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Lawmakers call for pause on false micro-targeted political ads

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(Reuters) — An international “grand committee” of lawmakers on Thursday called for a pause in online micro-targeted political ads with false or misleading information until the area is regulated.

The committee, formed to investigate disinformation, gathered in Dublin to hear evidence from Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet’s Google, and other experts about online harms, hate speech, and electoral interference. The meeting was attended by lawmakers from Australia, Finland, Estonia, Georgia, Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S.

The committee’s inaugural session in London last November featured an empty chair for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg after he declined to be questioned.

Facebook has been under scrutiny in recent weeks over its decision to not fact-check ads run by politicians, which intensified when rival Twitter announced last month that it would ban all political ads.

Zuckerberg has defended this policy, saying that the company does not want to stifle political speech.

Politicians can micro-target groups of voters on social media based on user data such as location, age, and interests, a practice critics fear could intensify the effects of false or misleading information on certain groups and suppress voter turnout.

At a conference in Lisbon on Thursday, Europe’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said, “If it’s only in your feed, between you and Facebook and their micro-targeting of who you are, that’s not democracy anymore.”

Facebook said on Thursday a doctored video shared by Britain’s governing Conservatives would not have broken its rules on political advertising if it had run as a paid-for ad.

“Ads from political parties and political candidates are not subject to our fact-checking rules,” Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of U.K. Public Policy, told reporters on a call to explain the company’s policies ahead of Britain’s December 12 election.

“What that has meant is what the Conservative party put in that advert has been the subject of ferocious public debate and discussion, precisely because people could see that it was there,” Stimson said.

Facebook partners with global third-party fact-checking organizations to curb misinformation on the site.

Ahead of an election that could shape the fate of Brexit, some politicians have expressed concerns that misleading information could spread swiftly across social media.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party chair was forced to defend the distribution of a doctored video clip of a rival Labour Party politician on Wednesday, overshadowing the launch of the party’s election campaign.

Johnson’s Conservatives posted the heavily edited video clip of Labour’s Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer on Facebook and Twitter, editing out a key response in an interview to give the impression that the party had no answer for Brexit.

The video was shared as a normal post on the Conservatives’ Facebook page but has not been used as a paid-for ad on the platform, according to a search of Facebook’s Ad Library, a database launched to increase political ad transparency.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout in London and Elizabeth Culliford in San Francisco; additional reporting by Paul Sandle; editing by Alexandra Hudson and Richard Chang.)



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A.I. Systems Echo Biases They’re Fed, Putting Scientists on Guard

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SAN FRANCISCO — Last fall, Google unveiled a breakthrough artificial intelligence technology called BERT that changed the way scientists build systems that learn how people write and talk.

But BERT, which is now being deployed in services like Google’s internet search engine, has a problem: It could be picking up on biases in the way a child mimics the bad behavior of his parents.

BERT is one of a number of A.I. systems that learn from lots and lots of digitized information, as varied as old books, Wikipedia entries and news articles. Decades and even centuries of biases — along with a few new ones — are probably baked into all that material.

BERT and its peers are more likely to associate men with computer programming, for example, and generally don’t give women enough credit. One program decided almost everything written about President Trump was negative, even if the actual content was flattering.

“We are aware of the issue and are taking the necessary steps to address and resolve it,” a Google spokesman said. “Mitigating bias from our systems is one of our A.I. principles, and is a top priority.” Amazon, in a statement, said it “dedicates significant resources to ensuring our technology is highly accurate and reduces bias, including rigorous benchmarking, testing and investing in diverse training data.”

Researchers have long warned of bias in A.I. that learns from large amounts data, including the facial recognition systems that are used by police departments and other government agencies as well as popular internet services from tech giants like Google and Facebook. In 2015, for example, the Google Photos app was caught labeling African-Americans as “gorillas.” The services Dr. Munro scrutinized also showed bias against women and people of color.

BERT and similar systems are far more complex — too complex for anyone to predict what they will ultimately do.

“Even the people building these systems don’t understand how they are behaving,” said Emily Bender, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in computational linguistics.

BERT is one of many universal language models used in industry and academia. Others are called ELMO, ERNIE and GPT-2. As a kind of inside joke among A.I. researchers, they are often named for Sesame Street characters. (Bert is short for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.)

They learn the nuances of language by analyzing enormous amounts of text. A system built by OpenAI, an artificial intelligence lab in San Francisco, analyzed thousands of self-published books, including romance novels, mysteries and science fiction. BERT analyzed the same library of books along with thousands of Wikipedia articles.

In analyzing all this text, each system learned a specific task. OpenAI’s system learned to predict the next word in a sentence. BERT learned to identify the missing word in a sentence (such as “I want to ____ that car because it is cheap”).

Through learning these tasks, BERT comes to understand in a general way how people put words together. Then it can learn other tasks by analyzing more data. As a result, it allows A.I. applications to improve at a rate not previously possible.

“BERT completely changed everything,” said John Bohannon, director of science at Primer, a start-up in San Francisco that specializes in natural language technologies. “You can teach one pony all the tricks.”

Google itself has used BERT to improve its search engine. Before, if you typed “Do aestheticians stand a lot at work?” into the Google search engine, it did not quite understand what you were asking. Words like “stand” and “work” can have multiple meanings, serving either as nouns or verbs. But now, thanks to BERT, Google correctly responds to the same question with a link describing the physical demands of life in the skin care industry.

But tools like BERT pick up bias, according to a recent research paper from a team of computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University. The paper showed, for instance, that BERT is more likely to associate the word “programmer” with men than with women. Language bias can be a particularly difficult problem in conversational systems.

As these new technologies proliferate, biases can appear almost anywhere. At Primer, Dr. Bohannon and his engineers recently used BERT to build a system that lets businesses automatically judge the sentiment of headlines, tweets and other streams of online media. Businesses use such tools to inform stock trades and other pointed decisions.

But after training his tool, Dr. Bohannon noticed a consistent bias. If a tweet or headline contained the word “Trump,” the tool almost always judged it to be negative, no matter how positive the sentiment.



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Disney Plus doc The Imagineering Story takes a beautiful theme park tour

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The Imagineering Story traces the history of Disney Parks from their earliest days.


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Documentaries probably aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when you think of the new Disney Plus streaming service. Most of us are thinking about the original Star Wars and Marvel shows, the vast library of classic movies, or revisiting obscure shows of our childhoods. 

Still, Disney Parks are a pillar of the company’s business, and The Imagineering Story promises a tantalizing peek behind the curtain. The six-episode documentary — narrated by Angela Bassett and directed by Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible‘s Leslie Iwerks — premieres on Disney’s streaming service on Nov. 12. I got access to the first two engaging episodes. 

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Walt Disney is center stage in the first episode.


Disney

The first focuses on founder Walt Disney, providing a nice emotional through line as it traces the origins of his theme park idea in the late ’40s. The documentary shows how revered he was by employees and how demanding he was as a boss, but doesn’t reveal much about who he was beneath the kindly exterior. 

After choosing Anaheim, California, as the location for Disneyland, Walt gathers the Imagineers (a term referring to imagination engineering, popularized by Disney) to design it. Even though Disney Parks have been rooted in pop culture for decades now, it’s cool to be reminded of the ambition behind them.

We’re smoothly guided through the project to its 1955 opening day — a disaster due to overcrowding, high temperatures and plumbing problems. There’s a wealth of archival footage, interspersed with present-day interviews, so you get a sense of how uncomfortable and chaotic it must’ve been.

The real meat of the documentary comes when it focuses on iconic rides like the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Original designer Bob Gurr (who’s now 88) is fascinating to listen to as he outlines what Walt tasked him with. Seeing the original schematics for this 50-year-old roller coaster — and the secret basketball hoop workers set up in its bowels — is surprisingly exciting, like you’re being guided into a world few people have seen.

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The documentary looks at the model who inspired Haunted Mansion fortune-teller Madame Leota.


Disney

We also get in-depth looks at It’s A Small World (with its love-it-or-hate-it theme song) and Pirates of the Caribbean (which has an epic tune). The documentary’s close look at the animatronic figures that populate these rides will make you appreciate them in a whole new way.

Picking up after Walt’s death in 1966, the second episode focuses on the construction of Disney World in Florida and Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Walt envisioned this as a futuristic city containing businesses, residential areas and mass transportation systems, but his successors ultimately scaled it down into a theme park celebrating human achievement.


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The documentary highlights some of Walt’s wild concepts, and reminds us how impressive the finished Epcot actually is — it contained voice recognition tech and touchscreens long before they entered the mainstream. It also touches on the mass layoffs that happened after it was done in 1982, keeping the human element in focus.

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The artists behind Disney Parks shine in this documentary series.


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We also get an engaging deep dive into the creation of the Haunted Mansion, but Space Mountain is glossed over a bit too quickly. Much of the rest of the episode is devoted to Disneyland Tokyo and the Japanese love of all things Disney — adding a lively cultural dimension to the series. 

Overall, the first two episodes of The Imagineering Story balance the creative and design sides of Disney Park history with the human stories. It’s a little sanitized — we don’t hear from guests or any cast members who have to wear bulky costumes all day — and sometimes you’ll wish it dug deeper into your favorite ride. But it’s hard not to come away with a massive appreciation for the people who made these incredible theme parks possible.

Originally published Nov. 4. 



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2 reasons why the 'Shining' sequel 'Doctor Sleep' flopped at the box office

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  • “Doctor Sleep,” a sequel to “The Shining” based on Stephen King’s book of the same name, made just $14 million domestically over the weekend.
  • Box-office experts say that the studio Warner Bros.’ made two drastic mistakes: marketing it as a “Shining” sequel and not releasing it during the Halloween season.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“Doctor Sleep,” from “The Haunting of Hill House” director Mike Flanagan, seemed like a winner not long ago. 

Going into the movie’s opening weekend, the studio Warner Bros. was projected to make up to $30 million domestically. Boxoffice Pro predicted a $25 million haul, while Box Office Mojo projected $27 million. But when initial box-office numbers rolled in on Friday — and it had made just $1.5 million in Thursday night previews — the movie’s outlook dimmed.

“‘Doctor Sleep’ was unable to parlay its connection to ‘The Shining’ into an expected $25 million to $30 million-plus weekend and the tracking was clearly off by a country mile,” Paul Dergarbedian, the Comscore senior media analyst, told Business Insider.

“Doctor Sleep” ultimately earned a catastrophic $14 million domestically over the weekend, coming in well below expectations and even finishing second at the box office behind Roland Emmerich’s “Midway.” With a $45 million budget, “Doctor Sleep” could lose at least $20 million for Warner Bros. when all is said and done, according to Deadline. 

The Hollywood Reporter reported on Monday that the studio “scrambled to understand what went so wrong” on Sunday morning. Warner Bros. did not immediately return a request for comment from Business Insider.

So, what did go so wrong for “Doctor Sleep”?

Younger audiences don’t care about ‘The Shining’

Horror is one of the most reliable genres at the box office in recent years, with hits like “Get Out,” “It,” and “A Quiet Place.” “Doctor Sleep” had that going for it, along with its connection to a horror classic — or so the industry thought.

The marketing for “Doctor Sleep” heavily pushed the movie’s connection to “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror movie starring Jack Nicholson. The two posters below are clear examples.

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But Warner Bros. overestimated “The Shining’s” influence among younger audiences, according to box-office experts.

“Sometimes a cinematic connection that is meaningful to film buffs and movie fans — particularly from a movie that is over 30 years old — falls on deaf ears with younger viewers,” Dergarbedian said. 

“39 years was simply too long between sequels,” Jeff Bock, the Exhibitor Relations senior media analyst, told Business Insider.

Bock added that many viewers were likely confused as to whether “Doctor Sleep” was a sequel or a reboot, and were therefore turned off from the movie.

Warner Bros.’ other mistake was not releasing the movie earlier during the Halloween season, according to Bock.

“There was certainly a window to do so, and honestly, they fumbled it,” Bock said. “It cost them millions.”

“Doctor Sleep” is the latest in a series of box-office flops for Warner Bros. this year. Two of its high-budget sequels, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “It: Chapter Two,” performed way below their predecessors. And “The Goldfinch” and “The Kitchen” are two of the biggest flops of the year. 

SEE ALSO: ‘Midway’ $17.5 million opening weekend box office win marks lowest November champ in 20 years

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