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Activists want to ban police from using facial recognition — Amazon and Microsoft just opened the door

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (L) and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos visit before a meeting of the White House American Technology Council in the State Dining Room of the White House June 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Now that Amazon and Microsoft have put the future use by police of facial recognition in the hands of lawmakers, activists want to keep the technology away from law enforcement permanently.

It’s an issue that had previously been debated among artificial intelligence experts and policy wonks. But with Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, to varying degrees, backing away this week from their promoted use of facial recognition, they’ve raised awareness of the topic and placed it squarely in the discussion of police reform.

“The fact that companies like Microsoft and Amazon are distancing themselves from police use of facial recognition is a sign of the growing power of the movement,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit focused on technology and human rights. “The tectonic plates are shifting on this issue.”

But Fight for the Future and its affiliates see this as just a start. Amazon said Wednesday it is putting a one-year moratorium on sales to law enforcement to “give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules.” Microsoft followed on Thursday by saying that it won’t sell to police until a national law is in place, “grounded in human rights,” that governs its use. IBM did not specifically say it would ban police use of its facial recognition technology.

Greer’s group says those bans need to be permanent. Fight for the Future has a website, Ban Facial Recognition, where 40 participating organizations, including MoveOn.org and Greenpeace, have agreed to support “legislation that bans the government from using this dangerous technology to spy on the American public.” They say the technology is oppressive, ripe for abuse and prone to misidentifying people.

That sentiment is shared by at least some inside Amazon. A group that goes by “Amazonians: We Won’t Build It” on Twitter, responded to the company’s statement on Thursday, tweeting that ending the sale of Rekognition to law enforcement is a “demand shared by employees in Amazon’s Black Employee Network, the @ACLU, community groups, researchers, and others.”

And Timnit Gebru, a research scientist at Google in the ethical AI team, told The New York Times this week that law enforcement can’t be trusted with facial recognition technology. She cited the Baltimore police’s use of the technology in the protests following the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray “to identify protesters by linking images to social media profiles.”

“I’m a black woman living in the U.S. who has dealt with serious consequences of racism,” Gebru told the Times. “Facial recognition is being used against the black community.” 

A debate about the future

The argument is more about the future than the present, as facial recognition has yet to gain significant traction in law enforcement. Microsoft says it hasn’t sold at all into that market, and Amazon previously listed only one law enforcement customer — The Washington County Sheriff Office — on the website for its Rekognition software. 

Still, the prospect of police departments having access to sophisticated technology that allows them to find and track people, with few guardrails, has become untenable after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and the nationwide protests that followed. Tech companies, with their trillion-dollar market caps, have come under increased pressure from employees, investors and lawmakers to show they’re committed to addressing problems of systemic racism. 

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has held hearings on the use of facial recognition technology but hasn’t introduced a bill regulating it. Earlier this year, there was bipartisan support for some level of regulation, with Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, expressing concern about the use of facial recognition technology without accountability.

Crowds gather for a Black Lives Matter rally in Washington Square Park on June 6, 2020 in New York.

Noam Galai | Getty Images

“It is an issue that cuts across the political spectrum,” said Greer.

One reason that Greer and her allies support an outright ban is that any legislation that regulates facial recognition for police use will likely be influenced by Microsoft and Amazon and their massive lobbying arms in Washington, D.C.

“This seems consistent with the playbook,” Greer said. “They say they’re open to regulation or calls for regulation because they know their lawyers will help craft it and make sure it’s friendly to their business model.”

To keep their influence at bay, “we will need robust legislation that brings the hammer down and places an outright ban on facial recognition for surveillance purposes in the U.S.,” Greer said.

Representatives from Amazon and Microsoft didn’t respond to requests for comment.

WATCH: Amazon bans use of its facial recognition technology by police for one year

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/12/amazon-microsoft-face-opponents-of-police-use-of-facial-recognition.html

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Pinterest is reportedly in talks to acquire VSCO

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So what can Pinterest do to jump higher up the list of social networking sites? According to a report by the New York Times, one possibility is acquiring the owner of VSCO, the app for editing / sharing photos and videos that has brought in-depth tools to mobile users for years. Neither side directly confirmed the negotiations, and there’s no word on a possible price, but maybe combining forces can bring some Instagram-like glow. 

As it is, Pinterest is still mostly known for planning and organizing, and as the NYT article points out, other than some recent acquisitions, VSCO is currently best known for the “VSCO girls” meme.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/vsco-pinterest-014258107.html

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A sealed copy of ‘Super Mario Bros.’ just sold for $660,000

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A nearly perfect copy of Super Mario Bros. for the NES has sold for $660,000 at auction. In what turned out to be a 13-bidder contest, $550,000 went to the game’s original owner. The copy was one of the earliest shrink-wrapped versions of the games you could buy in the US (Super Mario Bros. eventually had 11 different box variants, according to WATA Games).

Heritage Auctions, the firm that oversaw the sale, told Ars Technica it dates back to late 1986. It was reportedly bought as a Christmas gift and sat unopened in a desk drawer for the better part of four decades. “I never thought anything about it,” the seller, who asked to remain anonymous, told the auction house.

The $660,000 this copy of Super Mario Bros. sold for is crazy when you consider the Nintendo PlayStation, a one-of-a-kind prototype representing a unique piece of gaming history, sold for $360,000 at auction last year. More recently, someone paid $156,000 to buy a pristine copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. It makes you wonder how much the owner would have walked away with had they simultaneously tried to cash in on the NFT craze somehow.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/super-mario-bros-auction-000001095.html

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‘Lost Tapes of the 27 Club’ used Google AI to ‘write’ a new Nirvana song

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Were he still alive today, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain would be 52 years old. Every February 20th, on the day of his birthday, fans wonder what songs he would write if he hadn’t died of suicide nearly 30 years ago. While we’ll never know the answer to that question, an AI is attempting to fill the gap.

A mental health organization called Over the Bridge used Google’s Magenta AI and a generic neural network to examine more than two dozen songs by Nirvana to create a ‘new’ track from the band. “Drowned in the Sun” opens with reverb-soaked plucking before turning into an assault of distorted power chords. “I don’t care/I feel as one, drowned in the sun,” Nirvana tribute band frontman Eric Hogan sings in the chorus. In execution, it sounds not all that dissimilar from “You Know You’re Right,” one of the last songs Nirvana recorded before Cobain’s death in 1994.

Other than the voice of Hogan, everything you hear in the song was generated by the two AI programs Over the Bridge used. The organization first fed Magenta songs as MIDI files so that the software could learn the specific notes and harmonies that made the band’s tunes so iconic. Humorously, Cobain’s loose and aggressive guitar playing style gave Magenta some trouble, with the AI mostly outputting a wall of distortion instead of something akin to his signature melodies. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Over the Bridge board member Sean O’Connor told Rolling Stone. Once they had some musical and lyrical samples, the creative team picked the best bits to record. Most of the instrumentation you hear are MIDI tracks with different effects layered on top.

One thing neither AI gave direction on is how exactly Cobain would have sung the song. Outside of cadence and tone, Hogan had to interpret how the grunge star, who famously suffered from crippling stomach pain, would have channeled his anguish into the lyrics.

Over the Bridge isn’t the first group to use AI to emulate a dead artist. But the intent here is different from similar past projects. “Drowned in the Sun” is part of the organization’s Lost Tapes of the 27 Club initiative. They set out to record AI-generated songs by musicians who died at the age of 27 to raise awareness about mental health resources musicians, and people more generally, can turn to when they feel they need help. The Toronto-based non-profit has a Facebook page where it offers support. It also offers online sessions and workshops.

If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or over an online chat.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/over-the-bridge-lost-tapes-of-the-27-club-223000315.html

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Microsoft’s online-only Build conference starts on May 25th

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Spring is fully upon us, which means the calendar is starting to fill up with high-profile tech events. And the latest addition? Microsoft confirmed today that its online-only Build developer conference will run between May 25th and May 27th, though there’s still no word on when registration will open. (If last year is any indication, our money is on “the end of April.”)

“Microsoft Build is where developers, architects, start-ups, and students learn, connect, and code together, sharing knowledge and expanding their skillset, while exploring new ways of innovating for tomorrow,” the company’s events page explains. 

Unfortunately, Microsoft has yet to update its Build-specific webpage with information about this year’s priorities or schedule, but we’re almost certainly looking at another packed event. Last year, Microsoft went on (among other things) about improved collaboration tools for its suite of Office productivity apps, an AI-focused supercomputer running on its Azure cloud platform, and new cloud tools designed specifically for healthcare practitioners. 

Historically, spring and summer are been jam-packed with large, in-person events where app and software developers get their first glimpse at upcoming platform and strategy updates, attend workshops and code reviews, and generally mingle with their colleagues. Starting last year, though, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has forced companies that stage these events to rapidly rethink their approaches.

Some, like Microsoft and Apple, quickly pivoted to informative online-only affairs that include full days worth of sessions, demos and fireside chats. (For what it’s worth, Apple announced this week that its own Worldwide Developer Conference will also proceed as an online-only event from June 7-11.) Meanwhile, Google has not yet confirmed whether it plans to stage its Google I/O developer conference at all this year — the company cancelled the show entirely in 2020, but said last month that it does plan to host some version of its annual Google Cloud Next event this October. 

Between a surge in COVID-19 vaccine production and news of relaxed restrictions for vaccinated travelers, Build 2021 may well be the last purely virtual developer conference Microsoft will ever need to put on. With any luck, devs will resume their pilgrimages to Seattle next year, and who knows — maybe those tiny emotional support horses from Build 2018 will show up again too.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/microsoft-build-2021-may-25-to-27-developer-conference-official-212230206.html

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