After the TRON acquisition, uTorrent and BitTorrent’s social media channels have been predominantly ‘crypto’ oriented.
The core audience of the file-sharing clients, which still consists of millions of users, remains mostly interested in downloading and sharing files though.
This is something uTorrent still does well and the same is true for the BitTorrent Mainline client. However, new users of these clients have repeatedly been warned not to use the software by several leading anti-virus vendors.
In the past BitTorrent Inc. classified such warnings as false positives which it could resolve relatively easily. While that may be true, it appears that the problem is rather persistent and likely more structural than some would think.
After alarmed users reported the issue in uTorrent’s forums this week, we decided to scan the latest release for potential threats. According to VirusTotal, nine separate anti-virus vendors currently flag the software as problematic.
This includes the popular Windows Defender, which labels the torrent client as a severe threat. While that sounds scary, the detailed description shows that it may include “Potentially Unwanted Software,” a term commonly used for adware.
This is not the first time uTorrent has had this problem. Microsoft has flagged the torrent client in the past as well, as the dedicated Utorrent threat page shows as well. This flag was later removed, presumably after the software was updated, but now they are back in full force.
Other anti-virus tools that warn users against uTorrent include Comodo, drWeb, Eset and Sophos, as the list below shows.
It’s unclear what has triggered the recent warnings. According to VirusTotal, two anti-virus companies mention “Web Companion” as the problem. This likely points to Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware software, which is sometimes bundled with uTorrent.
The warnings are not limited to the uTorrent desktop client either. The BitTorrent Mainline client, which shares most of its code with uTorrent, is also flagged as harmful by eight anti-virus tools and uTorrent web by four.
When similar issues occurred early last year, uTorrent parent company BitTorrent Inc. informed us that a “false positive” was triggered by one of their releases. However, if these are indeed false positives, they are recurring ones.
We reached out to the company for a comment on our findings, but at the time of writing, we have yet to hear back.
Any uTorrent users who receive the warning should proceed at their own risk. When we installed the most recent uTorrent we didn’t spot anything nefarious being installed but, in the past, we have noticed that the client was bundled with adware.
Stuck for what to buy your friends and family this Christmas? Whether you’re looking to introduce someone to Raspberry Pi and coding, or trying to find the perfect gift for the tech-mad hobbyist in your life, our Christmas Shopping Guide 2019 will help you complete your shopping list. So, let’s get started…
The good ol’ Raspberry Pi
They’ve asked for a Raspberry Pi but not told you which one they want? You know they like coding but don’t know where to start? They’re an avid baker and you think they may have spelt ‘pie’ wrong on their Christmas list? No problem, we’ve got you sorted.
Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit
With everything you need to get started using Raspberry Pi 4, the Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit contains our official mouse, keyboard with an integrated USB hub, USB-C power adapter, case, two micro HDMI leads, our Beginner’s Guide and, of course, the 4GB Raspberry Pi 4. Available from our Approved Resellers and the Raspberry Pi Store, Cambridge, the Desktop Kit is the perfect gift for anyone who’s wanting to get started with coding and digital making, or who’s simply looking to upgrade their current home computer to a smaller, less power-hungry setup.
The smallest Raspberry Pi still packs a punch despite its size and price. For $10, Raspberry Pi Zero W is perfect for embedding into projects and, with onboard Bluetooth and wireless LAN, there are fewer cables to worry about. Buy a Raspberry Pi Zero W with or without pre-soldered header pins, and pop it in someone’s stocking this Christmas as a great maker surprise.
This isn’t just a book: it’s a book with a computer on the front. Getting Started with Raspberry Pi is a great gift for anyone curious about coding and, at £35, it’s a pretty affordable gift to give this festive season. Alongside the 116-page getting-started guide, the package also contains a Raspberry Pi 3A+, official case, and 16GB micro SD card pre-loaded with NOOBs. Raspberry Pi 3A+ can be powered with a good-quality micro USB phone charger, and it can be connected to any TV or computer display via standard HDMI. Grab a keyboard and mouse — you’ll be surprised how many people have a keyboard and mouse lying around — and you’re good to go!
A full range of all Raspberry Pi variants, official accessories, and add-ons can be found on our products page.
A Raspberry Pie
Don’t be lazy, make your own!
Raspberry Pi Press has released a small library’s worth of publications these last few months — have you ordered all your copies yet?
Pre-orders are now open for our glorious Code the Classics, so secure your copy now for the 13 December release date, with free UK shipping. And, while you’re on our Raspberry Pi Press page, check out our latest range of publications to suit all techy interests: Retro Gaming with Raspberry Pi will show the budding gamer in your life how to build their own Raspberry Pi retro arcade to play their Code the Classics favourites on, while Book of Making 2 and Raspberry Pi Projects Book 5 will inspire them to make all manner of amazing projects, from electronics and woodworking to crafts and rockets.
Everyone needs a Babbage Bear. Your new Babs will come complete with their own Raspberry Pi-branded shirt. And, with some felt, stuffing, and a stapler, you can make them as festive as ours in no time!
This newest iteration of The Pi Hut 3D Xmas Tree includes programmable RGB LEDs! Simply detach the two halves of the tree from their frame, slot them together, and place them onto the GPIO pins of your Raspberry Pi. With the provided libraries of code, the tree will be lit up and merry before you know it.
Full instructions are provided with the kit, and are also available online. Buy the kit pre-soldered or loose, depending on your giftee’s soldering skills.
Visit the websites of all our Approved Resellers for more great Raspberry Pi gifts. Find your local Approved Reseller by selecting your country from the dropdown menu on any Raspberry Pi Products page.
Fill their maker kit this festive season, with a whole host of great components and tools. A soldering iron is a great way for coders to start bringing their projects out into the real world, allowing them to permanently add sensors, lights, buttons, etc. to their Raspberry Pi. They’ll also need one if they want to add header pins to the $5 Raspberry Pi Zero and $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W.
You can never have enough LEDs. Available in a variety of sizes and colours, you can find packs of LEDs online or in your local electronics store.
Never underestimate the importance of a cutting mat. Not only will it save your tabletop from craft knife cuts and soldering iron burns, but they also look great in photos for when its time to show of their latest project!
If you plan on making online purchases via Amazon, please consider selecting the Raspberry Pi Foundation via Amazon Smile! Your items will still be the same cost to you, but Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price to help us continue to make free computer science education available to adults and young people everywhere.
For those of you based elsewhere, we’re pretty sure that you just need to add smile. before amazon in the Amazon web address you use in your country, so give that a try. If that doesn’t work, try searching for Amazon Smile via your prefered search engine.
Our gift to you
We wanted to give you a gift this festive season, so we asked the incredibly talented Sam Alder to design an illustration for you to print or use as your desktop wallpaper.
The poster is completely free for you to use and can be opened by clicking on the image above. We just ask that you don’t sell it, print it onto a t-shirt or mug, tattoo it onto your body, or manipulate it. But do feel free to print it as a poster for your home, classroom, or office, or to upload it as your computer wallpaper. And, when you do, be sure to take a photo and share it with us on social media.
William Tolley has disclosed a severe VPN-related problem in most current systems: “I am reporting a vulnerability that exists on most Linux distros, and other *nix operating systems which allows a network adjacent attacker to determine if another user is connected to a VPN, the virtual IP address they have been assigned by the VPN server, and whether or not there is an active connection to a given website. Additionally, we are able to determine the exact seq and ack numbers by counting encrypted packets and/or examining their size. This allows us to inject data into the TCP stream and hijack connections.” There are various partial mitigations available, but a full solution to the problem has not yet been worked out. Most VPNs are vulnerable, but Tor evidently is not.
Responding to incidents of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online has been a priority at Cloudflare from the beginning. The stories of CSAM victims are tragic, and bring to light an appalling corner of the Internet. When it comes to CSAM, our position is simple: We don’t tolerate it. We abhor it. It’s a crime, and we do what we can to support the processes to identify and remove that content.
In 2010, within months of Cloudflare’s launch, we connected with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and started a collaborative process to understand our role and how we could cooperate with them. Over the years, we have been in regular communication with a number of government and advocacy groups to determine what Cloudflare should and can do to respond to reports about CSAM that we receive through our abuse process, or how we can provide information supporting investigations of websites using Cloudflare’s services.
Recently, 36 tech companies, including Cloudflare, received this letter from a group of U.S Senators asking for more information about how we handle CSAM content. The Senators referred to influential New York Times stories published in late September and early November that conveyed the disturbing number of images of child sexual abuse on the Internet, with graphic detail about the horrific photos and how the recirculation of imagery retraumatizes the victims. The stories focused on shortcomings and challenges in bringing violators to justice, as well as efforts, or lack thereof, by a group of tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Dropbox, to eradicate as much of this material as possible through existing processes or new tools like PhotoDNA that could proactively identify CSAM material.
We think it is important to share our response to the Senators (copied at the end of this blog post), talk publicly about what we’ve done in this space, and address what else we believe can be done.
How Cloudflare Responds to CSAM
From our work with NCMEC, we know that they are focused on doing everything they can to validate the legitimacy of CSAM reports and then work as quickly as possible to have website operators, platform moderators, or website hosts remove that content from the Internet. Even though Cloudflare is not in a position to remove content from the Internet for users of our core services, we have worked continually over the years to understand the best ways we can contribute to these efforts.
The first prong of Cloudflare’s response to CSAM is proper reporting of any allegation we receive. Every report we receive about content on a website using Cloudflare’s services filed under the “child pornography” category on our abuse report page leads to three actions:
We forward the report to NCMEC. In addition to the content of the report made to Cloudflare, we provide NCMEC with information identifying the hosting provider of the website, contact information for that hosting provider, and the origin IP address where the content at issue can be located.
We forward the report to both the website operator and hosting provider so they can take steps to remove the content, and we provide the origin IP of where the content is located on the system so they can locate the content quickly. (Since 2017, we have given reporting parties the opportunity to file an anonymous report if they would prefer that either the host or the website operator not be informed of their identity).
We provide anyone who makes a report information about the identity of the hosting provider and contact information for the hosting provider in case they want to follow up directly.
Since our founding, Cloudflare has forwarded 5,208 reports to NCMEC. Over the last three years, we have provided 1,111 reports in 2019 (to date), 1,417 in 2018, and 627 in 2017.
Reports filed under the “child pornography” category account for about 0.2% of the abuse complaints Cloudflare receives. These reports are treated as the highest priority for our Trust & Safety team and they are moved to the front of the abuse response queue. We are generally able to respond by filing the report with NCMEC and providing the additional information within a matter of minutes regardless of time of day or day of the week.
Requests for Information
The second main prong of our response to CSAM is operation of our “trusted reporter” program to provide relevant information to support the investigations of nearly 60 child safety organizations around the world. The “trusted reporter” program was established in response to our ongoing work with these organizations and their requests for both information about the hosting provider of the websites at issue as well as information about the origin IP address of the content at issue. Origin IP information, which is generally sensitive security information because it would allow hackers to circumvent certain security protections for a website, like DDoS protections, is provided to these organizations through dedicated channels on an expedited basis.
Like NCMEC, these organizations are responsible for investigating reports of CSAM on websites or hosting providers operated out of their local jurisdictions, and they seek the resources to identify and contact those parties as quickly as possible to have them remove the content. Participants in the “trusted reporter” program include groups like the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the INHOPE Foundation, the Australian eSafety Commission, and Meldpunt. Over the past five years, we have responded to more than 13,000 IWF requests, and more than 5,000 requests from Meldpunt. We respond to such requests on the same day, and usually within a couple of hours. In a similar way, Cloudflare also receives and responds to law enforcement requests for information as part of investigations related to CSAM or exploitation of a minor.
Among this group, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection has been engaged in a unique effort that is worthy of specific mention. The Centre’s Cybertip program operates their Project Arachnid initiative, a novel approach that employs an automated web crawler that proactively searches the Internet to identify images that match a known CSAM hash, and then alerts hosting providers when there is a match. Based on our ongoing work with Project Arachnid, we have responded to more than 86,000 reports by providing information about the hosting provider and provide the origin IP address, which we understand they use to contact that hosting provider directly with that report and any subsequent reports.
Although we typically process these reports within a matter of hours, we’ve heard from participants in our “trusted reporter” program that the non-instantaneous response from us causes friction in their systems. They want to be able to query our systems directly to get the hosting provider and origin IP information, or better, be able to build extensions on their automated systems that could interface with the data in our systems to remove any delay whatsoever. This is particularly relevant for folks in the Canadian Centre’s Project Arachnid, who want to make our information a part of their automated system. After scoping out this solution for a while, we’re now confident that we have a way forward and informed some trusted reporters in November that we will be making available an API that will allow them to obtain instantaneous information in response to their requests pursuant to their investigations. We expect this functionality to be online in the first quarter of 2020.
Termination of Services
Cloudflare takes steps in appropriate circumstances to terminate its services from a site when it becomes clear that the site is dedicated to sharing CSAM or if the operators of the website and its host fail to take appropriate steps to take down CSAM content. In most circumstances, CSAM reports involve individual images that are posted on user generated content sites and are removed quickly by responsible website operators or hosting providers. In other circumstances, when operators or hosts fail to take action, Cloudflare is unable on its own to delete or remove the content but will take steps to terminate services to the website. We follow up on reports from NCMEC or other organizations when they report to us that they have completed their initial investigation and confirmed the legitimacy of the complaint, but have not been able to have the website operator or host take down the content. We also work with Interpol to identify and discontinue services from such sites they have determined have not taken steps to address CSAM.
Based upon these determinations and interactions, we have terminated service to 5,428 domains over the past 8 years.
In addition, Cloudflare has introduced new products where we do serve as the host of content, and we would be in a position to remove content from the Internet, including Cloudflare Stream and Cloudflare Workers. Although these products have limited adoption to date, we expect their utilization will increase significantly over the next few years. Therefore, we will be conducting scans of the content that we host for users of these products using PhotoDNA (or similar tools) that make use of NCMEC’s image hash list. If flagged, we will remove that content immediately. We are working on that functionality now, and expect it will be in place in the first half of 2020.
Part of an Organized Approach to Addressing CSAM
Cloudflare’s approach to addressing CSAM operates within a comprehensive legal and policy backdrop. Congress and the law enforcement and child protection communities have long collaborated on how best to combat the exploitation of children. Recognizing the importance of combating the online spread of CSAM, NCMEC first created the CyberTipline in 1998, to provide a centralized reporting system for members of the public and online providers to report the exploitation of children online.
In 2006, Congress conducted a year-long investigation and then passed a number of laws to address the sexual abuse of children. Those laws attempted to calibrate the various interests at stake and coordinate the ways various parties should respond. The policy balance Congress struck on addressing CSAM on the Internet had a number of elements for online service providers.
First, Congress formalized NCMEC’s role as the central clearinghouse for reporting and investigation, through the CyberTipline. The law adds a requirement, backed up by fines, for online providers to report any reports of CSAM to NCMEC. The law specifically notes that to preserve privacy, they were not creating a requirement to monitor content or affirmatively search or screen content to identify possible reports.
Second, Congress responded to the many stories of child victims who emphasized the continuous harm done by the transmission of imagery of their abuse. As described by NCMEC, “not only do these images and videos document victims’ exploitation and abuse, but when these files are shared across the internet, child victims suffer re-victimization each time the image of their sexual abuse is viewed” even when viewed for ostensibly legitimate investigative purposes. To help address this concern, the law directs providers to minimize the number of employees provided access to any visual depiction of child sexual abuse.
Finally, to ensure that child safety and law enforcement organizations had the records necessary to conduct an investigation, the law directs providers to preserve not only the report to NCMEC, but also “any visual depictions, data, or other digital files that are reasonably accessible and may provide context or additional information about the reported material or person” for a period of 90 days.
Because Cloudflare’s services are used so extensively—by more than 20 million Internet properties, and based on data from W3Techs, more than 10% of the world’s top 10 million websites—we have worked hard to understand these policy principles in order to respond appropriately in a broad variety of circumstances. The processes described in this blogpost were designed to make sure that we comply with these principles, as completely and quickly as possible, and take other steps to support the system’s underlying goals.
We are under no illusion that our work in this space is done. We will continue to work with groups that are dedicated to fighting this abhorrent crime and provide tools to more quickly get them information to take CSAM content down and investigate the criminals who create and distribute it.
Security updates have been issued by Debian (libav), Fedora (kernel, libuv, and nodejs), Oracle (firefox), Red Hat (firefox and java-1.7.1-ibm), SUSE (clamav, cloud-init, dnsmasq, dpdk, ffmpeg, munge, opencv, and permissions), and Ubuntu (librabbitmq).
One quote of mine: “The problem is our brains are intuitively suited to the sorts of risk management decisions endemic to living in small family groups in the East African highlands in 100,000 BC, and not to living in the New York City of 2008.”
The Pirate Bay has been operating one of its original domains – thepiratebay.org – for well over 15 years. During that same period, it has also burned through countless others due to anti-piracy action all around the globe.
The Pirate Bay is also one of the most blocked platforms on the planet for the same reason, something that has led to the creation of hundreds of proxy sites, set up to facilitate access to the index, regardless of which official domain is in use.
Last evening the operator of a site that indexes links to some of these proxies told TorrentFreak that their owners had noticed that The Pirate Bay’s Onion site had been down for several hours, which is unusual. After further investigation, it was discovered that the site had switched from the extremely messy uj3wazyk5u4hnvtk.onion to piratebayztemzmv.onion.
Accessible via the Tor browser, for example, Onion domains grant access to the so-called ‘dark web’, which is a fancy way of describing sites and services that aren’t visible using a normal search engine or accessible by regular means. In the case of TPB, being hidden inside the Tor network also provides extra security for the raid and lawsuit-prone index.
While there has been no official announcement from TPB’s operators about the Onion domain switch, the new address can now be seen when hovering over the ‘Tor’ link on the site. Exactly why the site’s operators made the change isn’t entirely clear, however.
The new Onion domain is certainly easier to read than the old one, but still not easy to remember. That being said, it is an improvement over its predecessor and now is probably a very good time to get everyone familiar with it.
As reported here recently, the Internet Society is in the process of selling the Public Interest Registry which currently controls The Pirate Bay’s .org domain. As a result, there are concerns that the new owners may throw the infamous domain overboard on copyright grounds.
If that does indeed happen, the Onion domain will certainly come in handy, as will the hundreds of pre-existing proxy sites currently doing a dance around dozens of blockades, all around the world.
For the last couple of months, Prashanth Chandrasekar has been getting settled in as the new CEO of Stack Overflow. I’m still going on some customer calls and have a weekly meeting with him, but I have freed up a lot of time. I’m also really enjoying discovering just how little I knew about running medium-sized companies, as I watch Prashanth rearrange everything—for the better. It’s really satisfying to realize that the best possible outcome for me is if he proves what a bad CEO I was by doing a much better job running the company.
Even though I live in Manhattan’s premier NORC (“Naturally Occurring Retirement Community,”) I’m thinking of this time as a sabbatical, not retirement. And in fact I’m really, really busy, and, in the interest of deflecting a million questions about what I’m doing nowadays, thought I’d update my long-suffering readers here.
I’m chairman of three companies. You probably know all about Stack Overflow so I’ll skip ahead.
Fog Creek Software has been renamed Glitch, “the friendly community for building the web.” Under CEO Anil Dash, they have grown to millions of apps and raised a decent round of money to accelerate that growth. I think that in every era there has to be some kind of simplified programming environment for the quiet majority of developers who don’t need fancy administration features for their code, like git branches or multistep deployment processes; they just want to write code and have it run. Glitch is aimed at those developers.
The third company, HASH, is still kind of under the radar right now, although today they put a whole bunch of words up on their website so I guess I can give you a preview. HASH is building an open source platform for doing simulations. It’s a great way to model problems where you have some idea of how every agent is supposed to behave, but you don’t really know what all that is going to add up to.
For example, suppose you’re a city planner and you want to model traffic so that you can make a case for a new bus line. You can, sort of, pretend that every bus takes 50 cars off the road, but that’s not going to work unless you can find 50 commuters who will all decide to take your new bus line… and the way they decide is that they check if the bus is actually going to save them time and money over just driving. This is a case where you can actually simulate the behavior of every “agent” in your model, like Cities: Skylines does, and figure out the results. Then you can try thousands or millions of different potential bus routes and see which ones actually reduce traffic.
This kind of modeling is incredibly computationally intensive, but it works even when you don’t have a closed-form formula for how bus lines impact traffic, or, in general, how individual agents’ behavior affects overall outcomes. This kind of tool will be incredibly useful in far-ranging problems, like epidemiology, econometrics, urban planning, finance, political science, and a lot of other areas which are not really amenable to closed-form modeling or common “AI” techniques. (I love putting AI in “scare” “quotes”. There are a lot of startups out there trying to train machine learning models with way too little data. Sometimes the models they create just reproduce the bad decision making of the humans they are trained on. In many cases a model with simulated agents running a white box algorithm is going to be superior).
Ok, so those are the three companies I’m still working on in some way or another. That still leaves me with a couple of free days every week which I’m actually using to work on some electronics projects.
In particular, I’m really into pixel-addressable RGB LEDs, like those WS2812b and APA102-type things. Right now I’m working on designing a circuit board that connects a Teensy 3.2 controller, which can drive up to 4416 LEDs at a high frame rate, to a WizNET Ethernet adapter, and then creating some software which can be used to distribute 4416 pixels worth of data to each Teensy over a TCP-IP network in hopes of creating huge installations with hundreds of thousands of pixels. If that made any sense at all, you’re probably already a member of the LEDs ARE AWESOME Facebook group and you probably think I’m dumb. If that doesn’t make any sense, rest assured that I am probably not going to burn down the apartment because I am very careful with the soldering iron almost every time.
When mobile manipulators eventually make it into our homes, self-repair is going to be a very important function. Hopefully, these robots will be durable enough that they won’t need to be repaired very often, but from time to time they’ll almost certainly need minor maintenance. At Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, researchers from the University of Tokyo showed how they taught a PR2 to perform simple repairs on itself by tightening its own screws. And using that skill, the robot was also able to augment itself, adding accessories like hooks to help it carry more stuff. Clever robot!
In 2016, London-based DeepMind Technologies, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is also the parent company of Google), startled industry watchers when it reported that the application of artificial intelligence had reduced the cooling bill at a Google data center by a whopping 40 percent. What’s more, we learned that year, DeepMind was starting to work with the National Grid in the United Kingdom to save energy throughout the country using deep learning to optimize the flow of electricity.
Could AI really slash energy usage so profoundly? In the three years that have passed, I’ve searched for articles on the application of AI to other data centers but find no evidence of important gains. What’s more, DeepMind’s talks with the National Grid about energy have broken down. And the financial results for DeepMind certainly don’t suggest that customers are lining up for its services: For 2018, the company reported losses of US $571 million on revenues of $125 million, up from losses of $366 million in 2017. Last April, The Economist characterized DeepMind’s 2016 announcement as a publicity stunt, quoting one inside source as saying, “[DeepMind just wants] to have some PR so they can claim some value added within Alphabet.”
This episode encouraged me to look more deeply into the economic promise of AI and the rosy projections made by champions of this technology within the financial sector. This investigation was just the latest twist on a long- standing interest of mine. In the early 1980s, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the economics of robotics and AI, and throughout my career as a professor and technology consultant I have followed the economic projections for AI, including detailed assessments by consulting organizations such as Accenture,PricewaterhouseCoopers International (PwC), and McKinsey.
Other forecasts have focused on specific sectors such as retail, energy, education, and manufacturing. In particular, the McKinsey Global Institute assessed the impact of AI on these four sectors in a 2017 report titled Artificial Intelligence: The New Digital Frontier? and did so for a much longer list of sectors in a 2018 report. In the latter, the institute concluded that AI techniques “have the potential to create between $3.5 trillion and $5.8 trillion in value annually across nine business functions in 19 industries. This constitutes about 40 percent of the overall $9.5 trillion to $15.4 trillion annual impact that could potentially be enabled by all analytical techniques.”
Wow. These are big numbers. If true, they create a powerful incentive for companies to pursue AI—with or without help from McKinsey consultants. But are these predictions really valid?
Many of McKinsey’s estimates were made by extrapolating from claims made by various startups. For instance, its prediction of a 10 percent improvement in energy efficiency in the U.K. and elsewhere was based on the purported success of DeepMind and also of Nest Labs, which became part of Google’s hardware division in 2018. In 2017, Nest, which makes a smart thermostat and other intelligent products for the home, lost $621 million on revenues of $726 million. That fact doesn’t mesh with the notion that Nest and similar companies are contributing, or are poised to contribute, hugely to the world economy.
So I decided to investigate more systematically how well such AI startups were doing. I found that many were proving not nearly as valuable to society as all the hype would suggest. This assertion will certainly rub a lot of people the wrong way, the analysts at McKinsey among them. So I’d like to describe here how I reached my much more pessimistic conclusions.
My investigation of Nest Labs expanded into a search for evidence that smart meters in general are leading to large gains in energy efficiency. In 2016, the British government began a coordinated campaign to install smart meters throughout the country by 2020. And since 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy has invested some $4.5 billion installing more than 15 million smart meters throughout the United States. Curiously enough, all that effort has had little observed impact on energy usage. The U.K. government recently revised downward the amount it figures a smart meter will save each household annually, from £26 to just £11. And the cost of smart meters and their installation has risen, warns the U.K.’s National Audit Office. All of this is not good news for startups banking on the notion that smart thermostats, smart home appliances, and smart meters will lead to great energy savings.
To probe further, I gathered data on the U.S. AI startups that have received the most funding and looked at which industries they were hoping to disrupt. The reason for focusing on the United States is that it has the longest history of startup success, so it seems likely that its AI startups are more apt to flourish than those in other countries. My intention was to evaluate whether these U.S. startups had succeeded in shaking up various industries and boosting productivity or whether they promise to do so shortly.
In all, I examined 40 U.S. startups working on AI. These either had valuations greater than $1 billion or had more than $70 million in equity funding. Other than two that had been acquired by public companies, the startups I looked at are all private firms. I found their names and product offerings in lists of leading startups that Crunchbase, Fortune, and Datamation had compiled and published. I then updated my data set with more recent news about these companies (including reports of some shutdowns).
I categorized these 40 startups by the type of product or service they offered. Seventeen are working on what I would call basic computer hardware and software (Wave Computing and OpenAI, respectively, are examples), including cybersecurity (CrowdStrike, for instance). That is, I included in this category companies building tools that are intended to support the computing environment itself.
Making up another large fraction—8 of the 40—are companies that develop software that automates various tasks. The robotic process automation software being developed by Automation Anywhere, UiPath, and WorkFusion, for example, enables higher productivity among professionals and other white-collar workers. Software from Brain Corp. converts manual equipment into intelligent robots. Algolia, Conversica, and Xant offer software to improve sales and marketing. ZipRecruiter targets human resources.
Are there indications that these startups will bring large productivity improvements in the near future? In my view, software that automates tasks normally carried out by white-collar workers is probably the most promising of the products and services that AI is being applied to. Similar to past improvements in tools for white-collar professionals, including Excel for accountants and computer-aided design for engineers and architects, these types of AI-based tools have the greatest potential impact on productivity. For instance, there are high hopes for generative design, in which teams of people input constraints and the system proposes specific designs.
But looking at the eight startups on my list that are working on automation tools for white-collar workers, I realized that they are not targeting things that would lead to much higher productivity. Three of them are focused on sales and marketing, which is often a zero-sum game: The company with the best software takes customers from competitors, with only small increases in productivity under certain conditions. Another one of these eight companies is working on human-resource software, whose productivity benefits may be larger than those for sales and marketing but probably not as large as you’d get from improved robotic process automation.
This leaves four startups that do offer such software, which may lead to higher productivity and lower costs. But even among these startups, none currently offers software that helps engineers and architects become more productive through, for example, generative design. Software of this kind isn’t coming from the largest startups, perhaps because there is a strong incumbent, Autodesk, or because the relevant AI is still not developed enough to provide truly useful tools in this area.
The relatively large number of startups I classified as working on basic hardware and software for computing (17) also suggests that productivity improvements are still many years away. Although basic hardware and software are a necessary part of developing higher-level AI-based tools, particularly ones utilizing machine learning, it will take time for the former to enable the latter. I suppose this situation simply reflects that AI is still in its infancy. You certainly get that impression from companies like OpenAI: Although it has received $1 billion in funding (and a great deal of attention), the vagueness of its mission—“Benefiting all of humanity”—suggests that it will take many years yet for specific useful products and services to evolve from this company’s research.
The large number of these startups that are focused on cybersecurity (seven) highlights the increasing threat of security problems, which raise the cost of doing business over the Internet. AI’s ability to address cybersecurity issues will likely make the Internet more safe, secure, and useful. But in the end, this thrust reflects yet higher costs in the future for Internet businesses and will not, to my mind, lead to large productivity improvements within the economy as a whole.
If not from the better software tools it brings, where will AI bring substantial economic gains? Health care, you would think, might benefit greatly from AI. Yet the number of startups on my list that are applying AI to health care (three) seems oddly small if that were really the case. Perhaps this has something to do with IBM’s experience with its Watson AI, which proved a disappointment when it was applied to medicine.
Still, many people remain hopeful that AI-fueled health care startups will fill the gap left by Watson’s failures. Arguing against this is Robert Wachter, who points out that it’s much more difficult to apply computers to health care than to other sectors. His 2015 book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, details the many reasons that health care lags other industries in the application of computers and software. It’s not clear that adding AI to the mix of digital technologies available will do anything to change the situation.
There are also some big applications missing from the list of well-funded AI startups. Housing represents the largest category of consumer expenditures in the United States, but none of these startups are addressing this sector of the economy at all. Transportation is the second largest expenditure, and it is the focus of just three of these startups. One is working on a product that identifies distracted drivers. Another intends to provide automated local deliveries. Only one startup on the list is developing driverless passenger vehicles. That there is only one working on self-driving cars is consistent with the pessimism recently expressed by executives of Ford, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz about the prospects for driverless vehicles taking to the streets in large numbers anytime soon, even though $35 billion has already been spent on R&D for them.
Admittedly, my assessment of what these 40 companies are doing and whether their offerings will shake up the world over the next decade is subjective. Perhaps it makes better sense to consider a more objective measure of whether these companies are providing value to the world economy: their profitability.
Alas, good financial data is not available on privately held startups, only two of the companies on my list are now part of public companies, and startups often take years to turn a profit (Amazon took seven years). So there isn’t a lot to go on here. Still, there are some broad trends in the tech sector that are quite telling.
The fraction of tech companies that are profitable by the time they go public dropped from 76 percent in 1980 to just 17 percent in 2018, even though the average time to IPO has been rising—it went from 2.8 years in 1998 to 7.7 years in 2016, for example. Also, the losses of some well-known startups that took a long time to go public are huge. For instance, none of the big ride-sharing companies are making a profit, including those in the United States (Uber and Lyft), China, India, and Singapore, with total losses of about $5 billion in 2018. Most bicycle and scooter sharing, office sharing, food delivery, P2P (peer-to peer) lending, health care insurance and analysis, and other consumer service startups are also losing vast amounts of money, not only in the United States but also in China and India.
Most of the 40 AI startups I examined will probably stay private, at least in the near term. But even if some do go public several years down the road, it’s unlikely they’ll be profitable at that point, if the experience of many other tech companies is any guide. It may take these companies years more to achieve the distinction of making more money than they are spending.
The most promising areas for rapid gains in productivity are likely to be found in robotic process automation for white-collar workers, continuing a trend that has existed for decades. But these improvements will be gradual, just as those for computer-aided design and computer-aided engineering software, spreadsheets, and word processing have been.
Viewed over the span of decades, the value of such software is impressive, bringing huge gains in productivity for engineers, accountants, lawyers, architects, journalists, and others—gains that enabled some of these professionals (particularly engineers) to enrich the global economy in countless ways.
Such advances will no doubt continue with the aid of machine learning and other forms of AI. But they are unlikely to be nearly as disruptive—for companies, for workers, or for the economy as a whole—as many observers have been arguing.
About the Author
Jeffrey Funk retired from the National University of Singapore in 2017, where he taught (among other subjects) a course on the economics of new technology as a professor of technology management. He remains based in Singapore, where he consults in various areas of technology and business.
Researchers have developed a new technique for tracking the hand movements of a non-attentive driver, to calculate how long it would take the driver to assume control of a self-driving car in an emergency.
If manufacturers can overcome the final legal hurdles, cars with Level 3 autonomous vehicle technology will one day be chauffeuring people from A to B. These cars allow a driver to have his or her eyes off the road and the freedom to do minor tasks (such as texting or watching a movie). However, these cars need a way of knowing how quickly—or slowly—a driver can respond when taking control during an emergency.
Following a complaint from major media companies Rogers, Bell and TVA, the Court ordered several major ISPs to block access to domains and IP-addresses of the pirate IPTV service GoldTV.
A few days after the order was issued the first blockades were active. These prevent GoldTV customers from accessing the IPTV portal directly, as intended. As we’ve seen in the past, however, not everyone affected is giving up that easily.
Faced with the blocking error, many users went looking for alternatives. Through various public forums, people asked for advice, which was never far away. At the same time, it appears that GoldTV’s operators also took action.
Instead of relying on the blocked domains, GoldTV is now accessible through a new portal, using a fresh domain name. Instead of the edge.tm URL, several resellers are now publicly directing users to the beex.me domain, which isn’t blocked, yet.
Whether that will last is doubtful, as rightsholders are also keeping a close eye on these changes. They previously added edge.tm to the complaint when GoldTV switched, and are likely to add the new domain to the blocklist as well.
The Federal Court order allows the rightsholders to request ISPs to update their blocklists. To do so, they have to file an affidavit. Internet providers then have ten business days to file any objections. If there are none, the Court may grant the requested update without any hearings.
This means that, in theory, this cat-and-mouse game can continue for months. This is similar to what we have seen with site blocking efforts in other countries. However, there are other workarounds being discussed as well.
IPTV Global Server, which describes itself as a GoldTV reseller, has created a detailed circumvention guide for customers. Aside from updating the URL, the company points out that switching to a VPN is a more permanent solution.
“As evident in the court case itself, bypassing this block is not difficult, and simply requires you to use a VPN when accessing Gold (Global) services. Alternatively the host can change the portal URL at anytime to bypass the block,” Global writes.
The reseller links to two VPN services which it has “partnered” with and provides affiliate links, which help the company to bring in some extra revenue as well.
While Global’s guide is useful to blocked GoldTV users, the company’s decision to create a URL that directly links to the latest access portal could potentially result in its own domain name being blocked as well.
The court order allows any (sub)domain to be added to the blocklists, as long as its sole or predominant use is to facilitate access to GoldTV’s services. While a generic VPN wouldn’t immediately fit that category, a dedicated ‘circumvention’ guide likely would.
At the time of writing it’s unclear whether any of the rightsholders have already submitted proposed additions to the blocklist.
What is clear, however, is that the blocking case is far from over. Last week, Internet provider TekSavvy filed an appeal. Among other things, the company argued that the Court’s order undermines the open Internet to “protect the profits and business models of a handful of powerful media conglomerates.”
Our nervous system is specialized to produce and conduct electrical currents, so it’s no surprise that gentle electric stimulation has healing powers. Neural stimulation—also known as neuromodulation, bioelectronic medicine, or electroceuticals—is currently used to treat pain, epilepsy, and migraines, and is being explored as a way to combat paralysis, inflammation, and even hair loss. Muscle stimulation can also bestow superhuman reflexes and improve short-term memory.
But to reach critical areas of the body, such as the brain or the spine, many treatments require surgically implanted devices, such as a cuff that wraps around the spinal cord. Implanting such a device can involve cutting through muscle and nerves (and may require changing a battery every few years).
Now, a team of biomedical engineers has created a type of electrode that can be injected into the body as a liquid, then harden into a stretchy, taffy-like substance. In a paper in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, the multi-institutional team used their “injectrodes” to stimulate the nervous systems of rats and pigs, with comparable results to existing implant technologies.
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