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The road to a more ethical Twitter

The road to a more ethical Twitter

Good morning! This Thursday, Twitter is hiring the biggest names in ethical AI, Netflix might be losing its edge, T-Mobile is up to its old marketing tricks, and a brilliant interview with a very successful "Leading Investor."

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The Big Story

Can Twitter build more ethical AI?

Twitter is on an impressive hiring spree, adding the biggest names in ethical AI to its META team, which stands for machine learning, ethics, transparency and accountability. And, oh look, they all happen to be women!

  • The company first hired ex-Facebook privacy lead Jutta Williams, followed by former senior principal for responsible AI at Accenture Rumman Chowdhury, and finally Penn professor Kristian Lum and big-time tech company critic Sarah Roberts, who is the co-director of the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at UCLA.

Twitter ML leader Ari Font volunteered to help run the team in mid-2020, taking ML ethics on a company-wide roadshow to persuade Jack Dorsey that META deserved an operationalized place, a new leader, more headcount and a sizable bump in budget.

  • And she more than succeeded. Responsible ML is now one of Twitter's 2021 initiatives, and Dorsey and the board of directors' apparent commitment to the project was enough to persuade Williams, Chowdhury, Lum and Roberts to come on board.
  • "It was absolutely critical to me that every single person who would be interacting with META was really on board. And I always left every interview so impressed. There was never any question of whether or not Twitter had the right kind of ethos," Chowdhury said.

Hiring these ethical AI superstars is a massive coup for Twitter, especially after the forced dismissal of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell at Google made the world pay attention to the ethics research community. At the same time that this was happening, and Facebook was trying (and failing) to persuade politicians and researchers that it did not have the power to manipulate the way algorithms amplified misinformation, Twitter was giving the META team the resources and leeway to hire people who could actually act on the company's promise to listen to its researchers.

The META team now has a huge task: to prove that a tech company can actually take the principles of ethical, responsible algorithms and apply them in a practical way for users. It frames its work around the idea that Twitter's ML engineers don't have bad intentions; they just might not understand the importance of an ethical approach or how to go about it in a practical way.

  • The team sees itself as a group of educators, doing the research to show that algorithms often have unintended, sometimes racist and sometimes sexist consequences, and then using that information to teach developers how to prevent that from happening in the future.
  • "Things are actionable because they know we can do better, it's hard to know what to do differently unless you have a workflow," Font told me. "People don't always know what it is they can do, even if they are smart and good-hearted."

And this won't be easy. Or quick. "There's a life cycle to enacting change," Williams told me. "You have to focus on enhancement; your first iteration or two is more on monitoring than it is on auditing. This as a concept is so new that focusing very directly on discipline and enforcement, you can't really drive change through fear."

— Anna Kramer (email | twitter)


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People Are Talking

Masa Son came up with … quite the comparison for SoftBank's future:

  • "In the industrial revolution, one of the main players was Rothschild. We would like to be the capital provider for the information revolution. That is our new definition or new positioning I would say to describe SoftBank Group."

Google's Ruth Porat said she supports Biden's plan to increase taxes on the wealthy:

  • "As we look at the intent behind it, the focus is how do we … fund an infrastructure program this country needs? And we're committed to playing our part in that. We're very much supportive of the OECD, we think this creates a sustainable solution and ensuring we're doing the right things across the U.S."

The case against sideloading iPhone apps is all about safety, Apple's Erik Neuenschwander said:

  • "It's the device you carry around with you. So it knows your location. And therefore somebody who could attack that would get pattern-of-life details about you. It has a microphone, and therefore that's a microphone that could be around you much more than your Mac's microphone is likely to be. So the kind of sensitive data [on the iPhone] is more enticing to an attacker."

Elon Musk should maybe cool it with the crypto tweets, Binance's Changpeng Zhao said:

  • "I think Elon Musk wants to be a humorous guy … but he has to realize that his tweets do have the power to move markets."

Netflix has lost its edge, Hollywood mogul Kenya Barris said:

  • "The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle. Netflix became CBS."

Making Moves

Chris Krebs joined the board at SentinelOne. The former U.S. cybersecurity chief is a pretty big get for the company.

Warren Buffett left the board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Buffett also announced $4.1 billion in new giving, meaning he has officially given away half his net worth.

Jeff Pedersen is Angi's new CFO, joining from Stripes.

Matt Garratt is a new general partner at CRV, joining from Salesforce Ventures.

On Protocol: EA bought Playdemic for $1.4 billion, giving it an even larger stake in the mobile gaming biz.

On Protocol | Fintech: Visa is buying Tink for $2.2 billion, just five months after its Plaid deal collapsed under regulatory scrutiny.

In Other News

  • John McAfee died. He was found dead in his prison cell in Spain, only hours after the Spanish High Court ruled he could be extradited to the U.S. to face tax evasion charges.
  • The House Judiciary Committee spent all day debating that big package of antitrust bills, advancing one that would allot more money for antitrust enforcement and another that would make cases easier to prosecute for states. The debate has been heated so far.
  • Your crypto caper of the day: Two South African brothers started an investment platform called Africrypt, brought more than 69,000 bitcoin onto the platform … and then disappeared with the money.
  • The Supreme Court took a stance on Snapchat posts. It ruled 8-1 that a teenager's (not so nice) posts about school were entitled to First Amendment protection.
  • The LAPD is investigating its Ring relationship. Some officers are accused of getting free devices in exchange for promoting them to colleagues, and the department said it's looking into any possible impropriety.
  • T-Mobile is selling "5Gin" and "5Ginger Beer" to promote its 5G coverage. Which is dumb, yes, but barely scratches the top 10 of T-Mobile's wacky marketing antics.
  • Comcast may be looking for a streaming deal. It wants to become a big digital player, The Wall Street Journal reported, and could build its own or strike a big deal with a company like Roku or ViacomCBS.
  • Mark Zuckerberg turned that infamous sunscreen photointo the design for his new surfboard. Well played, Zuck.
  • San Francisco hard-capped delivery apps. No app can charge more than 15% per order going forward, the city said, extending permanently a pandemic-related cap that Mayor London Breed instituted last year.
  • Bird built an e-bike, and Spin upgraded its scooters. Both are looking for new ways to compete with Lime … and to finally figure out a way to make money.
  • Don't miss this TechCrunch interview with "Leading Investor," a truly great satire and honestly maybe the last VC interview you ever need to read.

One More Thing

Who needs a water cooler?

The easiest way to justify bringing your employees back to the office is to say something along the lines of, "being together fosters creativity." Something something, water-cooler conversations, right? Well, let's do away with that excuse: Turns out there's really no evidence that that kind of spontaneous, collaborative creativity exists, the New York Times reported.

You could take that as bad news, but you should see it as an opportunity: It's time to reimagine the office completely, to figure out how a space can better foster team-building and personal bonding and all the things being together is actually good for. Or, at the very least, get a better reason to bring everybody back. Like … free lunch.


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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the full name of the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. This story was updated on June 24, 2021.

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