Facebook payout, lockdown lidar, drug drones and more: best of the week’s news
E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.
Hilary Lamb, technology reporter
This week, Facebook reached a preliminary settlement in which it agreed to pay out $52m to current and former content moderators who – funnily enough – have been psychologically impacted by viewing hundreds or thousands of images of murder, paedophilia, rape, torture, bestiality, suicide and executions every day.
To be fair to Facebook, it remains necessary at this time to have a huge team of human moderators alongside the algorithms to sort acceptable from unacceptable content. However, reports and this lawsuit have revealed a terrible lack of support for the people undertaking this unenviable work. A Verge report from last year alleged that contracted content moderators are paid measly wages, can be fired for making small errors, have extremely limited freedoms at work, and many develop PTSD-like symptoms among other psychological troubles.
Under the terms of this settlement, Facebook will pay out at least $1,000 to content moderators in some US states, with the possibility of further compensation if they receive a diagnosis such as PTSD that could be associated with their time spent viewing disturbing content while moderating for Facebook. It has been suggested that moderators could use their basic $1,000 compensation to pursue a diagnosis within the privatised healthcare system. Facebook will also introduce some tools to try to minimise the psychological impact of viewing disturbing content, such as automatically playing videos without audio and in black and white.
I expect that the job will still be painful and disturbing and that many moderators will go on to need long-term psychological support to recover from their work. Still, I can see no alternative to human moderators until Facebook is in a position to roll out algorithms reliable enough to remove harmful content without overreaching.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
What else are they going to do? When you’re having to book your grocery delivery service online a month in advance, your only choice might be to pay by card. Even those who have been extremely reluctant - resistant, in fact - to pay for anything over t’internet might now be obliged to engage with digital payments.
It was inevitable, in a way, given the long-fadeout which cash has been suffering over recent decades, that a viral pandemic would deal another blow to the diminishing use of banknotes and coins, with people - especially shopkeepers - understandably disinclined to handle these objects already touched by thousands of strangers. The pandemic also triggered the raising of the contactless payment limit to £45 - another reason for shoppers to eschew cash.
It's a shame, as notes and coins still hold a unique appeal, as well as being an important physical manifestation of your wealth (or otherwise). It’s very easy to gaily slap your card down with a flourish, or tap in your details to an online payment form, and not really “feel” the money you're spending. When you have to actually withdraw folding money from your bank account, then count out the physical bank notes before handing them over to the shop assistant in exchange for the goods or services your heart craves, this can be a very different, very sobering experience. It’s much more difficult to get into debt if you only use cash.
The over-65s are a generation which grew up with cash, in an era before credit cards even existed. Their suspicions about online payments might well be less about security and more about financial prudence.
We’re probably all going to find something a bit different whenever we eventually return to our formal places of work. The question of how much the coronavirus pandemic has permanently changed the way each of us as individuals and society as a whole works remains to be seen. In office jobs and on systematic production lines, containment is at least a little bit easier than those jobs where people have to physically work in very close proximity to each other. As more and more people return to their near-normal routines, social distancing will become increasingly difficult to maintain, which is where technological solutions such as this wrist monitor can prove effective.
Perhaps there will be a transitional phase, where extreme caution is practised and people still have the dread thought of contracting Covid-19 uppermost in their minds. In the not too distant future, however, it seems likely that peoples’ dwindling attention span and low boredom threshold will see backsliding to the old pre-lockdown ways of behaving, because it’s simply too much trouble and too boring to sustain such high levels of vigilance for too long.
Judging from the photos of myriad locations worldwide, all it takes is one sunny weekend to propel groups of people back into local parks and onto local beaches, the prospect of a nice day out in the sunshine banishing all thought of viral danger from their minds.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Love a bit of lidar. I think, if I evaluated my life a bit more a bit earlier, and did the appropriate A Levels, I would have like to have been an archaeologist. I have a cheap metal detector, and like digging in the garden to see if there’s anything cool. Haven’t found anything yet, unfortunately. It’s probably the detector. Also, I live in an area where there’s a lot of chalk, and there’s not much soil until you hit all the dead prehistoric stuff.
There are a couple of Anglo Saxon burial grounds around my village though, and plenty of evidence of people living there back in the day. Nothing in my garden, though. Probably because it would be useless as a graveyard. They probably used the area to poop or something. Typical.
Anyway, archaeologists have discovered new medieval and Roman sites while working from home by analysing data from lidar scans. Lidar uses very small lasers to create an accurate 3D image of any surroundings by measuring the distance between the sensor and a target object. It’s also used as a key technology for driverless cars to understand and navigate through their environment while avoiding hazards.
It’s been used to find around 30 prehistoric or Roman large embanked settlement enclosures: around 20 prehistoric burial mounds, as well as the remains of hundreds of medieval farms, field systems and quarries. Further discoveries in the coming weeks are expected from the University of Exeter team responsible for these latest revelations. Sweet!
Tim Fryer, technology editor
While I’m aware I’ll immediately raise the hackles of some readers, I’m going to start with the view that the word ‘snowflake’ isn’t used enough. There are too many entitled and over-precious youths out there: fortunately a minority but an irritatingly loud minority. And I have to confess that snowflake was the word that sprang to mind when I read this headline. Surely if people can’t hack reading other people’s abusive messages then they shouldn’t be doing the job, and certainly not claiming against their employer about it.
How naive am I? Abusive messages are clearly just the tip of a horrific iceberg. As I read this news story I couldn’t believe what is posted on Facebook and how valuable the contribution of the content-vetting team is. It’s a sick world we live in, or least these tiny elements of it are. So I completely retract my initial impulse on this one; anyone having to experience viewing a decapitation so that the rest of us are protected from stumbling across such images deserves all the counselling and compensation that they need. And while all I know about this is what is in the news report, it sounds as though Facebook – a company that people do like to have a pop at – has stood up to its responsibilities on this one pretty well.
It does make you think there must be a better way though. In the pages of E&T we have covered numerous stories about video recognition, AI and graphics processing, and it seems that the algorithm that filters out some content before anyone needs to see it, shouldn’t be that far away. Let’s hope so for the sensibilities of the Facebook content moderators anyway.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
For anyone who’s ever looked at an Ordnance Survey map, it’s surprising to find that there’s still so much we don’t know about our landscape - especially as OS itself uses aerial images to assist its mapping activity. The difference with lidar, though, is that it can penetrate through vegetation to reveal things that wouldn’t otherwise be visible - but only if someone has time to look. Now, with lockdown preventing archaeology fieldwork, a team studying the Tamar valley have been analysing their data from home, and discovered far more sites of interest than they ever expected.
We’re used to reading stories about delivery drones, and I at least tend to visualise that as Amazon dropping my latest book purchase in the front garden sometime in the future when all the legal and traffic-management issues have been sorted out. This story, though, is about something rather different. The drone in question looks like a small aircraft and can safely carry a payload of up to 100kg across a busy shipping lane. What’s more, it can make the journey from Solent Airport to St Mary’s Hospital in Newport in 10 minutes - much faster than by road and ferry, and more cheaply than a helicopter. The delivery on 9 May marked the start of a larger trial involving other drones and hospitals, to discover how they can fit into the logistics chain and to establish protocols for operating in mixed airspace. It should be interesting to see how things develop.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Most people’s opinion on whether the Government deserves the hammering it’s getting over various aspects of how it’s handled the Covid-19 pandemic seems to depend on their long-standing political allegiances rather than any consideration of science or statistics.
Regardless of whether you think the switch from “Stay At Home” to “Stay Alert” was a smart change in messaging or a communications disaster, there’s no doubt that one of the next big challenges will be engaging the public in tracking and tracing where the virus is hitting to avoid localised flare-ups.
Essential to that task is persuading people of all ages to download and use the app that’s been developed by the NHS and is being trialled on the Isle of Wight. Uptake there seems to have been encouraging, probably due to a combination of novelty and sense of pioneering civic duty, in spite of questions about how effectively it functions and concerns about how it handles personal data.
The Government’s scientific advisers have been at pains to point out that their area of expertise doesn’t extend to communications and branding, which means the job of getting a critical mass of smartphone users to download and install yet another bit of software will fall to a different group of experts.
Stories like this, which attracted an unusually high level of interest from E&T readers, won’t make their job any easier. No, it’s not malware directly associated with the app, but for the large number of people who probably only use their phone for a limited number of things it’s another reason not to get involved. If I don’t have the app on my phone, they’ll reason, I can safely ignore any messages warning me about contact with Covid-19 sufferers knowing that they’re from a bogus source.
It’s sad, but probably inevitable, that there are criminals who will take advantage of the current situation. They probably need to be aware though, that judging by the anger and calls for retribution I’ve seen on local Facebook groups whenever there’s word of courier parcels being lifted from outside houses or dodgy character posing as delivery drivers to get access to homes, they’ll be sorry if they ever have to face real-life middle-class vigilante justice.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Boris Johnson’s Sunday announcement that everyone who can’t work from home should go back into the workplace presented a confused, conflicting message that puts the nation’s health at risk.
With hundreds of people still dying every day from coronavirus, Johnson urged workers to only take personal modes of transport such as cycling and driving if possible, in order to minimise possible contact between individuals on commutes. Despite the advice buses, trains and tubes remain operating.
Many London residents don’t own a car; depending on how close they live to the centre it becomes an expensive, useless hinderance considering the broad availability of public transport coupled with the congestion charge. It’s also unrealistic to expect everyone to cycle - I say that as a keen cyclist - and most people live too far from work to walk.
Inevitably, many bosses leaped on the announcement, immediately demanding their employers return to the office, mode of transport and risk to their health be damned. Lo and behold, pictures appeared on social media on Monday morning showing packed carriages where maintaining social distancing rules is all but an impossibility.
What did Johnson expect? That all bosses would be nice and considerate to their employees? Does he even live in the real world?
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
There’s no denying the fact: fear and uncertainty make us gullible and ready to believe the most unlikely, at times openly ridiculous, scenarios.
That sudden general gullibility opens up unlimited opportunities for crooks and fraudsters who suddenly find themselves in a very favourable climate for promoting their “great discoveries”.
Most E&T readers will be familiar with the most widespread Covid-19 hoaxes of the English-speaking world, like the totally bizarre assumption that the virus has been spread by 5G. As someone who has access to the Internet’s global Russian-language domain, I’d like to share with non-Russian speakers a couple of scams, going viral in that vast area of the internet. Both stem from individuals who claim to be practicing physicians.
The first comes from an alleged Kiev-based medical practitioner, who speaks about the magic healing effect on coronavirus of... warm and wet blankets. Yes, your ordinary blankets – patchwork, cotton, wool and other – soaked in hot water, then wrapped overnight around the uncomplaining sufferer’s body. Come morning, and the victim will be completely Covid-19 free! The reason? Coronavirus, allegedly, cannot stand heat and quickly perishes when confronted by it. Nice, simple and somewhat reminiscent of another popular Russian remedy, the so-called gorchishniki, or mustard patches – pieces of paper covered with dry mustard and soaked in hot water - that were routinely used for treating mild colds in the USSR of my childhood.
The second “great anti-Covid-19 breakthrough”, the video of which I received from at least a dozen of my Russian correspondents, is based entirely on - surprise, surprise – vodka, that ancient Russian panacea, the drinking of which, as every Russian knows, cures everything from mild coughs to cancers. Only this time, according to another Russian self-proclaimed doctor, “working in Italy”, you don’t even have to drink vodka, just spray it onto your face mask and breathe it! That, as asserted by that Russian-Italian esculap, will destroy the coating around the nasty virus within hours – and Covid-19 will perish as a result!
I think that one of the indisputable attractions of the latter method is that there’s bound to be a substantial amount of vodka left after the “treatment”. And that remaining healing liquid can of course be safely used internally. The effect is bound to be highly beneficial too, particularly if preceded by the famous Russian expression: “Vashe zdorov’ye!” – “To your heath!”
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
It’s amazing what work can be done from home. There are some jobs you'd be forgiven for thinking have to be done out and about, on site. And archaeology would be high on that list perhaps. Yet archaeologists this week described how they have found hundreds of previously unknown remains, including prehistoric and Roman sites, by studying the data from Lidar, a technology better known for its use in vehicles. All during lockdown. Even more exciting, there are loads more to discover because they’ve only covered a part of the West of England so far. So watch this space.
Ben Heubl, associate editor
News that internet spending by older members of the population has increased to 40 per cent of transactions from a mere 20 per cent last year sounds unprecedented, right? But only last year, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that more than half of people 65 and older already happily shop online. So how to square this with stats from 2014 that found 40 per cent of older citizens across the EU shop online, up from 36 per cent in 2013. Confused? Sensationalism of statistics is a general problem. We as information consumers must pay heed, especially when it turns into disinformation. The line between sensationalism and fake news may only grow blurrier.
With Covid-19, the glut of statistics we consume has quadrupled. In the US, the state of Virginia’s statistics reporting comes to mind. Officials are accused of blending results of viral tests and antibody tests into one statistic so they can report more favourable figures to the public. A trusted ex-colleague of mine at the Financial Times data team, John Burn-Murdoch, said on Twitter: “Covid data is extremely poor quality and often doesn’t mean what you think it does”. If the government and businesses do it - press releases and media agencies frequently reference sensationalised statistics - what about those with a vicious intent?
The world grows more data driven every day. It becomes harder to make sense of what’s trustworthy and what’s not. As statistical truth is more bent and twisted, producers of statistical journalism have to be extra cautious.
A new book by Jevin D. West and Carl T. Bergstrom, “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World” (Allen Lane, £20, ISBN 9780241327234), published recently in the US and out in the UK later this year, devotes itself to training readers in we all need to grow more sceptical towards statistics thrown at us. They say: "bullshit pollutes our world by misleading people about specific issues, and it undermines our ability to trust information in general”. Trust is important. A lack of it can have dramatic consequences, as the recent pandemic related events show.
The authors stress that there is old-school and new-school bullshit. The latter can be effective as we might not feel qualified to challenge complicated quantitative information. Also, modern propaganda has a different aim now and mere convincing people of specific untruths is not among its objectives anymore. We found similar signs in E&T’s Kremlin disinformation investigation.
There are many more examples of disinformation that the book cites. The narrative takes the reader behind the carefully drawn curtains by disinformation artists, politicians and advertisers. What West and Bergstrom argue for – that it’s becoming harder than ever to tell the false from the truth – isn’t new. Previous authors made similar points. Notably the 1991 Penguin Business book “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff.
Where West and Bergstrom excel lies beyond calling out phoney examples. The book is training readers in the practice of spotting BS. It's a bootcamp. Proclaiming a set of axioms that can immediately be used is one way they do it. The list of “rule of thumb” principles is long but digestible. It includes gauging incorrect explanations as a source of BS, prevent confirmation bias, considering magnitude when judging, minding sensationalism, beware of unfair comparison and not least to scrutinise sources of any given information.
Drawing careful distinctions between bullshit and lies is another high-wire act where it shines: “Lies are designed to lead away from the truth; bullshit is produced with a gross indifference to the truth,” they write.
All this makes the book an asset for any information consumer – useful as the pandemic made us consumer more information indoor. It concludes with a dictum by Neil Postman, the American writer and educator known best known for his books on technology and education: “At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.”
As we are both interpreter and selector of information this makes us the weakest link in the chain. That’s why the best way forward is to start with yourself. The book aptly offers recipes to get started at once. One of the most important lessons I found is to self-reflect and appreciate how difficult it can be to get to the truth. If that’s all the reader takes away the book has already achieved its aim.
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