic case. Luxury for sure, unless one was the financial trader trying to use the device.

Once a day, at around 13:30, the terminal would hang. The user would have to reach behind it, power it off, wait a bit, and then fire it back up again. To placate the angry customer, a replacement was dispatched, and all was well. Until the problem started again. Another replacement was made. Another week or so went by with no complaints. And again, another call: the terminal was hanging. Same time. A few times a week.

“These terminals were in the thousand-dollar range,” Keith told us, so a monthly replacement cycle was not really an option. He even used one of the faulty units himself for a while and encountered no issues, which was odd in itself and, we reckon, planted a seed of suspicion.

As for the customer, he was raging by this point. “He was threatening to cancel our contract for his entire firm,” remembered Keith, which would hit the bottom line hard. A salesperson was sent out to see what was happening, but there was no failure.

A technician went out; again no failure. Was this a case of “Technician Syndrome”, where a problem cannot be replicated in front of service personnel? Maybe. Keith’s team were at their wit’s end while the customer had hit the end of his tether and gone beyond.

The solution to the problem was accidental. Keith was back on site, diagnosing an unrelated software issue, but could see the suspect terminal on the other side of the room. As he watched, the trader using the machine sat back for lunch, flipping through the pages of a financial newspaper. A phone call came through, and the trader slung the paper on top of the monitor, took the call, and then resumed work.

Oblivious to the newspaper.

A few minutes later there was uproar. The trader had stood and was slapping the side of the terminal, yelling all manner of not-safe-for-work oaths and casting aspersions upon the good name of Keith’s firm, the software, the programmers, and the computing industry in general. The cursing continued as the trader reached behind for the power switch, knocking the paper aside.

Keith had his solution. But was smart enough to know that a bland presentation of facts would probably not help. Instead, he arranged for his office to call the trader and tell him that a tech was on the way to help. He waited until the trader was distracted and sauntered over.

“Sure enough,” said Keith, “he said he was glad to see me but launched into a tirade again about the device’s many faults.”

He let the customer vent for a while, and surreptitiously placed the newspaper back on top over the heat vents on the terminal while pretending to examine the rear of the unit.

Now patience was needed. It wouldn’t take long – the terminal had, after all, only just recovered from its last overheating episode – and Keith encouraged the trader to unload all his woes and grievances.

The bug list was building as the screen suddenly flickered and locked up. “There! You see that?” exclaimed the user. Keith nodded and reached round the side of the terminal to cycle the power. Sure enough, it came back up.

Keith made a show of thanking the user for showing him the elusive bug and was staging a call with a co-worker, supposedly to prepare a replacement, when the terminal locked up again.

Keith wrinkled his forehead at the “mystery” before offering up an explanation.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “Did you see how that flicker started from the top and moved to the down?”

Those familiar with the technology will know it was just following the raster pattern. The customer, on the other hand, did not.

“That is often a sign it is overheating,” said Keith, playing fast and loose with the truth, “but this office is cool?”

He pretended to be mystified until the penny dropped for the trader, who unleashed yet more expletives as he realised where he’d dropped his newspaper and snatched it away from the vents.

Feeling the volcanic heat spewing from the depths of the terminal, he turned to Keith, suddenly concerned: “Will it be OK?”

Of course it would. It had only been overheating for a short time every day. The apologies from the customer, who had “discovered” the problem, were profuse and copious. Keith excused himself, but not before rubbing a bit more salt into the wound by telling the user he needed to cancel the burn-in process of yet another expensive replacement.

As it turned out, rather than the customer cancelling the support contact, it ended up being extended.

“It was a good thing I’d let him ‘discover’ the fault,” said Keith. “If I had found it, he would have been very defensive and we still might have lost that contract.”

The minor bugs the user had reported while Keith had been waiting for the overheating to happen again were swiftly dealt with and the enhancement requests logged. Keith also reported back to his boss, who spent rather a lot of time laughing.

“It was a good day.”

Ever set the stage so the customer thinks they’re the hero of the hour? Or maybe you’ve wished all manner of unpleasantness upon your suppliers before realising the blame laid with you all along? Tell us about the time you picked up the phone with an email to On Call. ®

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NUIG to spend €5m on research to help address global issues

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Several key research areas have been identified by NUI Galway to work towards for 2026.

NUI Galway’s recently launched research and innovation strategy includes a €5m investment on support for its multi-disciplinary research teams as they grapple with several global issues.

The strategy, which lays out plans for the university’s next five years of research, focuses on six areas: antimicrobial resistance, decarbonisation, democracy and its future, food security, human-centred data and ocean and coastal health.

“As a public university, we have a special responsibility to direct our research toward the most pressing questions and the most difficult issues,” said to Prof Jim Livesey, VP for research and innovation at NUI Galway.

“As we look into the future, we face uncertainty about the number and nature of challenges we will face, but we know that we will rely on our research capacity as we work together to overcome them,” Livesey added.

The plan focuses on creating the conditions to intensify the quality, scale and scope of research in the university into the future. This includes identifying areas with genuine potential to achieve international recognition for NUI Galway. It also aims to continue to cultivate a supportive and diverse environment within its research community.

NUI Galway has research collaborations with 3,267 international institutions in 114 different countries. The university also has five research institutes on its Galway city campus, including the Data Science Institute, the Whitaker Institute for social change and innovation and the Ryan Institute for marine research.

Its research centres in the medtech area include Science Foundation Ireland’s Cúram and the Corrib Research Centre for Advanced Imaging and Core Lab.

The university will also continue to involve the public with its research and innovation plans through various education and outreach initiatives. It is leading the Public Patient Involvement Ignite network, which it claims, will “bring the public into the heart of research initiatives”.

Another key area identified in the strategy report is the development of partnerships with industry stakeholders. NUI Galway has spun out many successful companies in recent years, including medtechs such as AuriGen Medical, Atrian, Vetex Medical and Neurent.

According to MedTech Europe, Ireland has the highest number of medtech employees per capita in Europe along with Switzerland.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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France hails victory as Facebook agrees to pay newspapers for content | France

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France has hailed a victory in its long-running quest for fairer action from tech companies after Facebook reached an agreement with a group of national and regional newspapers to pay for content shared by its users.

Facebook on Thursday announced a licensing agreement with the APIG alliance of French national and regional newspapers, which includes Le Parisien and Ouest-France as well as smaller titles. It said this meant “people on Facebook will be able to continue uploading and sharing news stories freely amongst their communities, whilst also ensuring that the copyright of our publishing partners is protected”.

France had been battling for two years to protect the publishing rights and revenue of its press and news agencies against what it termed the domination of powerful tech companies that share news content or show news stories in web searches.

In 2019 France became the first EU country to enact a directive on the publishing rights of media companies and news agencies, called “neighbouring rights”, which required large tech platforms to open talks with publishers seeking remuneration for use of news content. But it has taken long negotiations to reach agreements on paying publishers for content.

No detail was given of the exact amount agreed by Facebook and the APIG.

Pierre Louette, the head of the media group Les Echos-Le Parisien, led the alliance of newspapers who negotiated as a group with Facebook. He said the agreement was “the result of an outspoken and fruitful dialogue between publishers and a leading digital platform”. He said the terms agreed would allow Facebook to implement French law “while generating significant funding” for news publishers, notably the smallest ones.

Other newspapers, such as the national daily Le Monde, have negotiated their own deals in recent months. News agencies have also negotiated separately.

After the 2019 French directive to protect publishers’ rights, a copyright spat raged for more than a year in which French media groups sought to find common ground with international tech firms. Google initially refused to comply, saying media groups already benefited by receiving millions of visits to their websites. News outlets struggling with dwindling print subscriptions complained about not receiving a cut of the millions made from ads displayed alongside news stories, particularly on Google.

But this year Google announced it had reached a draft agreement with the APIG to pay publishers for a selection of content shown in its searches.

Facebook said that besides paying for French content, it would also launch a French news service, Facebook News, in January – a follow-up to similar services in the US and UK – to “give people a dedicated space to access content from trusted and reputable news sources”.

Facebook reached deals with most of Australia’s largest media companies earlier this year. Nine Entertainment, which includes the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, said in its annual report that it was expecting “strong growth in the short-term” from its deals with Facebook and Google.

British newspapers including the Guardian signed up last year to a programme in which Facebook pays to license articles that appear on a dedicated news section on the social media site. Separately, in July Guardian Australia struck a deal with Facebook to license news content.

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