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Technology

    As big entertainment companies prepare to launch new streaming services, Comcast is trying to bolster its Flex streaming TV device by giving it away. As with Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku, Flex lets viewers watch streaming services over a regular TV, though they have to subscribe to Netflix and others on their own. Comcast said Wednesday that one box would now be free for its home internet customers. Additional boxes would still cost $5 a month each. Flex will support Comcast's upcoming Peacock streaming service, featuring NBCUniversal shows. Comcast won't say whether viewers will be able to watch upcoming rival services like Disney Plus , HBO Max and Apple TV Plus . Flex doesn't support online-TV services that are cable replacements, like YouTube TV and AT&T TV Now.
  • Facebook is slashing the price and the size of the Portal, its screen and camera-equipped gadget for making video calls with friends and family as it attempts to get the device into more homes. A smaller version will now cost $129 and will come with an 8 inch display. A larger version with a 10 inch display will cost $179. A new screenless Portal device that attaches to a television set will be $149. Last year's models were bigger and cost more — $199 for a 10.1 inch display and $349 for at 15.6 inch screen. Facebook isn't saying how many Portals it's sold since it launched the first models last fall. It remains unclear how many people want a Facebook-branded smart camera in their homes, given the company's history of privacy problems . Facebook executives unveiled the new gadget at a small event in San Francisco this week. In addition to losing a few inches, Portal has been redesigned to look less like a space-age gadget and more like a picture frame. The product is also launching in more countries and will work with WhatsApp to make video calls, in addition to Facebook's Messenger app. And will now stream Amazon Prime videos. Facebook has tried to assuage privacy concerns with the Portal. The service will not show ads, but 'we are using Facebook's infrastructure, so some data may inform ads on Facebook,' said Andrew 'Boz' Bosworth, vice president of virtual reality and augmented reality. 'But that's not the point of it, it's not something that is going to be material to Facebook.' For instance, if someone makes a lot of video calls on Portal, they might see ads for video calling devices elsewhere. But Facebook says it doesn't use the content of the calls for ad targeting, though Bosworth declined to commit to never doing so in the future. The Portal and the Portal Mini go on sale Oct. 15; the screenless version ships on Nov. 5.
  • Paris is testing out a new form of travel: an eco-friendly bubble-shaped taxi that zips along the water up and down the Seine River. Organizers are holding test runs this week on one white, oval-shaped electric hydrofoil boat that resemble tiny space shuttles gliding past Paris monuments. The boats can fit four passengers, and if they get approved, can be ordered on an app like land taxis, shared bikes or other forms of transport. Its designers hope to run the so-called Seabubbles commercially in Paris and other cities starting next year. Anders Bringdal, SeaBubbles CEO, told The Associated Press that 'the most important for us is no noise, no waves, no pollution. And bring them into cities that are congested.' Bringdal said the water taxi will 'not only be fun' but also makes economic sense. 'If you compare a similar size boat with an engine, you are going to run 30, 40, 50 euros an hour in fuel cost when this one costs you 3 dollars or 3 euros,' he said. Proponents see the vehicle as a new model for the fast-changing landscape of urban mobility.
  • In the face of criticism that Facebook is not doing enough to combat extremist messaging, the company likes to say that its automated systems remove the vast majority of prohibited content glorifying the Islamic State group and al-Qaida before it's reported. But a whistleblower's complaint shows that Facebook itself has inadvertently provided the two extremist groups with a networking and recruitment tool by producing dozens of pages in their names. The social networking company appears to have made little progress on the issue in the four months since The Associated Press detailed how pages that Facebook auto-generates for businesses are aiding Middle East extremists and white supremacists in the United States. On Wednesday, U.S. senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will be questioning representatives from social media companies, including Monika Bickert, who heads Facebooks efforts to stem extremist messaging. The new details come from an update of a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission that the National Whistleblower Center plans to file this week. The filing obtained by the AP identifies almost 200 auto-generated pages — some for businesses, others for schools or other categories — that directly reference the Islamic State group and dozens more representing al-Qaida and other known groups. One page listed as a 'political ideology' is titled 'I love Islamic state.' It features an IS logo inside the outlines of Facebook's famous thumbs-up icon. In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told the AP: 'Our priority is detecting and removing content posted by people that violates our policy against dangerous individuals and organizations to stay ahead of bad actors. Auto-generated pages are not like normal Facebook pages as people can't comment or post on them and we remove any that violate our policies. While we cannot catch every one, we remain vigilant in this effort.' Facebook has a number of functions that auto-generate pages from content posted by users. The updated complaint scrutinizes one function that is meant to help business networking. It scrapes employment information from users' pages to create pages for businesses. In this case, it may be helping the extremist groups because it allows users to like the pages, potentially providing a list of sympathizers for recruiters. The new filing also found that users' pages promoting extremist groups remain easy to find with simple searches using their names. They uncovered one page for 'Mohammed Atta' with an iconic photo of one of the al-Qaida adherents, who was a hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks. The page lists the user's work as 'Al Qaidah' and education as 'University Master Bin Laden' and 'School Terrorist Afghanistan.' Facebook has been working to limit the spread of extremist material on its service, so far with mixed success. In March, it expanded its definition of prohibited content to include U.S. white nationalist and white separatist material as well as that from international extremist groups. It says it has banned 200 white supremacist organizations and 26 million pieces of content related to global extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida. It also expanded its definition of terrorism to include not just acts of violence attended to achieve a political or ideological aim, but also attempts at violence, especially when aimed at civilians with the intent to coerce and intimidate. It's unclear, though, how well enforcement works if the company is still having trouble ridding its platform of well-known extremist organizations' supporters. But as the report shows, plenty of material gets through the cracks — and gets auto-generated. The AP story in May highlighted the auto-generation problem, but the new content identified in the report suggests that Facebook has not solved it. The report also says that researchers found that many of the pages referenced in the AP report were removed more than six weeks later on June 25, the day before Bickert was questioned for another congressional hearing. The issue was flagged in the initial SEC complaint filed by the center's executive director, John Kostyack, that alleges the social media company has exaggerated its success combatting extremist messaging. 'Facebook would like us to believe that its magical algorithms are somehow scrubbing its website of extremist content,' Kostyack said. 'Yet those very same algorithms are auto-generating pages with titles like 'I Love Islamic State,' which are ideal for terrorists to use for networking and recruiting.' ___ Ortutay reported from San Francisco.
  • Facebook said Tuesday that it expects to name the first members of a new quasi-independent oversight board by year-end. The oversight panel is intended to rule on thorny content issues, such as when Facebook or Instagram posts constitute hate speech. It will be empowered to make binding rulings on whether posts or ads violate the company's standards. Any other findings it makes will be considered 'guidance' by Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to establish the board last November after Facebook came under intense scrutiny for failures to protect user privacy and for its inability to quickly and effectively remove disinformation, hate speech and malign influence campaigns on its platform. 'Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own,' he wrote at the time. Critics call the oversight board a bid by Facebook to forestall regulation or even an eventual breakup. The company faces antitrust investigations by the Federal Trade Commission, Congress and a group of state attorneys general. 'Facebook is attempting to normalize an approach to containing hate speech internally,' said Dipayan Ghosh, a former Facebook policy adviser and a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School. 'If it can illustrate that this approach can work, it can pacify the public itch to regulate the business model behind Facebook.' Luigi Zingales, a University of Chicago professor of finance, called the board's creation 'a clever move' that's more about appearance than substance. 'It's hard to imagine that this board will not be completely captured by Facebook,' said Zingales, who co-chaired a committee of more than two dozen prominent academics that published a report Tuesday on how to rein in digital platforms . To avoid that, at least some of its members would need to be chosen by outsiders, he said. The multinational board will eventually comprise 40 members, who will collectively decide a few dozen cases a year, company executives told reporters in a conference call. It will at first hear only cases initiated by Facebook but will begin hearing appeals initiated by users in the first half of 2020, the company said. It will get to work as soon as 11 members are named. Priority cases will involve content that 'threatens someone else's voice, safety, privacy, dignity or equality' and affects a large number of people, Facebook said in a blog post Tuesday. Experts say the panel will have a limited range for decision-making, however. Local laws or directives from repressive governments might clash with its rulings, and Facebook might heed them for business reasons. 'How to deal with authoritarian regimes is a deep issue for the platform, and for the world really,' said Harvard law student Evelyn Douek, an Australian expert on content moderation. Douek says the group's charter , also released Tuesday, should insulate board members from public pressure and Facebook's commercial imperatives. But she believes the conditions under which members could be removed are still too vague. The first few board members will be directly chosen by Facebook; they will then choose additional members. Facebook will also name the administrators of the trust that manages the Oversight Board and pays its members' salaries. Brent Harris, Facebook's director of governance, told reporters the company had not yet decided how much board members would be paid. He did not respond when asked how many hours a week would be expected of them in the part-time job. Facebook expects panelists will include former judges, editors, publishers and journalists, he said. The board members' access to Facebook data will also be limited. 'The board will have access to data that's pertinent to the case but no more,' said Harris. Oversight board members are to serve three-year terms with a maximum of three terms. They can be removed by trustees for violations of a code of conduct that has yet to be drawn up. Panels of five will convene to review individual cases and decisions will be public, though data and privacy restrictions could apply. Harris said the board will have a staff that will initially consist of Facebook employees seconded from their jobs. It's unclear where the permanent staff will eventually be located and how often oversight board members would meet in person to decide cases.
  • Apple on Tuesday deepened its ties with a Kentucky manufacturing plant by awarding $250 million to support Corning Inc.'s continued work to develop glass for iPhones and other devices. The award builds on the $200 million that Corning received from Apple's Advanced Manufacturing Fund in 2017, the tech giant said. The combined investments support Corning's research and development that will be crucial for next-generation consumer devices, Apple said. Scratch-resistant glass for every generation of iPhone has been made at Corning's plant in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Corning also supplies glass for iPads and Apple Watches. 'Apple and Corning's rich history dates back more than a decade and our partnership revolutionized glass and transformed the technology industry with the first iPhone,' Jeff Williams, Apple's chief operating officer, said in a release. 'This award underscores Apple and Corning's shared belief in the vital role that ingenuity plays in creating industry-leading products, and the pride that both companies take in applying American innovation and advanced manufacturing to solve some of the world's toughest technology challenges,' he added. Wendell P. Weeks, Corning's chairman, chief executive officer and president, said the additional investment will allow the Corning, New York-based company to develop 'groundbreaking new glass innovations' while expanding its manufacturing capabilities. 'Most importantly, our ongoing collaboration allows us to create vital new capabilities for end users and continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible well into the future,' he said. Corning employs about 400 people at its technology development and manufacturing operations in Harrodsburg. It's been part of the central Kentucky community for more than 65 years. The company said the new Apple award won't result in an immediate increase in jobs at the Kentucky operation but enables 'future opportunities that may lead to growth.' The Harrodsburg plant is Corning's longest-running U.S.-based manufacturing facility. Apple and Corning first teamed up more than a decade ago when former Apple CEO Steve Jobs ordered the plastic screen on the company's first iPhone to be replaced with a scratch-resistant glass just a few months before the product was to launch.
  • Facebook will work with law enforcement organizations to train its artificial intelligence systems to recognize videos of violent events as part of a broader effort to crack down on extremism. Facebook's AI systems were unable to detect live-streamed video of a mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The effort will use body-cam footage of firearms training provided by U.S. and U.K. government and law enforcement agencies. The aim is to develop systems that can automatically detect first-person violent events without also flagging similar footage from movies or video games. It's also expanding its definition of terrorism to include not just acts of violence attended to achieve a political or ideological aim, but also attempts at violence, especially when aimed at civilians with the intent to coerce and intimidate. Facebook has been working to limit the spread of extremist material on its service, so far with mixed success . In March, it expanded its definition of prohibited content to include U.S. white nationalist and white separatist material as well as that from international terrorist groups. It says it has banned 200 white supremacist organizations and 26 million pieces of content related to global terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. Extremist videos are just one item in a long list of troubles Facebook faces. It was fined $5 billion fine by U.S. regulators over its privacy practices. A group of state attorneys general has launched its own antitrust investigation into Facebook. And it is also part of broader investigations into 'big tech' by Congress and the U.S. Justice Department. More regulation might be needed to deal with the problem of extremist material, said Dipayan Ghosh, a former Facebook employee and White House tech policy adviser who is currently a Harvard fellow. 'Content takedowns will always be highly contentious because of the platforms' core business model to maximize engagement,' he said. 'And if the companies become too aggressive in their takedowns, then the other side — including propagators of hate speech — will cry out.
  • A growing number of countries are following China's lead in deploying artificial intelligence to track citizens, according to a research group's report published Tuesday. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says at least 75 countries are actively using AI tools such as facial recognition for surveillance. The index of countries where some form of AI surveillance is used includes liberal democracies such as the United States and France as well as more autocratic regimes. Relying on a survey of public records and media reports, the report says Chinese tech companies led by Huawei and Hikvision are supplying much of the AI surveillance technology to countries around the world. Other companies such as Japan's NEC and U.S.-based IBM, Palantir and Cisco are also major international providers of AI surveillance tools. Hikvision declined comment Tuesday. The other companies mentioned in the report didn't immediately return requests for comment. The report encompasses a broad range of AI tools that have some public safety component. The group's index doesn't distinguish between legitimate public safety tools and unlawful or harmful uses such as spying on political opponents. 'I hope citizens will ask tougher questions about how this type of technology is used and what type of impacts it will have,' said the report's author, Steven Feldstein, a Carnegie Endowment fellow and associate professor at Boise State University. Many of the projects cited in Feldstein's report are 'smart city' systems in which a municipal government installs an array of sensors, cameras and other internet-connected devices to gather information and communicate with one another. Huawei is a lead provider of such platforms, which can be used to manage traffic or save energy, but which are increasingly also used for public surveillance and security, Feldstein said. Feldstein said he was surprised by how many democratic governments in Europe and elsewhere are racing ahead to install AI surveillance such as facial recognition, automated border controls and algorithmic tools to predict when crimes might occur. The index shows that just over half of the world's advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems either at the national or local level. 'I thought it would be most centered in the Gulf States or countries in China's orbit,' Feldstein said.
  • Comcast's NBCUniversal said Tuesday that its upcoming streaming service will be called Peacock, in an homage to NBC's logo. It will become the home for some of the company's most popular shows, including 'Parks and Recreation' and 'The Office.' That means both will be leaving Netflix, although not for several months after Peacock launches. As Disney, AT&T's WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal prepare to debut their streaming services, they have been taking some of their TV and movie deals away from Netflix, the most popular streaming service. That augurs a future where consumers will have to hunt for their favorite shows and films among lots of different services. WarnerMedia for example on Tuesday also announced that HBO Max, its upcoming streaming service, will have the U.S. rights to 'The Big Bang Theory.' Netflix on Monday said it's adding Seinfeld. Peacock, like HBO Max, is launching in April, after Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, which come out this November. NBCUniversal on Tuesday did not announce a price. The service will have ads. Peacock's lineup will include series like '30 Rock,' ''Will & Grace,' and 'Cheers,' although those won't stream exclusively on Peacock, as well as original new movies and shows including reboots of 'Battlestar Galactica' and 'Saved by the Bell' and a new comedy series from 'The Good Place' and 'Parks and Rec' creator Mike Schur. NBCUniversal would not say what would be available at Peacock's launch.
  • A new venture backed by many of video gaming's biggest publishers is unveiling a network that hopes to be to esports what ESPN has been to traditional sports. VENN is set to launch in 2020 and aims to give the fragmented esports scene a home base for content with higher production value than gamers are used to with online streaming. The network was co-founded by four-time Emmy-winning producer Ariel Horn and entrepreneur Ben Kusin and has raised $17 million from investors including co-founders from Twitch, Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment. VENN, short for Video Game Entertainment and News Network, will debut with live studios in New York and Los Angeles. There is expected to be 55 hours of original programming per week, including gamer streams, talk shows, documentaries and live esport events. It already has deals in place to broadcast on Twitch and YouTube and expects to be available on mediums like Roku or Sling. Esports revenues are expected to top $1 billion this year, and global viewership numbers are rivaling those of traditional sports — nearly 100 million viewers watched last year's League of Legends world championship, roughly on par with TV viewership for the Super Bowl. Yet the industry remains disjointed. Just like not all football fans also watch hockey, Fortnite players aren't necessarily keeping tabs on League of Legends or Overwatch. Creating a common space for all those gamers has proven difficult. Perhaps the closest thing is the online streaming platform Twitch, but gamers there tend to find streams specific to their interest, creating little overlap with other gaming domains. VENN hopes to solve that with content built around the culture of gaming. 'I think we're more of a hybridized ESPN and what MTV TRL (Total Request Live) was when it launched decades ago,' Kusin said. 'That crossover that it brought music in that generation in the culture.' It's a lofty pitch, but one that's proven credible to many of gaming's most influential names. The group's initial investors include Riot Games co-founder Marc Merrill, Blizzard Entertainment co-founder Mike Morhaime, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin and aXiomatic Gaming, an investment group behind Team Liquid and Epic Games. That gives VENN financial connections to esports' biggest titles — Riot owns League of Legends, Blizzard is behind Overwatch and Call of Duty, and Epic publishes Fortnite — as well as some of its biggest teams. 'We could go to these luminaries in the industry and say, 'Hey, we want to come together, be swift, work with a bunch of different titles, a bunch of different publishers and move the industry forward in terms of its recognition and prominence, will you help us?'' Kusin said. 'The answer was a resounding yes.' Horn's presence is a big part of that. Formerly a sports producer at NBC, he has become a pioneering figure in esports. His achievements included a sports Emmy in 2017 for his role in landing an augmented reality dragon inside a stadium during the 2017 League of Legends World Championships opening ceremony and a successful New Year's Eve stream by Ninja from Times Square last year. 'Taking what's already there on a platform that (gamers) understand, and taking that into a network environment, that's what we're looking to do,' Horn said. ___ More AP esports: https://apnews.com/Esports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports