AIs, Blade Runner, and Copyright

Vox published an article yesterday about some great work that a researcher is conducting on AI and video interpretation. To put it in terms that I can understand, he programmed an AI to watch Blade Runner and then recreate it. I know the feat is much more complicated and impressive than that, so I recommend you read the article and watch the example videos before reading on.

I won’t summarize more because I want to address the legal ramifications mentioned at the end of the article and in another one published by Techdirt. The issue at hand is how copyright law plays into this project.

While I am for the loosening of copyright restrictions and taking a broad view of fair use, I don’t think that this is as big a legal conundrum as these articles are making it out to be. When all is said and done, this is video synthesis in the same way that a fake guitar sound on a keyboard is audio synthesis. Let’s start there and analogize.

If I take a Led Zeppelin song–let’s say Kashmir because it’s still my favorite–and reprogram the whole thing using a software sequencer (i.e. synthesizer/sampler/workstation) like Reason, I could easily do a recognizable version of the song, however good or bad it turns out. This falls into the category of a cover song and would be covered (hehe) by a mechanical license.

Moving the line a little closer to this example–Say I program an AI to “listen” to Kashmir and then do its best, again using Reason, to create a new version of the song. Still a cover, right?

One more step over–I program an AI to take Kashmir, analyze it, then generate that cover using the other resources I have programmed into it (i.e. I program it to create its own synthesizer). How is this not still a cover song covered by a mechanical license?

Is there a video version of a cover song with automatic laws for licensing? Not that I know of.

Is there some other magic because there is an extra step, the AI, between your intent and the result? At this point, I would argue no. This is like setting up a camera with a motion sensor that gets triggered as an animal goes by, not like a monkey selfie.

Should you be found guilty of copyright infringement for generating and sharing? In my opinion, absolutely not. At the very least, the new video is probably protected by fair use.

But, imagine generating full length AI interpretations of movies and selling them. Under our current system of copyright law in the U.S., there is a good argument that this is infringement.

To be clear, I don’t believe that this should be the case, just that it probably is.

One final note of lawyerly arrogance–why does everyone keep quoting the researcher Terence Broad when he expressed what was essentially a legal opinion about whether or not this is infringement? He is entitled to his opinion, like anyone else, but it is not clear what his basis is. It’s just a nice quote about how this is new ground in the law.

Thoughts? I am open to changing my mind here, because this is super cool work.

A New Gadget

I know that more stuff isn’t the answer. I know that I should spend my money on experiences and not things. Sometimes, though, I need a little inspiration. I was going to drop $500 on the Freewrite distraction-free typewriter. I really liked the idea of being able to escape into writing. I also recently had a birthday, so I had the perfect excuse for the purchase.

I resisted.

But, I still wanted to buy something related to writing. Instead, I spent $70 on a new keyboard with mechanical switches. I had heard good things about typing on this kind of device. After a few sentences of beautiful noisy clicks, I am convinced that I made a good purchase.

Stuff isn’t the answer. It won’t make me a better writer. But, sometimes it is a lot of fun and can act as inspiration to create new experiences.

A Rant About Germs

Last week Dyson got some press regarding a study about their hand dryers. The study found, in controlled conditions, that Dyson driers blast viruses all over the room. Dyson said that really it is the study that blows, and that the conditions were so artificial as to be meaningless.

From a should-I-be-worried perspective, I’m with Dyson. The bathrooms in the malls, bars, and restaurants that we frequent are already filled with germs (viruses and bacteria). The stall door is covered in microscopic bits of all sorts of gross things that come out of strangers’ bodies. So are the walls, and the sink handles, and the door handles. Also, remember, when you are smelling someone else’s waste, that means that particles of their waste are going up your nose. Think about it, be grossed out, and then get over it. Also, it is a bit more complicated than that, but whatever, now the thought is stuck in your head.

How many people in the U.S. die from germs in public bathrooms? I am betting very few (hospitals and developing countries are a different story). How about germs from your kitchen sink sponge that you haven’t changed in months? Again, it probably doesn’t happen that often, if ever, unless you believe this fear mongering garbage. Yet, we love our news reports about how germy the world is–did you know your cell phone also acts as a petri dish? And do you know what happened, at least partially, as a result of this kind of coverage? We got antibacterial soap. A terrible thing to use to clean your hands. And, sadly, something that still hasn’t been taken off the market.

The thing that you should actually be scared of is what our collective fear has created: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is the bacteria you can’t stop. It is the thing that is killing patients in hospitals. It isn’t the only antibiotic resistant bacteria out there. Does it come from kitchen sponge and poo germs? No, but it probably came from our century-long love affair with unnecessary antibiotics.

Unless you run a hospital, stop worrying about Dyson. Stop worrying about your old sponge (but buy a new one when it gets smelly). Stop worrying about your bath towels that you didn’t have time to wash last week. Just chill the fuck out, wash your hands with non-antibacterial soap and water after pooping, and dry them with whatever is available. You’ll live.

Things You Should Know This Week (04.22.2016)

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the Google Books case. For a number of years now, Google has been scanning millions of books and making them searchable (but not freely available). The Authors’ Guild sued them for copyright infringement. Google won the case in the 2nd Circuit using the defense of fair use and now that ruling will stand.

Surprising no one, the FBI wasn’t able to get any useful information off of the phone of the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.

More augmented reality is on the way. This time from a company called Magic Leap. Where Microsoft’s Hololens seems pretty cool, Magic Leap sounds revolutionary. As I’ve said in the past, I am more interested our world with AR than VR.

Prince died this week. We all know that he made lots of great music, but not everyone realizes that he was also a ridiculous guitar player. Seriously, go search around for some Prince live performances, You might have trouble finding them, though, because he was super protective of his copyrights and hated the Internet.

Doctor Who has a new companion. I really wanted to love his last companion, Clara, but she just wasn’t written that well. Hopefully they will fix that with Bill.

Ending on a Happy Note
Harriet Tubman is the new face of the $20!

The Oculus Rift is Here

The Oculus Rift shipped today. If you’re neither a nerd (like me) nor a gamer (not like me), you probably have no idea what this means or why you should care.

So, why should you care about the Oculus Rift? It could be the future of home entertainment, work, and the thing your kids request for Christmas. Also, you should care because Facebook cares. Oculus VR (the company who makes the Rift) was purchased by FB in 2014 for $2 billion. Facebook buys or tries to buy everything that is, or will be cool. You may hate the changes in your timeline, but you stay with them. Maybe you don’t use FB, but like sharing pictures with retro filters. Yeah, they own Instagram. Encrypted messaging to do your drug deals? WhatsApp has you covered. Facebook is always looking for the latest way to get in front of your eyeballs. Strapping a screen two inches from them is a good way to do that. This is the essence of VR.

Virtual Reality (VR) is a term that covers a lot of things. For the purpose of this article, what you need to know is that VR is a set of goggles that you put on your face and plug into your computer or smartphone. Inside the goggles is a screen and a couple of lenses, each lens looking at a slightly different image to create a three dimensional space. How is this different from 3D movies? In VR, you can move your head around and explore the 3D space that has been created. When the effect is done right, you feel like you are actually in a new room (or forest or outer space or whatever). You have seen this tech before in such classic movies as The Lawnmower Man.

Virtual Reality was hampered in the 90's by expensive setups and too much spandex.

Okay, how did we go from crap sci-fi to here?

Oculus is credited as having cracked the puke problem in VR. Your brain doesn’t normally do too well when your head moves, and then a split second later, your environment moves too. The disconnect between vision and motion triggers an alarm that says , “you might be poisoned!” Your body responds with vomit. That little split second is called latency and it is enough to make VR not fun at all, unless you are playing the game adaptation of Stand by Me: Lardass Simulator. Then everything is going according to plan.

It's so real.

What can the Rift do? Right now, it is mostly focused on gaming. If you like games and have a lot of money to buy both the Rift and a super fast computer, this is the thing to buy. Reviews are out today and the critics seem to like it, for a first generation product.

Oculus isn’t the only player in this space, though. HTC has a device coming out next month. Sony has another coming in the fall. If enough people get on board, VR will be here to stay.

This is why you should pay attention now (Note that I am not necessarily recommending that you buy now). VR could become more than just a video gaming platform. When that happens, we will be visiting those cities and countries that we always wanted to see but couldn’t afford. We will have video chats with far-away relatives where it feels like we are in the same room. And, of course, we will have a new platform for all of the sex stuff that comes with new technology. When the sex stuff happens, you know it’s here to stay.

If you want to mess around with the future, but don’t have $1500 to spend ($600 for the Rift plus the cost of a fast computer), consider picking up Google Cardboard. It is only $15 and you can use it with your smartphone. I bought one a couple weeks ago and have enjoyed both using it and watching my non-techie friends use it (with grins on their faces). If you have a Samsung Phone, I recommend checking out the Gear VR, which uses some Oculus technology. Both are good entries into this new space, though not as immersive as dedicated VR setups.

One of our possible futures has arrived. You should read more about it:
Wired’s 2014 Cover Story on Oculus and its founder
The Verge’s Review
Ars Technica’s Review
All of the great memes that came from Time magazine’s tone-deaf cover photo of Oculus’ founder
Google Cardboard
Gear VR

Articles that Made it to Evernote

Throughout the week, I drop a lot of articles into Pocket to read later. When I finally get around to reading one of these articles (could be weeks, could be months), I do one of two things. If the article ends up being just entertainment, I will click the checkmark and it will be archived. If the article is something that I want to share, read again for inspiration, or use for research, I will give it a star. That star triggers an IFTTT recipe that will create a new note in Evernote. I will occasionally be sharing the best of those here on my blog.

We’re Already Violating Virtual Reality’s First Code of Ethics, by Daniel Oberhaus
I am mixture of fascinated, excited, and horrified by our VR future. I bought Google Cardboard a few weeks ago and have had a lot of fun with this simple intro to the medium. As soon as I find someone who has an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, I am going to befriend them to see what the future actually looks like.

As VR gets more real, we need to pay close attention to how it affects us as humans – an immersive environment may change us more fundamentally than other computer interfaces. In this article, Oberhaus discusses a recent paper proposing a code of ethics for VR.

12 Powerful Habits I have Stolen From Ultra-Successful People by Tomas Laurinavicius
Lists like this are neither new nor unique, but I read them anyway as a surrogate coach who is hounding me to be better. I want to wake up early, make lists, and employ those habits that will improve my personal and professional life. I also want to pick and choose from the endless options for betterment. To save you time, I have reduced the list here, but please read the article for the why of each of these habits:
– Waking up early
– Making lists
– Habit stacking
– Stretching
– Listening to podcasts
– Meditation
– Reading
– Writing
– Defining the most important task
– Doing the affirmations
– Visualization
– Exercise

How to Booth Your Team’s Productivity by Rebecca Knight
I love Harvard Business Review, their magazine, their blog (even with it’s lame limit on the number of articles you can read each month), and their daily emails. This blog post was shared in a recent Management Tip of the Day and covers a number of techniques you can employ to support your team. Since I don’t manage a team, I will use it as a tool for self management.

AI Will Be Awful Because We Are

A day after going online, Microsoft had to pull the plug on its AI chatbot, Tay. The bot began making racist comments and talking about Hitler. Of course, racism was not built into Tay, but as those responses are governed by conversations with human users, things quickly devolved.

Microsoft is tweaking it (her?*) and will bring Tay back online soon. I imagine the digital lobotomy that they perform will result in the kind of obnoxious default refusals that most voice assistants exhibit.

“Alexa, f*!k you.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

The problem with this adjustment is that Tay may not pick up on the more subtle levels of sarcastic conversation. This is probably a good thing. I’d rather have my AI be a bit dumber than be prone to influence from the awful parts of the web.

Which brings me to the greater issue. As long as people are awful – or at least play awful people on the Internet – we increase the odds of creating robots that want to destroy us. Since we have solidly established that the awfulness isn’t going away anytime soon, we need either dumb AI or start preparing our tech-free bomb shelters.

* Another day, we can have a conversation about assigning a gender to our bots and how that plays out in the media.

Edit: After posting this, I listened to Motherboard’s great podcast episode, titled “Two Tales of AI.” I highly recommend.