The Solution to Too Much Facebook Isn’t More Facebook

The moment I first realized that everything had changed for Facebook was right after the 2016 US presidential election with one of the first of many Zuckerbergian mea culpas. Not that first post-election post, his horribly disingenuous dodge that improbably asserted that Facebook could not have influenced the election. This, despite a Facebook political advertising sales force, now numbering probably in the hundreds, that had spent the past year claiming the contrary to every candidate with a marketing budget. No, it was Zuck’s second post, more circumspect and clearly more scripted, that described a concrete series of steps to counteract the influence he’d previously declared nonexistent. There, buried in the reassuring lingo of corporate comms-speak (“easy reporting”, “disrupting fake news economics”), lay some hidden bombs, or perhaps for the company, land mines. Not only would Facebook deign to rely on outside third-party sources, a sort of Snopes.com-ification of Facebook. It would consult with newspapers (!) on how to fact-check content itself.

To anyone (like this former Facebook employee) steeped in the company’s usual MO, this was astonishing. For the past two decades of consumer internet life, the great media intermediators had hidden behind what I’ll call the Algorithmic Pass. This was the not-altogether-wrong assertion that their companies merely optimized around user demand—providing the needy user whatever they wanted, by whatever metric—and were completely agnostic to truth, aesthetics, or political virtue. To every public clamor or brouhaha (and there were many), the answer was always, “It’s just math,” and they’d point at the roomful of geeks, replete with Nerf guns and beanbag chairs, as proof.

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Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) was the first ads targeting product manager on the Facebook Ads team, and author of the memoir Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. He wrote about the internet in Cuba in WIRED’s July issue.

More than a mere corporate cover-your-ass maneuver, the Algorithmic Pass heralded a monumental shift in how modern, media-saturated humans learned about the world. No longer would handpicked mandarins at recognized media establishments—the editors and curators of our literary and political world—anoint one or another piece of content with the always malleable imprimatur of “true” or even “good.” No. Whatever piece of content, however brilliant or vile, that received an escalating chain reaction of user engagement would receive instantaneous, worldwide distribution. Having “gone viral” became a greater trophy than appearing “above the fold” (now a ludicrous concept). Vox populi, vox culturae.

And then the 2016 election happened.

Suddenly we’re all rescinding Facebook’s Algorithmic Pass, hounding the uncharacteristically beleaguered company to take some responsibility for what appears on its blue-framed pages. What’s most ironic about the hubbub is this: people fear Facebook’s power, so they ask Facebook to take on even more power by taking a very direct hand in what appears there, rather than a very second-order mathematical one. As Facebook’s power grows and our trust erodes, we somehow overcompensate by rushing to entrust them with even more.

Contemplate this unsettling vision: Mark Zuckerberg, or more likely one of his deputies, sitting in the equivalent of the afternoon editorial meeting at The New York Times, where the day’s news—which stories will appear, and which won’t—are decided: this news source discarded as fake or spammy, this one included and effectively boosted in the newsfeed. As much as I grew to admire some of the company’s culture as an employee, I realize as much as anyone how they can (and do) descend into groupthink and biases of various flavors. Do we really want Zuck as global news editor versus a disinterested algorithm that merely optimizes toward some objective and picks the day’s news winners and losers? The editor is dead; long live the editor, only now with editor-in-chief Zuckerberg.

Oddly enough, it’s a job he and the company don’t want. “We’re a technology company, not a media company,” has been the constant refrain, along with invocations of the Algorithmic Pass, for engineering-centric companies like Facebook. MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS and DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT were the Facebook mantras (as immortalized on their many in-office posters), not ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO PRINT and DEMOCRACY DIES IN DARKNESS.

And it shows.

Around 2015, as Facebook’s Trending Topics product dithered in embarrassing irrelevance (a shameless rip of Twitter’s Trending feature, it appears on the right-hand side during most Facebook sessions), the company stooped to hiring humans—HUMANS!—to fix its deficient software product. Within 18 months or so, all had been fired and the human effort shuttered, but not before, in an absolute and unusual violation of Facebook’s typically ironclad OPSEC, some of them spilled the beans about how horrible working at Facebook had been, with some even suggesting they’d been pushed to bias the news. A half-trillion-dollar company armed with some of the best technical minds in the world couldn’t manage a dozen or so wet-behind-the-ears journalism grads, something the Sacramento Bee manages annually without much ado. That’s how good Facebook is at being a media company.

But if there’s anything I grew to respect while working at Facebook, it was the company’s unnatural ability to pivot in a completely new direction and iterate rapidly toward excellence there, no matter how originally foreign the territory. With the feds breathing down their neck (Facebook is testifying before Congress this week) and Zuckerberg issuing public apologies during the Jewish Day of Atonement, the company has been shaken like nothing I’ve ever seen as employee or outside observer. If the world wants Facebook as editor, they’ll sure get it, for better or worse.

What’s that mean in practice? From the company’s hints, it will involve the aforementioned third-party fact-checking services, a sort of Snopes-ification of the Facebook experience. Based on both that and user input, content will first be conspicuously flagged as false and then effectively disappeared from newsfeed distribution, as porn or other terms-of-service-violating content is now. In addition, based on its short-lived experiments in human editing around Trending Topics, Facebook will almost certainly draw up a list of acceptable news outlets of passable truthiness, boosting their distribution at the expense of second-tier (or no-tier) content producers.

There’ll be some clear downsides though.

The death-by-algorithm of the media gatekeepers meant that many new voices rose to the fore that would never have jumped through the arbitrary hoops of conventional publication. XKCD, The Oatmeal, Stratechery, Slate Star Codex, Ribbonfarm, Wait But Why—all those weird but clever bloggers or cartoonists who joked, scribbled, or illustrated their way to online fame, viral post after viral post—the new crop of those will find it very hard to hustle themselves an audience. The lone, nonconforming online genius may just be muted along with that Russian political ad farm. Your byline isn’t on Slate or The Washington Post? Too bad, lone content creator.

Which brings us to the other ironic thing about all of this: In order to preserve our political democracy, which elevates the most popular among us (though perhaps not the finest) to power, we’ll seemingly abandon a total democracy of thought, which does the same for ideas. You can judge a people by how much freedom they can tolerate without destroying themselves. It seems the power for anyone to go viral and attain a global audience, through articulate reasoning or just clickbait-y libel, was a just bit too much freedom for us to bear.

Tech

Elon Musk Reveals More Details About His Plan to Colonize Mars

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed a trove of new details on the company’s plan to colonize Mars.

He discussed technical details about the giant rocket that he says will take passengers to the Red Planet, the road map for getting to its first launch, and insights into SpaceX’s broader strategy in an “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit Saturday.

Musk was his typical freewheeling self during the AMA, quoting the cartoon Bob the Builder and responding to a question about spaceship design with the highly technical insight that “tails are lame.”

He also gamely responded to questions about tangential details of settling Mars, including speculation that settlers might use a compressed version of the Internet. Musk observed that data would take between 3 and 22 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars. “So you could Snapchat, I suppose. If that’s a thing in the future,” he wrote.

More substantively, Musk clarified the scope of SpaceX’s ambitions on Mars. Though he has shared images of vast Martian cities in his presentations on Mars colonization, he said SpaceX isn’t focused on building those cities itself.

“Our goal is get you there and ensure the basic infrastructure for propellant production and survival is in place. A rough analogy is that we are trying to build the equivalent of the transcontinental railway. A vast amount of industry will need to be built on Mars by many other companies and millions of people.”

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That means SpaceX will be designing and building things like systems for creating fuel from Martian resources, work that Musk said is “pretty far along.” But they won’t be focused on issues like how colonists grow food.

Musk also reiterated previous claims that SpaceX is designing the new Mars rocketstill code-named BFR, which stands for exactly what you think it does – to be as safe and reliable as today’s commercial airliners. That will be crucial if plans to use the BFR for transportation around Earth come to fruition.

Musk also shared some details about the game plan for testing the BFR ahead of its first scheduled flight in 2022.

“[We] will be starting with a full-scale Ship doing short hops of a few hundred kilometers in altitude and lateral distance,” Musk wrote. “Those are fairly easy on the vehicle, as no heat shield is needed, we can have a large amount of reserve propellant and don’t need the high area ratio, deep space Raptor engines.

“[The] next step will be doing orbital velocity Ship flights, which will need all of the above.”

SpaceX’s progress on its Falcon 9 rocket in recent years – especially its unprecedented success in landing and reusing rockets – has fascinated observers and re-energized public dialogue about space.

Tech

Famed Architect’s Lawsuit Against Google Just Got Much More Serious

Eli Attia alleges he wasn’t the only one mistreated by the search giant.

A long-running lawsuit filed against Google by a prominent architect has just gotten much broader.

Last week, the Superior Court of California granted a motion adding racketeering charges to the civil case being pursued against Google by Eli Attia, an expert in high-rise construction. Attia claims Google stole his idea for an innovative building design method – and now he wants to prove that it does the same thing frequently.

Attia’s suit was originally filed in 2014, four years after he began discussions with Google (prior to its reorganization as Alphabet) about developing software based on a set of concepts he called Engineered Architecture. Attia has said Engineered Architecture, broadly described as a modular approach to building, would revolutionize the design and construction of large buildings. Attia developed the concepts based on insights gleaned from his high-profile architecture career, and has called them his life’s work.

Google executives including Google X cofounder Astro Teller came to share his enthusiasm, and championed developing software based on Engineered Architecture as one of the company’s “moonshots.” But Attia claims the company later used his ideas without fulfilling an agreement to pay to license them.

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Attia’s suit names not just Google, but individual executives including founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It also names Flux Factory, the unit Attia’s suit alleges was spun off specifically to capitalize on his ideas.

Speaking to the San Jose Mercury News, Attia’s lawyer claims Google told Attia his project had been cancelled, “when in fact they were going full blast on it.” Flux Factory is now known as Flux, and touts itself as “the first company launched by Google X.”

Attia’s suit will now also seek to prove that his case is representative of a much broader pattern of behavior by Alphabet. According to court documents, the motion to add racketeering charges hinged on six similar incidents. Those incidents aren’t specified in the latest court proceedings, but Alphabet has faced a similar trade-secrets battle this summer over X’s Project Loon, which has already led to Loon being stripped of some patents.

The idea of racketeering charges entering the picture will surprise many who associate them with violent organized criminals. But under RICO statutes, civil racketeering suits can be brought by private litigants against organizations and individuals alleged to have engaged in ongoing misdeeds. The broader use of racketeering charges has slowly gained ground since the introduction of RICO laws in the 1960s, with some famous instances including suits against Major League Baseball and even the Los Angeles Police Department.

Tech

Google says its voice search system is now more accurate, especially in noisy places

Google voice search on the web.

If you’ve noticed Google doing a better job of understanding what you say using speech recognition on your smartphone lately, you’re not crazy. Google’s voice search has indeed become more accurate, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, the tech company announced today.

“Today, we’re happy to announce we built even better neural network acoustic models using Connectionist Temporal Classification (CTC) and sequence discriminative training techniques,” Google Speech Team members Haşim Sak, Andrew Senior, Kanishka Rao, Françoise Beaufays and Johan Schalkwyk wrote in a blog post today. “These models are a special extension of recurrent neural networks (RNNs) that are more accurate, especially in noisy environments, and they are blazingly fast!”

The new models are working in the Google app for iOS and Android, as well as dictation on Android, which works inside of some third-party apps, the team members wrote.

From VentureBeat

Location, location, location — Not using geolocation to reach your mobile customers? Your competitors are. Find out what you’re missing.

Google has reported improvements in voice search not once but twice this year. Clearly the company has been investing in the underlying technology. RNNs are one increasingly popular approach to doing deep learning, a type of artificial intelligence, and Google is widely thought to have a deep bench in deep learning.

But Apple and Microsoft, among others, have also been working to improve their voice recognition capabilities. Meanwhile, Facebook is also doing more in the area, having acquired a speech recognition company, Wit.ai, some months ago.

Speech could become more important as an input to searching the Web in the years to come. Baidu’s Andrew Ng, who is known for his work on the so-called Google Brain, last year predicted that within five years “50 percent of queries will be on speech or images.”

“In addition to requiring much lower computational resources, the new models are more accurate, robust to noise, and faster to respond to voice search queries — so give it a try, and happy (voice) searching!” wrote Sak, Senior, Rao, Beaufays, and Schalkwyk.

Read the full blog post for more detail on how the team managed to get the new performance gains.

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A Wedding Ring Spins More Like a Boomerang Than a Coin  

Spin a coin on a flat surface, and it spirals much like a planet orbiting a star — at least until it runs out of steam and rattles to a stop on the table. But spin a wedding ring the same way, and it will make a surprising abrupt turn, following a trajectory more like a boomerang.

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New, Insanely High-Resolution Pluto Images Include More Color—and Weird “Snakeskin” Textures

A fresh batch of images straight from the New Horizons downlink give us just what we’ve been waiting for: color views of Pluto! Ridiculously high resolution detail! Strange new snakeskin textures! Plus a first look at how methane is involved in shaping these crazy ice landscapes.

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Facebook is down, go do something more fun while it recovers [Update: It’s back!]

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 12.37.14 PM
Facebook is down for many users around the world, according to DownDetector.co.uk and reports on Twitter. It’s the second outage within a week for the social network, and many people are unable to log in and view those critical status messages, Pages and other updates. These problems don’t tend to last too long, but we’ve asked Facebook for a statement on the situation and will update here when normal service resumes. Until then, go fly a kite or something. Update: An intermittent service is coming back for some users but the site still isn’t back to normal. Some users are also still…

This story continues at The Next Web


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Everything Oculus announced today: $99 Gear VR, Touch release date, Minecraft, and more

It's coming soon.

It’s Oculus Connect keynote day, and the company had a lot of stuff to announce despite a claim that consumers shouldn’t get too excited about the event in Los Angeles.

Here are all the big announcements:

Samsung’s $ 99 Gear VR

While Oculus is planning to release the amazing new Rift headset in Q1 2016, one of its biggest partners, Samsung, revealed it will release the consumer version of Gear VR in November for just $ 99. This will work with Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, and Note 5.

From VentureBeat

Gaming is in its golden age, and big and small players alike are maneuvering like kings and queens in A Game of Thrones. Register now for our GamesBeat 2015 event, Oct. 12-Oct.13, where we’ll explore strategies in the new world of gaming.

Oculus SDK 1.0 is coming in November

Both Rift and Gear VR will need a lot of VR content, and Oculus is planning to update its software-development kit to help studios do exactly that. One of the big things this SDK will come with is direct drivers — this will enable the headset to work without having to fiddle with setting up the Rift as an external monitor.

Oculus Arcade

This is a 1980s-style arcade simulator that enables you to feel like you’re playing Pac-Man at a stand-up machine.

Trailer for Rift games

 

Twitch, Hulu, Netflix, and more to support Oculus Video

netflix-virtual-reality-app

Developers are working on plenty of games for virtual reality, but Oculus is expecting all kinds of content to make the leap to its Rift and Gear VR systems. That includes video services like Netflix and Hulu — the latter of which revealed it is planning to build VR-native videos.

“Oculus Ready” PCs

You’re gonna need a beefy PC to use an Oculus Rift, but you won’t need to guess if certain systems will work. Oculus announced it will work with hardware manufacturers like Dell, Alienware, and Asus on a line of “Oculus Ready” rigs that cost less than $ 1,000.

Minecraft comes to Rift

Microsoft is planning to make the Windows 10 Edition of its block-building game Minecraft compatible with Xbox One.

Oculus is working on its equivalent of Xbox Live and the App Store

Facebook, the owner of Oculus VR, has said that it won’t try to make a lot of money on the Rift hardware. That means it’s going to make the real cash on the app and software side. And we saw a little bit of that today when the company revealed how its platform will handle social features, analytics, and distribution.

Oculus Touch trailer and release date

The incredible Oculus Touch controllers, which brings your hands into VR, aren’t coming out until Q2 of 2016. But here’s a trailer to show what they can do.

Oculus Medium

Oculus chief executive officer Brendan Iribe said that every new platform needs a paint app, and Medium is what his company is calling its take on 3D drawing.

Epic reveals new Oculus Touch demo Bullet Train

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