Inside the Alexa Prize

Inside the Alexa Prize
Amazon is in a pitched battle with its rivals to bring truly conversational AI into our homes. So the company is staging a contest—a mad dash toward an outlandish goal: Cook up a bot capable of small talk.
Feb 27 2018

The first interactor—a muscular man in his fifties with a shaved head and a black V-neck sweater—walks into a conference room and sits in a low-slung blue armchair before a phalanx of video cameras and studio lights. He’s brightly lit. The rest of the room is totally dark. He gazes at a black, hockey-­puck-shaped object—an Amazon Echo—on a small table in front of him. “Alexa,” he says, “let’s chat.”

“Good morning, my friend,” a female voice replies with synthetic agreeability, a purplish ring of light pulsing atop the Echo. “Or is it afternoon? I’m not quite sure.”

“It’s morning,” the man replies.

“Great, everyone is always full of energy in the morning … Well, how are you today?”

“I’m great, how are you?”

“Well, I’m always busy, as people keep chatting with me … But listen, this is just hilarious, it’s a recent post on Reddit: ‘Toothpaste is just mouth soap.’ ”

Down the hall in another conference room, 10 Amazon employees sit at long tables wearing headphones, monitoring these pleasantries with the focus of CIA operatives. In yet another room, three men sit in booths cordoned off by black curtains. They, too, wear headphones and have cameras trained on them. Finally, in a control center, members of a video crew monitor all the feeds on a large, tiled screen. Everything must be recorded, because Amazon wants to understand absolutely everything about what’s transpiring today.

This extravagantly staged operation, which took place last November, is the final judging session in a months-long competition. Amazon has challenged 15 teams of some of the world’s best computer science graduate students to build “a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes.” If any team succeeds, its members will snare academic glory and the promise of brilliant future careers. (Consider that some of the most impressive alums of the Darpa Grand Challenges, an early set of autonomous vehicle competitions, went on to run the self-driving car divisions of Google, Ford, Uber, and General Motors.) They will also walk away with a $1 million purse—which Amazon has called the Alexa Prize.

Amazon, in case you haven’t noticed, has spent the past few years pursuing voice AI with a voraciousness rivaling that of its conquest of retail. The company has more than 5,000 people working on the Alexa platform. And since just 2015, it has reportedly sold more than 20 million Echoes. One day, Amazon believes, AIs will do much more than merely control lights and playlists. They will drive cars, diagnose diseases, and permeate every niche of our lives. Voice will be the predominant interface, and conversation itself—helpful, informative, companionable, entertaining—will be the ultimate product.

But all this early success and ambition has plunged Amazon off a cliff, and into a wide and treacherous valley. Today Alexa, like all voice assistants, often fails to comprehend the blindingly obvious. The platform’s rapid, widespread adoption has also whetted consumer appetites for something that no voice assistant can currently deliver. Alexa does well enough setting alarms and fulfilling one-off commands, but speech is an inherently social mode of interaction. “People are expecting Alexa to talk to them just like a friend,” says Ashwin Ram, who leads Alexa’s AI research team. Taking part in human conversation—with all its infinite variability, abrupt changes in context, and flashes of connection—is widely recognized as one of the hardest problems in AI, and Amazon has charged into it headlong.

The Alexa Prize is hardly the first contest that has tried to squeeze more humanlike rapport out of the world’s chatbots. Every year for the better part of three decades, a smattering of computer scientists and hobbyists has gathered to compete for something called the Loebner Prize, in which contestants try to trick judges into believing a chatbot is human. That prize has inspired its share of controversy over the years—some AI researchers call it a publicity stunt—along with plenty of wistful, poetic ruminations on what divides humans from machines. But the Alexa Prize is different in a couple of ways. First, the point isn’t to fool anyone that Alexa is a person. Second, the scale of the competition—the sheer human, financial, and computational firepower behind it—is massive. For several months of 2017, during an early phase of the contest, anyone in the US who said “Alexa, let’s chat” to their Amazon voice device was allowed to converse with a randomly selected contest bot; they were then invited to rate the conversation they’d had from one to five stars. The bots had millions of rated interactions, making the Alexa Prize competition, by orders of magnitude, the largest chatbot showdown the world has ever seen.

That showdown culminated last November in a room with a blue armchair and a bunch of lights.

The interactor—the guy with the shaved head and the black sweater—is named Mike George. Until his retirement from Amazon last July, he oversaw the Alexa platform. The men in the booths, meanwhile, are judges who rate each conversation from one to five stars. If a judge thinks that a conversation has gone off the rails, he can press a button on a handheld wand; if a second judge does so, the conversation and the session timer are halted. Nobody knows which bot is which. Not the interactors, not the judges.


Palantir has secretly been using New Orleans to test its predictive policing technology

Palantir has secretly been using New Orleans to test its predictive policing technology
Palantir deployed a predictive policing system in New Orleans that even city council members don’t know about
By Ali Winston
Feb 27 2018

In May and June 2013, when New Orleans’ murder rate was the sixth-highest in the United States, the Orleans Parish district attorney handed down two landmark racketeering indictments against dozens of men accused of membership in two violent Central City drug trafficking gangs, 3NG and the 110ers. Members of both gangs stood accused of committing 25 murders as well as several attempted killings and armed robberies. 

Subsequent investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and local agencies produced further RICO indictments, including that of a 22-year-old man named Evans “Easy” Lewis, a member of a gang called the 39ers who was accused of participating in a drug distribution ring and several murders.

According to Ronal Serpas, the department’s chief at the time, one of the tools used by the New Orleans Police Department to identify members of gangs like 3NG and the 39ers came from the Silicon Valley company Palantir. The company provided software to a secretive NOPD program that traced people’s ties to other gang members, outlined criminal histories, analyzed social media, and predicted the likelihood that individuals would commit violence or become a victim. As part of the discovery process in Lewis’ trial, the government turned over more than 60,000 pages of documents detailing evidence gathered against him from confidential informants, ballistics, and other sources — but they made no mention of the NOPD’s partnership with Palantir, according to a source familiar with the 39ers trial. 

The program began in 2012 as a partnership between New Orleans Police and Palantir Technologies, a data-mining firm founded with seed money from the CIA’s venture capital firm. According to interviews and documents obtained by The Verge,the initiative was essentially a predictive policing program, similar to the “heat list” in Chicago that purports to predict which people are likely drivers or victims of violence. 

The partnership has been extended three times, with the third extension scheduled to expire on February 21st, 2018. The city of New Orleans and Palantir have not responded to questions about the program’s current status.

Predictive policing technology has proven highly controversial wherever it is implemented, but in New Orleans, the program escaped public notice, partly because Palantir established it as a philanthropic relationship with the city through Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s signature NOLA For Life program. Thanks to its philanthropic status, as well as New Orleans’ “strong mayor” model of government, the agreement never passed through a public procurement process.

In fact, key city council members and attorneys contacted by The Verge had no idea that the city had any sort of relationship with Palantir, nor were they aware that Palantir used its program in New Orleans to market its services to another law enforcement agency for a multimillion-dollar contract. 

Even James Carville, the political operative instrumental in bringing about Palantir’s collaboration with NOPD, said that the program was not public knowledge. “No one in New Orleans even knows about this, to my knowledge,” Carville said.

More than half a decade after the partnership with New Orleans began, Palantir has patented at least one crime-forecasting system and has sold similar software to foreign intelligence services for predicting the likelihood of individuals to commit terrorism. 

Even within the law enforcement community, there are concerns about the potential civil liberties implications of the sort of individualized prediction Palantir developed in New Orleans, and whether it’s appropriate for the American criminal justice system.

“They’re creating a target list, but we’re not going after Al Qaeda in Syria,” said a former law enforcement official who has observed Palantir’s work first-hand as well as the company’s sales pitches for predictive policing. The former official spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss their concerns with data mining and predictive policing. “Palantir is a great example of an absolutely ridiculous amount of money spent on a tech tool that may have some application,” the former official said. “However, it’s not the right tool for local and state law enforcement.” 

Six years ago, one of the world’s most secretive and powerful tech firms developed a contentious intelligence product in a city that has served as a neoliberal laboratory for everything from charter schools to radical housing reform since Hurricane Katrina. Because the program was never public, important questions about its basic functioning, risk for bias, and overall propriety were never answered.


The Feds Can Now (Probably) Unlock Every iPhone Model In Existence

The Feds Can Now (Probably) Unlock Every iPhone Model In Existence
By Thomas Fox-Brewster
Feb 26 2018

In what appears to be a major breakthrough for law enforcement, and a possible privacy problem for Apple customers, a major U.S. government contractor claims to have found a way to unlock pretty much every iPhone on the market.

Cellebrite, a Petah Tikva, Israel-based vendor that’s become the U.S. government’s company of choice when it comes to unlocking mobile devices, is this month telling customers its engineers currently have the ability to get around the security of devices running iOS 11. That includes the iPhone X, a model that Forbes has learned was successfully raided for data by the Department for Homeland Security back in November 2017, most likely with Cellebrite technology.

The Israeli firm, a subsidiary of Japan’s Sun Corporation, hasn’t made any major public announcement about its new iOS capabilities. But Forbes was told by sources (who asked to remain anonymous as they weren’t authorized to talk on the matter) that in the last few months the company has developed undisclosed techniques to get into iOS 11 and is advertising them to law enforcement and private forensics folk across the globe. Indeed, the company’s literature for its Advanced Unlocking and Extraction Services offering now notes the company can break the security of “Apple iOS devices and operating systems, including iPhone, iPad, iPad mini, iPad Pro and iPod touch, running iOS 5 to iOS 11.” Separately, a source in the police forensics community told Forbes he’d been told by Cellebrite it could unlock the iPhone 8. He believed the same was most probably true for the iPhone X, as security across both of Apple’s newest devices worked in much the same way.

iOS 11 was only released in September last year and was even praised by Cellebrite competitor Elcomsoft for new features that were designed to make it harder for forensics experts to hack into an iPhone. That included protections against forced unlocks with fingerprints, a tactic previously used by U.S. police in the field.

Though it’s always wise to take the claims of profit-focused vendors with a pinch of salt, whatever flaws Cellebrite found in Apple’s tech in the last half year, they’re likely significant; just last year, the company warned about a decline in its ability to break into iPhones.

To take advantage of the Cellebrite service, which “can determine or disable the PIN, pattern, password screen locks or passcodes on the latest Apple iOS and Google Android devices,” cops have to send the device to Cellebrite first. In its labs, the company then uses whatever secret exploits it has to crack the lock and either hands it back to investigators so they can take data from the device, or Cellebrite can do that for them. As Forbes previously detailed, this can be relatively inexpensive, costing as little as $1,500 per unlock. Given there’s a $1 million price tag for a single iPhone vulnerability, that’s cheap.

Cellebrite could put its latest iPhone unlocking tech into the software it sells to customers. But that would mean Apple could test the tool and potentially figure out a way to stop it working, explained Don Vilfer, a partner at private forensics firm VAND Group, who welcomed the new services. Vilfer said his company has already had some success with the iOS 11 service, in a case where a client’s employee wouldn’t give over their passcode for their work iPhone, though he recalled it was an iPhone 6 model, not one of the most recent devices.

Neither Apple nor Cellebrite had provided comment at the time of publication.


Echolocation could help blind people learn to navigate like bats

Echolocation could help blind people learn to navigate like bats
Study confirms accuracy of using mouth clicks to identify location of objects, and uncovers insights which could help teach the skill
By Hannah Devlin
Feb 27 2018

Some people who are blind learn the extraordinary skill of echolocation, using mouth clicks to explore their environment in a way comparable to how bats navigate.

Now scientists have uncovered new insights into how this feat is performed, which could help others to learn the skill. 

The study confirms that people can identify objects with a high rate of accuracy by listening for echoes of mouth clicks and that they make subtle alterations to their clicking patterns depending on the object’s location.

Most people who are born blind are highly sensitive to the acoustics of their environment – using the echoes that bounce of objects, walls and buildings to navigate and avoid collisions. However, in recent years there has been a growing awareness of the ability of some blind individuals to use mouth clicks to actively echolocate. One American echolocation expert, Daniel Kish, uses the technique to accurately build up a mental sketch of a room as well as using it to go mountain biking along new trails.

Lore Thaler, who led the work at Durham University, said: “From a scientific perspective, it’s firmly established that people can do this.”

Thaler said that the skill often emerges spontaneously in children, as they experiment with ways to explore their environment. “We’ve found they end up doing similar things, even though they’ve developed the skill independently,” she added.

In the latest study, eight expert echolocators were given the task of spotting whether a 17.5cm disc was present in their environment. The researchers placed the disc one metre from the volunteers at a range of angles. The volunteers were 100% accurate in spotting the object when it was directly in front of them, but their success rate dropped to 80% when it was slightly behind them and 50% – no better than chance – when it was directly behind their back (head movement was not allowed).

Participants tended to instinctively increase the number and volume of the clicks when the object was further behind them, the study found, mirroring the type of adjustments made by bats when navigating using sonar.

Knowing the types of strategies experts use could help train other visually impaired people in echolocation, Thaler hopes. “It’s a very learnable skill,” she added.

The technique is typically used alongside a cane or guide dog – not as a replacement – but can help avoid collisions with objects at head height and gives an impression of the broader surroundings, which other aids cannot do.


‘Taking them down fuels it more’: why conspiracy theories are unstoppable

‘Taking them down fuels it more’: why conspiracy theories are unstoppable
As YouTube and Facebook remove videos calling shooting survivors ‘actors’, some say it’s given false claims more power
By Sam Levin
Feb 28 2018

The lies multiplied so rapidly Cori Langdon could hardly keep up. The taxi driver’s cellphone video of the Las Vegas mass shooting was being widely republished by conspiracy theorists, who were using it as “proof” that the massacre was staged by the government and that Langdon was an “actor”.

Langdon thought that if YouTube and Facebook removed some of the content, the online attacks and bogus stories might stop spreading. But it wasn’t so simple.

When some footage was taken down, conspiracy theorists saw it as further evidence that Langdon was involved in a cover-up. Some told her they were worried the FBI had gotten to her. 

“It just fuels them even more,” said Langdon, who was harassed online even while being hailed by some as a hero for picking up passengers at the Mandalay Bay shooting that killed 58 people in October. “These conspiracy theorists love their guns. They are freaked out and paranoid.” 

Concerns about conspiracy theorists bullying victims of mass shootings have escalated this month as student survivors of a Florida high school massacre have become vocal proponents for gun reforms, making them prime targets for online abuse. Google and Facebook have faced particularly intense scrutiny for their role in spreading false stories claiming teenage survivors are so-called crisis actors hired to promote gun control.

But recent efforts to restrict offensive posts have shone a harsh light on a seemingly intractable problem of the modern conspiracy theory epidemic: that censoring the content can reinforce and enhance false beliefs and that there is no easy way to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist. Some wind up on alternative platforms.

Social media companies taking down content and mainstream news coverage of hoax claims can also drive traffic to those sites creating the questionable content. That appeared to be the case this week with Infowars, a rightwing website that has fueled “crisis actor” claims and is facing consequences from YouTube as a result. Radio host Alex Jones, a leading conspiracy theorist and far-right pundit, has used YouTube’s clampdown to drum up interest in his attacks on the Florida students, presenting it as a “free speech” issue.

“If you believe your institutions are conspiring and then you expose it and then they ban your speech, how could you not think that that’s part of it?” said Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami professor and conspiracy theory expert. If Jones and Infowars continue to face YouTube censorship, he added, “it will convince his fans that he’s on to something.”

There’s no easy solution, though many agree that YouTube and Facebook could do a better job removing content that constitutes harassment and preventing its algorithms from actively promoting fake news. 

Infowars is reportedly one strike away from a YouTube ban, though Jones has a long history of offensive material, most notoriously spreading claims that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre that killed 20 children was a hoax – a theory that led grieving parents to face death threats. If permanently banned, it’s unclear if Jones would end up hosting his own videos or using a platform like PewTube, which was created for “alt-right” users kicked off mainstream sites. 

In some cases, fringe commentators with massive online followings have tried to push boundaries by avoiding explicit hoax claims and instead cast doubt on shooting survivors by simply “raising questions”.

Americans strongly opposed to gun control are susceptible to believing this kind of content, especially if the creators are facing threats from the “establishment” media or Silicon Valley.


Human trafficking in Nigeria: ‘Don’t struggle if you’re raped’

Human trafficking in Nigeria: ‘Don’t struggle if you’re raped’
People smuggler gives chilling warning to undercover CNN reporter
By Nima Elbagir, with Lillian Leposo and Hassan John
Feb 27 2018

Edo State, Nigeria (CNN)In a lurid pink hotel room in Edo State, southern Nigeria, a trafficker is arranging to smuggle us across the continent to Libya — and ultimately Europe.

Fluorescent lights flicker intermittently inside the hotel, which doubles as a brothel and serves as the headquarters of tonight’s operation.

We are posing as would-be migrants attempting to reach Italy with the help of our “pusherman” — one of an army of brokers who work alongside smugglers on the Nigerian end of the migrant route from Africa to Europe.

Edo State is Nigeria’s trafficking hub and one of Africa’s largest departure points. Each year, tens of thousands of migrants are illegally smuggled from here. They’re refugees fleeing conflict or economic migrants in search of better opportunities in Europe, most having sold everything they own to finance the journey.
But as CNN revealed in an exclusive report last year, they often never get beyond Libya.
When they arrive, they’re told by smugglers they will need to pay thousands of dollars more to continue their journey across the Mediterranean.

When the migrants fail to pay, they are held in grim living conditions, deprived of food, abused by their captors, and sold as laborers in slave auctions.

Footage obtained of a slave auction in Libya — in which young men were sold by smugglers for as little as $400 each — caused international outrage.

The ‘VIP’ package

Three months later we wanted to see whether that outrage had translated into action. CNN producer Leposo and I went undercover as two wealthy women paying for the “VIP” travel package from Nigeria to Europe, which includes a smuggler who will meet us in the northern city of Kano and escort us across the border into Libya.

We gave scant detail about our situation, saying only that we hoped to reach Italy and then travel from there to London. The smugglers were mostly interested in our money, and asked few questions.

In reality, our plan was to secure a deal, set off from Auchi in the north of Edo State, and then quit the journey as soon as we were safely out of the sight of smugglers.

Setting up the deal was incredibly easy. Hassan, another CNN producer, worked undercover to negotiate a deal with the pusherman in Ekpoma, also in Edo State.

Hassan negotiated 500,000 Nigerian naira for each of us, roughly $1,400.

The money was due on our arrival in Libya. Hassan was the guarantor of our journey and would be held accountable if we became frightened and backed out of the deal.

He was told by the pusherman that the price to smuggle women is higher than for, say, small boys, because women’s journeys are “even more difficult — they are molested there (in Libya).”

As part of our “VIP” travel package, we were offered condoms for the journey. The pusherman later expressed dismay that I hadn’t packed any myself.

“We give you contraception,” he told me. “You need men in Libya to be kind to you. They will have things you want. Do you understand?”

When I said “yes,” he laughed.

“Of course, you understand,” he continued. “You don’t get something for nothing in this life. You’re lucky, the men sometimes wait six months before they’re put on the boat to Europe.”

“Women though — if they’re like you — sometimes you can be put on a boat the very next day.”

He has a warning for me: “Listen, don’t struggle if you’re raped.”

Sexual abuse on the migrant route

Women and children routinely face sexual violence, abuse and detention along the Central Mediterranean migration route from North Africa to Italy, according to a 2017 UNICEF report.
“Nearly half the women and children interviewed had experienced sexual abuse during migration — often multiple times and in multiple locations,” said the report, which compiled testimony from 122 migrants.

The attorney general of Edo State, Yinka Omorogbe, is leading a taskforce that was set up last August to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.

“We are actively involved in investigation and have commenced several prosecutions,” she told CNN in a written statement. “Like I have said, we have just started. We are awaiting a state anti-trafficking law which will further strengthen us. We have a destination and we’ll get there.”


Africa’s real Wakanda and the struggle to stay uncolonized

Africa’s real Wakanda and the struggle to stay uncolonized
By Paul Schemm
Feb 27 2018

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The Marvel Comics movie “Black Panther” has wowed audiences across the United States and around the world, including Africans who have cheered on the African superheroes and their fictional Kingdom of Wakanda.

There is a little something for everyone in Wakanda for Africans. The show’s designers seem to have attempted to incorporate stylistic elements from all over the continent to create the film’s look, as this one impressive Twitter thread has documented.

Ethiopian audiences, in particular, have warmed to the movie, and more than a few have cited their own country as the inspiration for Wakanda, a hidden mountain kingdom in the movie that was the only country in Africa not to be colonized.

Indeed, Ethiopia itself has the distinction of being the sole country on the continent to resist the European scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, when the continent was divided up into colonial possessions.

In fact, a bit like Wakanda, Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was once known, was also long shrouded in mystery for Europeans during the Middle Ages, a mythical Christian kingdom of great wealth, surrounded by hostile Muslim states, hidden in the mountains and home to the legendary Prester John.

A number of Ethiopians have noted on social media the similarities between Wakanda and Ethiopia. Among them is Tsedale Lemma, editor of the Addis Standard, one of the few independent media outlets in the country, who took time out of reporting the country’s state of emergency to say that Ethiopia is Wakanda, “minus the techno-utopia.”

How much the legend of Ethiopia influenced “Black Panther” creator Stan Lee is up for debate, but the character first appeared in 1966, three years after Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited the United States and President John F. Kennedy, treating the world to the spectacle of African royalty claiming centuries of lineage.

Addis Ababa’s one cinema showing foreign films has had sold-out screenings several times a day since the film premiered here more than a week ago, and theater manager Elias Abraha expects it to stick around for weeks to come.

“People really liked it because it has connections to the way of life here, and the characters are somewhat related to tribes in Africa; it touches everyone,” he said. “Black Panther” is the best-selling film at the theater since the 3-D release of “Avatar” in 2013, he added.

“It cannot be compared to any other franchise movie we have ever exhibited here,” Abraha said.

At a packed Saturday night screening, the audience cheered and roared with laughter when the Black Panther’s sister Shuri snapped “colonizer” at the hapless CIA agent played by Martin Freeman. Later, there was more laughter when another African chief repeatedly shushed the CIA agent before warning him that if he uttered another word, he would be fed to the chief’s children (a joke since the tribe was actually vegetarian). It was a big departure from the usual Hollywood action films showing here, with their white heroes saving the day.

‘Black Panther’ is more than a trip to the movies. It’s a celebration of black excellence

Many fans are using “Black Panther” to celebrate a shift toward a more positive, empowering portrayal of people from the continent of Africa. (Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

“These are roles you don’t usually see a black person taking,” said Blen Sahilu, an Ethiopian lawyer and activist who has seen the movie three times. She singled out the role of Shuri, who is also the chief scientist of Wakanda, for its impact.

“The role that she has, how important she is, how brilliant she is … she is the brains behind the technology the Black Panther is using.”

“When I left the cinema, I thought, imagine if I saw this when I was 12,” she said, noting as well the central debate in the movie between the Black Panther and his nemesis Erik Killmonger about how to respond to the crimes against Africans. “How do you bring about change? The battle between the Black Panther and Killmonger are two different schools of thought about how we respond to imperialism and force.”

Unlike the mythical Wakanda, however, Ethiopia could never rely on some magical mineral to keep its independence. Rather, it had to fight for it. On March 1, the country celebrates one of its most important holidays, marking the battle of Adwa, a victory in 1896 against an invading Italian army that planned to subdue Africa’s last free territory.

The Italian army of some 20,000, many of them conscripts from the recently colonized Eritrea, faced off against Emperor Menelik II’s 100,000 troops. The Italians likely did not worry much about the odds. After all, this was the late 19th century when well-armed and well-trained colonial armies repeatedly defeated vast armies of “native” troops.