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IBM quits facial recognition, joins call for police reforms

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IBM quits facial recognition, joins call for police reforms

By MATT O’BRIEN AP Technology Writer

IBM is getting out of the facial recognition business, saying it’s concerned about how the technology can be used for mass surveillance and racial profiling.

Ongoing protests responding to the death of George Floyd have sparked a broader reckoning over racial injustice and a closer look at the use of police technology to track demonstrators and monitor American neighborhoods.

IBM is one of several big tech firms that had earlier sought to improve the accuracy of their face-scanning software after research found racial and gender disparities. But its new CEO is now questioning whether it should be used by police at all.

“We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies,” wrote CEO Arvind Krishna in a letter sent Monday to U.S. lawmakers.

IBM’s decision to stop building and selling facial recognition software is unlikely to affect its bottom line, since the tech giant is increasingly focused on cloud computing while an array of lesser-known firms have cornered the market for government facial recognition contracts.

“But the symbolic nature of this is important,” said Mutale Nkonde, a research fellow at Harvard and Stanford universities who directs the nonprofit AI For the People.

Nkonde said IBM shutting down a business “under the guise of advancing anti-racist business practices” shows that it can be done and makes it “socially unacceptable for companies who tweet Black Lives Matter to do so while contracting with the police.”

Krishna’s letter was addressed to a group of Democrats who have been working on police reform legislation in Congress fueled by the mass protests over Floyd’s death. The sweeping reform package could include restrictions on police use of facial recognition.

The practice of using a form of artificial intelligence to identify individuals in photo databases or video feeds has come under heightened scrutiny after researchers found racial and gender disparities in systems built by companies including IBM, Microsoft and Amazon.

IBM had previously tested its facial recognition software with the New York Police Department, although the department has more recently used other vendors. It’s not clear if IBM has existing contracts with other government agencies.

Many U.S. law enforcement agencies rely on facial recognition software built by companies less well known to the public, such as Tokyo-based NEC or the European companies Idemia and Cognitec, according to Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

A smaller number have partnered with Amazon, which has attracted the most opposition from privacy advocates since it introduced its Rekognition software in 2016.

Krishna’s letter called for police reforms and noted that “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling” and human rights violations.

Civil liberties advocates have raised concerns in recent weeks about the use of surveillance technology to monitor protesters or to enforce rules set to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

Even before the protests, U.S. senators this year had been scrutinizing New York facial recognition startup Clearview AI following investigative reports about its practice of harvesting billions of photos from social media and other internet services to identify people.

Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research on facial recognition bias helped spur IBM’s re-examination of the technology, said Tuesday she commends the congressional police reform package for seeking restrictions on the use of police body cameras to scan people’s faces in real time.

But she said lawmakers can go further to protect people from having governments scan their faces on social media posts or in public spaces without their knowledge.

“Regardless of the accuracy of these systems, mass surveillance enabled by facial recognition can lead to chilling effects and the silencing of dissent,” Buolamwini wrote in an email sent from Boston’s city hall, where she was testifying in support of a proposed ban on facial recognition use by municipal agencies. San Francisco and several other U.S. cities have enacted similar bans over the past year.

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Intel to sell NAND business to SKorean rival for $9 billion

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Intel has agreed to a $9 billion deal to sell most of its memory business to South Korea’s SK Hynix as it moves toward more diverse technologies while shedding a major Chinese factory at a time of deepening trade friction between Washington and Beijing.

Intel said it will keep its “Optane” business of more advanced memory products, which analysts say are mostly produced in the United States.

According to the plan confirmed by the companies on Tuesday, SK Hynix will acquire Intel’s NAND memory chip and storage business, including a related manufacturing site in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian. SK Hynix said the companies expect to get required governmental approvals for the deal by late 2021.

The transaction, if completed, could reportedly make SK Hynix the world’s second-largest provider of NAND flash memory chips behind Samsung Electronics, another South Korean chip giant.

Demand for flash memory has strengthened in recent months due to buying of personal computers and servers as the coronavirus pandemic forces millions to work from home.

Intel said it plans to invest proceeds from the transaction into advancing long-growth priorities, including technologies related to artificial intelligence and fifth-generation wireless networks.

“This transaction will allow us to further prioritize our investments in differentiated technology where we can play a bigger role in the success of our customers and deliver attractive returns to our stockholders,” Bob Swan, Intel’s CEO, said in a statement.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP).

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Is Facebook really ready for the 2020 election?

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Ever since Russian agents and other opportunists abused its platform in an attempt to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has insisted — repeatedly — that it’s learned its lesson and is no longer a conduit for misinformation, voter suppression and election disruption.

But it has been a long and halting journey for the social network. Critical outsiders, as well as some of Facebook’s own employees, say the company’s efforts to revise its rules and tighten its safeguards remain wholly insufficient to the task, despite it having spent billions on the project. As for why, they point to the company’s persistent unwillingness to act decisively over much of that time.

“Am I concerned about the election? I’m terrified,” said Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and an early Facebook investor turned vocal critic. “At the company’s current scale, it’s a clear and present danger to democracy and national security.”

The company’s rhetoric has certainly gotten an update. CEO Mark Zuckerberg now casually references possible outcomes that were unimaginable in 2016 — among them, possible civil unrest and potentially a disputed election that Facebook could easily make even worse — as challenges the platform now faces.

“This election is not going to be business as usual,” Zuckerberg wrote in a September Facebook post in which he outlined Facebook’s efforts to encourage voting and remove misinformation from its service. “We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.”

Yet for years Facebook executives have seemed to be caught off guard whenever their platform — created to connect the world — was used for malicious purposes. Zuckerberg has offered multiple apologies over the years, as if no one could have predicted that people would use Facebook to live-stream murders and suicides, incite ethnic cleansings, promote fake cancer cures or attempt to steal elections.

While other platforms like Twitter and YouTube have also struggled to address misinformation and hateful content, Facebook stands apart for its reach and scale and, compared to many other platforms, its slower response to the challenges identified in 2016.

In the immediate aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election, Zuckerberg offered a remarkably tone-deaf quip regarding the notion that “fake news” spread on Facebook could have influenced the 2016 election, calling it “a pretty crazy idea.” A week later, he walked back the comment.

Since then, Facebook has issued a stream of mea culpas for its slowness to act against threats to the 2016 election and promised to do better. “I don’t think they have become better at listening,” said David Kirkpatrick, author of a book on Facebook’s rise. “What’s changed is more people have been telling them they need to do something.”

The company has hired outside fact-checkers, added restrictions — then more restrictions — on political advertisements and taken down thousands of accounts, pages and groups it found to be engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” That’s Facebook’s term for fake accounts and groups that maliciously target political discourse in countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe.

It’s also started added warning labels to posts that contain misinformation about voting and has, at times, taken steps to limit the circulation of misleading posts. In recent weeks the platform also banned posts that deny the Holocaust and joined Twitter in limiting the spread of an unverified political story about Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, published by the conservative New York Post.

All this unquestionably puts Facebook in a better position than it was in four years ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s fully prepared. Despite tightened rules banning them, violent militias are still using the platform to organize. Recently, this included a foiled plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

In the four years since the last election, Facebook’s earnings and user growth have soared. This year, analysts expect the company to rake in profits of $23.2 billion on revenue of $80 billion, according to FactSet. It currently boasts 2.7 billion users worldwide, up from 1.8 billion at this time in 2016.

Facebook faces a number of government investigations into its size and market power, including an antitrust probe by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. An earlier FTC investigation socked Facebook with a large $5 billion fine, but didn’t require any additional changes.

“Their No. 1 priority is growth, not reducing harm,” Kirkpatrick said. “And that is unlikely to change.”

Part of the problem: Zuckerberg maintains an iron grip on the company, yet doesn’t take criticism of him or his creation seriously, charges social media expert Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor. But the public knows what’s going on, they said. “They see COVID misinformation. They see how Donald Trump exploits it. They can’t unsee it.”

Facebook insists it takes the challenge of misinformation seriously — especially when it comes to the election.

“Elections have changed since 2016, and so has Facebook,” the company said in a statement laying out its policies on the election and voting. “We have more people and better technology to protect our platforms, and we’ve improved our content policies and enforcement.”

Grygiel says such comments are par for the course: “This company uses PR in place of an ethical business model.”

Kirkpatrick notes that board members and executives who have pushed back against the CEO — a group that includes the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp — have left the company.

“He is so certain that Facebook’s overall impact on the world is positive” and that critics don’t give him enough credit for that, Kirkpatrick said of Zuckerberg. As a result, the Facebook CEO isn’t inclined to take constructive feedback. “He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. He has no oversight,” Kirkpatrick said.

The federal government has so far left Facebook to its own devices, a lack of accountability that has only empowered the company, according to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who grilled Zuckerberg during a July Capitol Hill hearing.

Warning labels are of limited value if the algorithms underlying the platform are designed to push polarizing material at users, she said. “I think Facebook has done some things that indicate it understands its role. But it has been, in my opinion, far too little, too late.”

By BARBARA ORTUTAY and DAVID KLEPPER Associated Press.

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UK Space Agency backs medical drone delivery project

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A medical drone delivery service founded by trainee doctors that aims to transport coronavirus samples, test kits and protective equipment between hospitals has won the backing of Britain’s Space Agency.

The start-up project can help free up healthcare staff, avoid courier waiting times and minimize the risk of virus transmission, authorities said Saturday.

Trainee doctors Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law are trialing “dronepad” infrastructure so the miniature aircraft can take off from and land on hospitals, laboratories and warehouses. They are planning to scale up the trials and set up a nationwide network of secure air corridors to enable the drone delivery service to work safely across National Health Service sites.

The hybrid drones — which have the rotors of a typical drone and the wings of a plane — can carry a maximum of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) and fly about 60 miles (96 kilometers.)

The drone project is among others set to share 1.3 million pounds ($1.7 million) of funding from the U.K. Space Agency and the European Space Agency to businesses developing space-based solutions for challenges created by Covid-19.

LONDON (AP).

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