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‘I was shocked it was so easy’: meet the professor who says facial recognition can tell if you’re gay

Psychologist Michal Kosinski says artificial intelligence can detect your sexuality and politics just by looking at your face. What if hes right?

Vladimir Putin was not in attendance, but his loyal lieutenants were. On 14 July last year, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and several members of his cabinet convened in an office building on the outskirts of Moscow. On to the stage stepped a boyish-looking psychologist, Michal Kosinski, who had been flown from the city centre by helicopter to share his research. There was Lavrov, in the first row, he recalls several months later, referring to Russias foreign minister. You know, a guy who starts wars and takes over countries. Kosinski, a 36-year-old assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, was flattered that the Russian cabinet would gather to listen to him talk. Those guys strike me as one of the most competent and well-informed groups, he tells me. They did their homework. They read my stuff.

Kosinskis stuff includes groundbreaking research into technology, mass persuasion and artificial intelligence (AI) research that inspired the creation of the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Five years ago, while a graduate student at Cambridge University, he showed how even benign activity on Facebook could reveal personality traits a discovery that was later exploited by the data-analytics firm that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

That would be enough to make Kosinski interesting to the Russian cabinet. But his audience would also have been intrigued by his work on the use of AI to detect psychological traits. Weeks after his trip to Moscow, Kosinski published a controversial paper in which he showed how face-analysing algorithms could distinguish between photographs of gay and straight people. As well as sexuality, he believes this technology could be used to detect emotions, IQ and even a predisposition to commit certain crimes. Kosinski has also used algorithms to distinguish between the faces of Republicans and Democrats, in an unpublished experiment he says was successful although he admits the results can change depending on whether I include beards or not.

How did this 36-year-old academic, who has yet to write a book, attract the attention of the Russian cabinet? Over our several meetings in California and London, Kosinski styles himself as a taboo-busting thinker, someone who is prepared to delve into difficult territory concerning artificial intelligence and surveillance that other academics wont. I can be upset about us losing privacy, he says. But it wont change the fact that we already lost our privacy, and theres no going back without destroying this civilisation.

The aim of his research, Kosinski says, is to highlight the dangers. Yet he is strikingly enthusiastic about some of the technologies he claims to be warning us about, talking excitedly about cameras that could detect people who are lost, anxious, trafficked or potentially dangerous. You could imagine having those diagnostic tools monitoring public spaces for potential threats to themselves or to others, he tells me. There are different privacy issues with each of those approaches, but it can literally save lives.

Progress always makes people uncomfortable, Kosinski adds. Always has. Probably, when the first monkeys stopped hanging from the trees and started walking on the savannah, the monkeys in the trees were like, This is outrageous! It makes us uncomfortable. Its the same with any new technology.

***

Kosinski has analysed thousands of peoples faces, but never run his own image through his personality-detecting models, so we cannot know what traits are indicated by his pale-grey eyes or the dimple in his chin. I ask him to describe his own personality. He says hes a conscientious, extroverted and probably emotional person with an IQ that is perhaps slightly above average. He adds: And Im disagreeable. What made him that way? If you trust personality science, it seems that, to a large extent, youre born this way.

His friends, on the other hand, describe Kosinski as a brilliant, provocative and irrepressible data scientist who has an insatiable (some say naive) desire to push the boundaries of his research. Michal is like a small boy with a hammer, one of his academic friends tells me. Suddenly everything looks like a nail.

Born in 1982 in Warsaw, Kosinski inherited his aptitude for coding from his parents, both of whom trained as software engineers. Kosinski and his brother and sister had a computer at home, potentially much earlier than western people of the same age. By the late 1990s, as Polands post-Soviet economy was opening up, Kosinski was hiring his schoolmates to work for his own IT company. This business helped fund him through university, and in 2008 he enrolled in a PhD programme at Cambridge, where he was affiliated with the Psychometrics Centre, a facility specialising in measuring psychological traits.

It was around that time that he met David Stillwell, another graduate student, who had built a personality quiz and shared it with friends on Facebook. The app quickly went viral, as hundreds and then thousands of people took the survey to discover their scores according to the Big Five metrics: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. When users completed the myPersonality tests, some of which also measured IQ and wellbeing, they were given an option to donate their results to academic research.

Kosinski came on board, using his digital skills to clean, anonymise and sort the data, and then make it available to other academics. By 2012, more than 6 million people had taken the tests with about 40% donating their data, creating the largest dataset of its kind.

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From Cesare Lombrosos criminal taxonomy: a habitual thief

From
and a murderer. Photographs: Alamy

In May, New Scientist magazine revealed that the datasets username and password had been accidentally left on GitHub, a commonly used code-sharing website. For four years, anyone not just authorised researchers could have accessed the data. Before the magazines investigation, Kosinski had admitted to me that there were risks to their liberal approach. We anonymised the data, and we made scientists sign a guarantee that they will not use it for any commercial reasons, he had said. But you just cant really guarantee that this will not happen. Much of the Facebook data, he added, was de-anonymisable. In the wake of the New Scientist story, Stillwell closed down the myPersonality project. Kosinski sent me a link to the announcement, complaining: Twitter warriors and sensation-seeking writers made David shut down the myPersonality project.

During the time the myPersonalitydata was accessible, about 280 researchers used it to publish more than 100 academic papers. The most talked-about was a 2013 study co-authored by Kosinski, Stillwell and another researcher, that explored the relationship between Facebook Likes and the psychological and demographic traits of 58,000 people. Some of the results were intuitive: the best predictors of introversion, for example, were Likes for pages such as Video Games and Voltaire. Other findings were more perplexing: among the best predictors of high IQ were Likes on the Facebook pages for Thunderstorms and Morgan Freemans Voice. People who Liked pages for iPod and Gorillaz were likely to be dissatisfied with life.

If an algorithm was fed with sufficient data about Facebook Likes, Kosinski and his colleagues found, it could make more accurate personality-based predictions than assessments made by real-life friends. In other research, Kosinski and others showed how Facebook data could be turned into what they described as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion.

Their research came to the attention of the SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. In 2014, SCL tried to enlist Stillwell and Kosinski, offering to buy the myPersonality data and their predictive models. When negotiations broke down, they relied on the help of another academic in Cambridges psychology department Aleksandr Kogan, an assistant professor. Using his own Facebook personality quiz, and paying users (with SCL money) to take the tests, Kogan collected data on 320,000 Americans. Exploiting a loophole that allowed developers to harvest data belonging to the friends of Facebook app users (without their knowledge or consent), Kogan was able to hoover up additional data on as many as 87 million people.

Headshot
Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie who says the company tried to replicate Kosinskis work for psychological warfare. Photograph: Getty Images

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who lifted the lid on Cambridge Analyticas operations earlier this year, has described how the company set out to replicate the work done by Kosinski and his colleagues, and to turn it into an instrument of psychological warfare. This is not my fault, Kosinski told reporters from the Swiss publication Das Magazin, which was the first to make the connection between his work and Cambridge Analytica. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.

Cambridge Analytica always denied using Facebook-based psychographic targeting during the Trump campaign, but the scandal over its data harvesting forced the company to close. The saga also proved highly damaging to Facebook, whose headquarters are less than four miles from Kosinskis base at Stanfords Business School in Silicon Valley. The first time I enter his office, I ask him about a painting beside his computer, depicting a protester armed with a Facebook logo in a holster instead of a gun. People think Im anti-Facebook, Kosinski says. But I think that, generally, it is just a wonderful technology.

Still, he is disappointed in the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who, when he testified before US Congress in April, said he was trying to find out whether there was something bad going on at Cambridge University. Facebook, Kosinski says, was well aware of his research. He shows me emails he had with employees in 2011, in which they disclosed they were using analysis of linguistic data to infer personality traits. In 2012, the same employees filed a patent, showing how personality characteristics could be gleaned from Facebook messages and status updates.

Kosinski seems unperturbed by the furore over Cambridge Analytica, which he feels has unfairly maligned psychometric micro-targeting in politics. There are negative aspects to it, but overall this is a great technology and great for democracy, he says. If you can target political messages to fit peoples interests, dreams, personality, you make those messages more relevant, which makes voters more engaged and more engaged voters are great for democracy. But you can also, I say, use those same techniques to discourage your opponents voters from turning out, which is bad for democracy. Then every politician in the US is doing this, Kosinski replies, with a shrug. Whenever you target the voters of your opponent, this is a voter-suppression activity.

Kosinskis wider complaint about the Cambridge Analytica fallout, he says, is that it has created an illusion that governments can protect data and shore up their citizens privacy. It is a lost war, he says. We should focus on organising our society in such a way as to make sure that the post-privacy era is a habitable and nice place to live.

***

Kosinski says he never set out to prove that AI could predict a persons sexuality. He describes it as a chance discovery, something he stumbled upon. The lightbulb moment came as he was sifting through Facebook profiles for another project and started to notice what he thought were patterns in peoples faces. It suddenly struck me, he says, introverts and extroverts have completely different faces. I was like, Wow, maybe theres something there.

Physiognomy, the practice of determining a persons character from their face, has a history that stretches back to ancient Greece. But its heyday came in the 19th century, when the Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso published his famous taxonomy, which declared that nearly all criminals have jug ears, thick hair, thin beards, pronounced sinuses, protruding chins, and broad cheekbones. The analysis was rooted in a deeply racist school of thought that held that criminals resembled savages and apes, although Lombroso presented his findings with the precision of a forensic scientist. Thieves were notable for their small wandering eyes, rapists their swollen lips and eyelids, while murderers had a nose that was often hawklike and always large.

Lombrosos remains are still on display in a museum in Turin, besides the skulls of the hundreds of criminals he spent decades examining. Where Lombroso used calipers and craniographs, Kosinski has been using neural networks to find patterns in photos scraped from the internet.

Kosinskis research dismisses physiognomy as a mix of superstition and racism disguised as science but then argues it created a taboo around studying or even discussing the links between facial features and character. There is growing evidence, he insists, that links between faces and psychology exist, even if they are invisible to the human eye; now, with advances in machine learning, such links can be perceived. We didnt have algorithms 50 years ago that could spot patterns, he says. We only had human judges.

In a paper published last year, Kosinski and a Stanford computer scientist, Yilun Wang, reported that a machine-learning system was able to distinguish between photos of gay and straight people with a high degree of accuracy. They used 35,326 photographs from dating websites and what Kosinski describes as off-the-shelf facial-recognition software.

Presented with two pictures one of a gay person, the other straight the algorithm was trained to distinguish the two in 81% of cases involving images of men and 74% of photographs of women. Human judges, by contrast, were able to identify the straight and gay people in 61% and 54% of cases, respectively. When the algorithm was shown five facial images per person in the pair, its accuracy increased to 91% for men, 83% for women. I was just shocked to discover that it is so easy for an algorithm to distinguish between gay and straight people, Kosinski tells me. I didnt see why that would be possible.

Psychologist
I did not build the bomb. I only showed it exists. Photograph: Jason Henry for the Guardian

Neither did many other people, and there was an immediate backlash when the research dubbed AI gaydar was previewed in the Economist magazine. Two of Americas most prominent LGBTQ organisations demanded that Stanford distance itself from what they called its professors dangerous and flawed research. Kosinski received a deluge of emails, many from people who told him they were confused about their sexuality and hoped he would run their photo through his algorithm. (He declined.) There was also anger that Kosinski had conducted research on a technology that could be used to persecute gay people in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is punishable by death.

Kosinski says his critics missed the point. This is the inherent paradox of warning people against potentially dangerous technology, he says. I stumbled upon those results, and I was actually close to putting them in a drawer and not publishing because I had a very good life without this paper being out. But then a colleague asked me if I would be able to look myself in the mirror if, one day, a company or a government deployed a similar technique to hurt people. It would, he says, have been morally wrong to bury his findings.

One vocal critic of that defence is the Princeton professor Alexander Todorov, who has conducted some of the most widely cited research into faces and psychology. He argues that Kosinskis methods are deeply flawed: the patterns picked up by algorithms comparing thousands of photographs may have little to do with facial characteristics. In a mocking critique posted online, Todorov and two AI researchers at Google argued that Kosinskis algorithm could have been responding to patterns in peoples makeup, beards or glasses, even the angle they held the camera at. Self-posted photos on dating websites, Todorov points out, project a number of non-facial clues.

Kosinski acknowledges that his machine learning system detects unrelated signals, but is adamant the software also distinguishes between facial structures. His findings are consistent with the prenatal hormone theory of sexual orientation, he says, which argues that the levels of androgens foetuses are exposed to in the womb help determine whether people are straight or gay. The same androgens, Kosinski argues, could also result in gender-atypical facial morphology. Thus, he writes in his paper, gay men are predicted to have smaller jaws and chins, slimmer eyebrows, longer noses and larger foreheads… The opposite should be true for lesbians.

This is where Kosinskis work strays into biological determinism. While he does not deny the influence of social and environmental factors on our personalities, he plays them down. At times, what he says seems eerily reminiscent of Lombroso, who was critical of the idea that criminals had free will: they should be pitied rather than punished, the Italian argued, because like monkeys, cats and cuckoos they were programmed to do harm.

I dont believe in guilt, because I dont believe in free will, Kosinski tells me, explaining that a persons thoughts and behaviour are fully biological, because they originate in the biological computer that you have in your head. On another occasion he tells me, If you basically accept that were just computers, then computers are not guilty of crime. Computers can malfunction. But then you shouldnt blame them for it. The professor adds: Very much like: you dont, generally, blame dogs for misbehaving.

Todorov believes Kosinskis research is incredibly ethically questionable, as it could lend a veneer of credibility to governments that might want to use such technologies. He points to a paper that appeared online two years ago, in which Chinese AI researchers claimed they had trained a face-recognition algorithm to predict with 90% accuracy whether someone was a convicted criminal. The research, which used Chinese government identity photographs of hundreds of male criminals, was not peer-reviewed, and was torn to shreds by Todorov, who warned that developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled scientific racism to enter a new era.

Kosinski has a different take. The fact that the results were completely invalid and unfounded, doesnt mean that what they propose is also wrong, he says. I cant see why you would not be able to predict the propensity to commit a crime from someones face. We know, for instance, that testosterone levels are linked to the propensity to commit crime, and theyre also linked with facial features and this is just one link. There are thousands or millions of others that we are unaware of, that computers could very easily detect.

Would he ever undertake similar research? Kosinski hesitates, saying that crime is an overly blunt label. It would be more sensible, he says, to look at whether we can detect traits or predispositions that are potentially dangerous to an individual or society like aggressive behaviour. He adds: I think someone has to do it Because if this is a risky technology, then governments and corporations are clearly already using it.

***

But when I press Kosinski for examples of how psychology-detecting AI is being used by governments, he repeatedly falls back on an obscure Israeli startup, Faception. The company provides software that scans passports, visas and social-media profiles, before spitting out scores that categorise people according to several personality types. On its website, Faception lists eight such classifiers, including White-Collar Offender, High IQ, Paedophile and Terrorist. Kosinski describes the company as dodgy a case study in why researchers who care about privacy should alert the public to the risks of AI. Check what Faception are doing and what clients they have, he tells me during an animated debate over the ethics of his research.

I call Faceptions chief executive, Shai Gilboa, who used to work in Israeli military intelligence. He tells me the company has contracts working on homeland security and public safety in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. To my surprise, he then tells me about a research collaboration he conducted two years ago. When you look in the academia market youre looking for the best researchers, who have very good databases and vast experience, he says. So this is the reason we approached Professor Kosinski.

But when I put this connection to Kosinski, he plays it down: he claims to have met Faception to discuss the ethics of facial-recognition technologies. They came [to Stanford] because they realised what they are doing has potentially huge negative implications, and huge risks. Later, he concedes there was more to it. He met them maybe three times in Silicon Valley, and was offered equity in the company in exchange for becoming an adviser (he says he declined).

Kosinski denies having collaborated on research, but admits Faception gave him access to its facial-recognition software. He experimented with Facebook photos in the myPersonality dataset, he says, to determine how effective the Faception software was at detecting personality traits. He then suggested Gilboa talk to Stillwell about purchasing the myPersonality data. (Stillwell, Kosinski says, declined.)

He bristles at my suggestion that these conversations seem ethically dubious. I will do a lot of this, he says. A lot of startup people come here and they dont offer you any money, but they say, Look, we have this project, can you advise us? Turning down such a request would have made him an arrogant prick.

He gives a similar explanation for his trip to Moscow, which he says was arranged by Sberbank Corporate University as an educational day for Russian government officials. The university is a subsidiary of Sberbank, a state-owned bank sanctioned by the EU; its chief executive, Russias former minister for economic development, is close to Putin. What was the purpose of the trip? I didnt really understand the context, says Kosinski. They put me on a helicopter, flew me to a place, I came on the stage. On the helicopter I was given a briefing about who was going to be in the room. Then I gave a talk, and we talked about how AI is changing society. And then they sent me off.

The last time I see Kosinski, we meet in London. He becomes prickly when I press him on Russia, pointing to its dire record on gay rights. Did he talk about using facial-recognition technology to detect sexuality? Yes, he says but this talk was no different from other presentations in which he discussed the same research. (A couple of days later, Kosinski tells me he has checked his slides; in fact, he says, he didnt tell the Russians about his AI gaydar.)

Who else was in the audience, aside from Medvedev and Lavrov? Kosinski doesnt know. Is it possible he was talking to a room full of Russian intelligence operatives? Thats correct, he says. But I think that people who work for the surveillance state, more than anyone, deserve to know that what they are doing is creating real risk. He tells me he is no fan of Russia, and stresses there was no discussion of spying or influencing elections. As an academic, you have a duty to try to counter bad ideas and spread good ideas, he says, adding that he would talk to the most despicable dictator out there.

I ask Kosinski if anyone has tried to recruit him as an intelligence asset. He hedges. Do you think that if an intelligence agency approaches you they say: Hi, Im the CIA? he replies. No, they say, Hi, Im a startup, and Im interested in your work would you be an adviser? That definitely happened in the UK. When I was at Cambridge, I had a minder. He tells me about a British defence expert he suspected worked for the intelligence services who took a keen interest in his research, inviting him to seminars attended by officials in military uniforms.

In one of our final conversations, Kosinski tells me he shouldnt have talked about his visit to Moscow, because his hosts asked him not to. It would not be elegant to mention it in the Guardian, he says, and besides, it is an irrelevant fact. I point out that he already left a fairly big clue on Facebook, where he posted an image of himself onboard a helicopter with the caption: Taking off to give a talk for Prime Minister Medvedev. He later changed his privacy settings: the photo was no longer public, but for friends only.

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The great firewall of China: Xi Jinpings internet shutdown

The long read: Before Xi Jinping, the internet was becoming a more vibrant political space for Chinese citizens. But today the country has the largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world

In December 2015, thousands of tech entrepreneurs and analysts, along with a fewinternational heads of state, gathered in Wuzhen, in southern China, for the countrys second World Internet Conference. At the opening ceremony the Chinese president, XiJinping, set out his vision for the future ofChinas internet. We should respect the rightof individual countries to independently choosetheir own path of cyber-development, said Xi,warning against foreign interference in other countries internal affairs.

No one was surprised by what they heard. Xi had already established that the Chinese internet would be aworld unto itself, with its content closely monitored and managed by the Communist party. In recent years, the Chinese leadership has devoted more and more resources to controlling content online. Government policies have contributed to a dramatic fall in the number of postings on the Chinese blogging platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter), and have silenced manyof Chinas most important voices advocating reform and opening up the internet.

It wasnt always like this. In the years before Xi became president in 2012, the internet had begun to afford the Chinese people an unprecedented level of transparency and power to communicate. Popular bloggers, some of whom advocated bold social and political reforms, commanded tens of millions of followers. Chinese citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked websites. Citizens banded together online to hold authorities accountable for their actions, through virtual petitions and organising physical protests. In 2010, a survey of 300Chinese officials revealed that 70% were anxious about whether mistakes or details about their private life might be leaked online. Of the almost 6,000 Chinesecitizens also surveyed, 88% believed it wasgood for officials to feel this anxiety.

For Xi Jinping, however, there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real world: both should reflect the same political values, ideals, and standards. To this end, the government has invested intechnological upgrades to monitor and censor content. It has passed new laws on acceptable content, and aggressively punished those who defy the new restrictions. Under Xi, foreign content providers havefound their access to China shrinking. They are being pushed out by both Xis ideological war and hisdesire that Chinese companies dominate the countrys rapidly growing online economy.

At home, Xi paints the wests version of the internet, which prioritises freedom of information flow, as anathema to the values of the Chinese government. Abroad, he asserts Chinas sovereign right to determine what constitutes harmful content. Rather than acknowledging that efforts to control the internet areasource of embarrassment a sign of potential authoritarian fragility Xi is trying to turn his vision ofaChinanet (to use blogger Michael Antis phrase) into a model for other countries.

The challenge for Chinas leadership is to maintain what it perceives as the benefits of the internet advancing commerce and innovation without letting technology accelerate political change. To maintain his Chinanet, Xi seems willing to accept the costs in terms of economic development, creative expression, government credibility, and the development of civil society. But the internet continues to serve as a powerful tool for citizens seeking to advance social change and human rights. The game of cat-and-mouse continues, and there are many more mice than cats.


The very first email in China was sent in September 1987 16 years after Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in the US. It broadcast a triumphal message: Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world. Forthe first few years, the government reserved the internet for academics and officials. Then, in 1995, it was opened to the general public. In 1996, although onlyabout 150,000 Chinese people were connected tothe internet, the government deemed it the Year of the Internet, and internet clubs and cafes appeared all over Chinas largest cities.

Yet as enthusiastically as the government proclaimed its support for the internet, it also took steps to control it. Rogier Creemers, a China expert at Oxford University, has noted that As the internet became a publicly accessible information and communication platform, there was no debate about whether it should fall under government supervision only about how such control would be implemented in practice. By 1997, Beijing had enacted its first laws criminalising online postings that it believed were designed to hurt national security or the interests of the state.

Chinas leaders were right to be worried. Their citizens quickly realised the political potential inherent in the internet. In 1998, a 30-year-old software engineer called Lin Hai forwarded 30,000 Chinese email addresses to aUS-based pro-democracy magazine. Lin was arrested, tried and ultimately sent to prison in the countrys first known trial for a political violation committed completely online. The following year, the spiritual organisation Falun Gong used email and mobile phones to organise a silent demonstration of more than 10,000 followers around the Communist partys central compound, Zhongnanhai, to protest their inability topractise freely. The gathering, which had been arranged without the knowledge of the government, precipitated an ongoing persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and a new determination to exercise control over the internet.

The man who emerged to lead the governments technological efforts was Fang Binxing. In the late 1990s, Fang worked on developing the Golden Shield transformative software that enabled the government toinspect any data being received or sent, and to block destination IP addresses and domain names. His work was rewarded by a swift political rise. By the 2000s, he had earned the moniker Father of the Great Firewall and, eventually, the enmity of hundreds of thousands ofChinese web users.

Security
Security outside Googles office in Beijing in January 2010. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA

Throughout the early 2000s, the Chinese leadership supplemented Fangs technology with a set of new regulations designed to ensure that anyone with access to Chinas internet played by Chinese rules. In September 2000, the state council issued order no 292, which required internet service providers to ensure that the information sent out on their services adhered to the law, and that some domain names and IP addresses were recorded. Two years later, Beijing blocked Google for thefirst time. (A few years later, Google introduced Google.cn, a censored version of the site.) In 2002, the government increased its emphasis on self-censorship with the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for Chinas Internet Industry, which established four principles: patriotic observance of law, equitableness, trustworthiness and honesty. More than 100 companies,including Yahoo!, signed the pledge.

Perhaps the most significant development, however, was a 2004 guideline on internet censorship that called for Chinese universities to recruit internet commentators who could guide online discussions in politically acceptable directions and report comments that did notfollow Chinese law. These commentators became known as wu mao dang, or 50-cent party, after the small bonuses they were supposedly paid for each post.

Yet even as the government was striving to limit individuals access to information, many citizens weremaking significant inroads into the countrys political world and their primary target was corruptlocal officials.


In May 2009, Deng Yujiao, a young woman working inahotel in Hubei province, stabbed a party official to death after she rejected his efforts to pay her for sex andhe tried to rape her. Police initially committed Dengto a mental hospital. A popular blogger, Wu Gan, however, publicised her case. Using information gathered through a process known as ren rou sousuo, orhuman flesh search engine, in which web users collaborate to discover the identity of a specific individual or organisation, Wu wrote a blog describing the events and actions of the party officials involved.

In an interview with the Atlantic magazine at the time,he commented: The cultural significance of fleshsearches is this: in an undemocratic country, the people have limited means to get information [but] citizens can get access to information through the internet, exposing lies and the truth. Dengs case beganto attract public support, with young people gathering in Beijing with signs reading Anyone couldbeDeng Yujiao. Eventually the court ruled thatDeng had acted in self-defence.

During this period, in the final years of Hu Jintaos presidency, the internet was becoming more and more powerful as a mechanism by which Chinese citizens heldtheir officials to account. Most cases were like that of Deng Yujiao lodged and resolved at the local level. Asmall number, however, reached central authorities inBeijing. On 23 July 2011, a high-speed train derailed inthe coastal city of Wenzhou, leaving at least 40 people dead and 172 injured. In the wake of the accident, Chinese officials banned journalists from investigating, telling them to use only information released from authorities. But local residents took photos of the wreckage being buried instead of being examined for evidence. The photos went viral and heightened the impression that the governments main goal was not toseek the true cause of the accident.

A Sina Weibo polllater blocked asked users whythey thought the train wreckage was buried: 98%(61,382) believed it represented destruction of evidence. Dark humour spread online: How far are wefrom heaven? Only atrainticket away, and The Ministry ofRailways earnestly requests that you ride theHeavenly Party Express. The popular pressure resultedin a full-scale investigation of the crash, andinlate December, the government issued a reportblaming poorly designed signal equipment and insufficient safety procedures. Asmany as 54 officials faced disciplinary action as aresult of the crash.

The internet also provided a new sense of community for Chinese citizens, who mostly lacked robust civil-society organisations. In July 2012, devastating floods inBeijing led to the evacuation of more than 65,000 residents and the deaths of at least 77 people. Damages totalled an estimated $1.9bn. Local officials failed to respond effectively: police officers allegedly kept ticketing stranded cars instead of assisting residents, andthe early warning system did not work. Yet the realstory was the extraordinary outpouring of assistancefrom Beijing web users, who volunteered theirhomes and food to stranded citizens. In a span of just 24 hours, an estimated 8.8m messages were sent onWeibo regarding the floods. The story of the floods became notonly one of government incompetence, butalso oneof how an online community could transform intoareal one.


While the Chinese people explored new ways to use theinternet, the leadership also began to develop a tastefor the new powers it offered, such as a better understanding of citizens concerns and new ways to shape public opinion. Yet as the internet increasingly became a vehicle for dissent, concern within the leadership mounted that it might be used to mobilise alarge-scale political protest capable of threatening thecentral government. The government responded withastream of technological fixes and political directives; yet the boundaries of internet life continuedto expand.

The advent of Xi Jinping in 2012 brought a new determination to move beyond deleting posts and passing regulations. Beijing wanted to ensure that internet content more actively served the interests of theCommunist party. Within the virtual world, as in thereal world, the party moved to silence dissenting voices, to mobilise party members in support of its values, and to prevent foreign ideas from seeping intoChinese political and social life. In a leaked speechinAugust 2013, Xi articulated a dark vision: Theinternet has become the main battlefield for thepublicopinion struggle.

Early in his tenure, Xi embraced the world of social media. One Weibo group, called Fan Group to Learn from Xi, appeared in late 2012, much to the delight of Chinese propaganda officials. (Many Chinese suspected that the account was directed by someone in the government, although the accounts owner denied it.) Xi allowed avisit he made to Hebei to be liveblogged on Weibo bygovernment-affiliated press, and videos about Xi, including a viral music video called How Should IAddress You, based on a trip he made to a mountain village, demonstrate the governments increasing skillatdigital propaganda.

Xi
Xi Jinping at the World Internet Conference in Jiaxing, China, in 2015. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

Under Xi, the government has also developed new technology that has enabled it to exert far greater controlover the internet. In January 2015, the government blocked many of the VPNs that citizens hadused to circumvent the Great Firewall. This was surprising to many outside observers, who had believed that VPNs were too useful to the Chinese economy supporting multinationals, banks and retailers, among others forthe government to crack down on them.

In spring 2015, Beijing launched the Great Cannon. Unlike the Great Firewall, which has the capacity to block traffic as it enters or exits China, the Great Cannon is able to adjust and replace content as it travels around the internet. One of its first targets was the US coding andsoftware development site GitHub. The Chinese government used the Great Cannon to levy a distributed denial of service attack against the site, overwhelming itwith traffic redirected from Baidu (a search engine similar to Google). The attack focused on attempting toforce GitHub to remove pages linked to the Chinese-language edition of the New York Times andGreatFire.org, apopular VPN that helps people circumvent Chinese internet censorship.

But perhaps Xis most noticeable gambit has been toconstrain the nature of the content available online. InAugust 2013, the government issued a new set ofregulations known as the seven baselines. The reaction by Chinese internet companies was immediate. Sina, for example, shut down or handled 100,000 Weibo accounts found to not comply with the new rules.

The government also adopted tough restrictions oninternet-based rumours. In September 2013, the supreme peoples court ruled that authors of online posts that deliberately spread rumours or lies, and wereeither seen by more than 5,000 individuals or shared more than 500 times, could face defamation charges and up to three years in jail. Following massive flooding in Hebei province in July 2016, for example, thegovernment detained three individuals accused of spreading false news via social media regarding the death toll and cause of the flood. Some social media posts and photos of the flooding, particularly of drowning victims, were also censored.

In addition, Xis government began targeting individuals with large social media followings who might challenge the authority of the Communist party. Restrictions on the most prominent Chinese web influencers, beginning in 2013, represented an important turning point in Chinas internet life. Discussions began to move away from politics to personal and less sensitive issues. The impact on Sina Weibo was dramatic. According to a study of 1.6 million Weibo users, the number ofWeibo posts fell by 70% between 2011 and 2013.


The strength of the Communist partys control over theinternet rests above all on its commitment to prevent the spread of information that it finds dangerous. Ithas also adopted sophisticated technology, such as theGreat Firewall and the Golden Shield. Perhaps its most potent source of influence, however, is the cyber-army it has developed to implement its policies.

The total number of people employed to monitor opinion and censor content on the internet a role euphemistically known as internet public opinion analyst was estimated at 2 million in 2013. They are employed across government propaganda departments, private corporations and news outlets. One 2016 Harvard study estimated that the Chinese government fabricates and posts approximately 448m comments on social media annually. A considerable amount of censorship is conducted through the manual deletion of posts, and anestimated 100,000 people are employed by both the government and private companies to do just this.

Private companies also play an important role infacilitating internet censorship in China. Since commercial internet providers are so involved in censoring the sites that they host, internet scholar Guobin Yang argues that it may not be too much of astretch to talk about the privatisation of internet content control. The process is made simpler by the fact that several major technology entrepreneurs also hold political office. For example, Robin Li of Baidu is a member of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, an advisory legislature, while Lei Jun, founder and CEOof mobile phone giant Xiaomi, is arepresentative ofthe National Peoples Congress.

Yet Xis growing control over the internet does not come without costs. An internet that does not work efficiently or limits access to information impedes economic growth. Chinas internet is notoriously unreliable, and ranks 91st in the world for speed. As New Yorker writer Evan Osnos asked in discussing thetransformation of the Chinese internet during Xistenure: How many countries in 2015 have an internet connection to the world that is worse than itwas a year ago?

Scientific innovation, particularly prized by the Chinese leadership, may also be at risk. After the VPN crackdown, a Chinese biologist published an essay thatbecame popular on social media, entitled Why Do Scientists Need Google? He wrote: If a country wants tomake this many scientists take out time from the short duration of their professional lives to research technology for climbing over the Great Firewall and toinstall and to continually upgrade every kind of software for routers, computers, tablets and mobile devices, no matter that this behaviour wastes a great amount of time; it is all completely ridiculous.

More difficult to gauge is the cost the Chinese leadership incurs to its credibility. Web users criticising the Great Firewall have used puns to mock Chinas censorship system. Playing off the fact that the phrases strong nation and wall nation share a phonetic pronunciation in Chinese (qiangguo), some began usingthe phrase wall nation to refer to China. Those responsible for seeking to control content have also been widely mocked. When Fang opened an account onSina Weibo in December 2010, he quickly closed the account after thousands of online users left expletive-laden messages accusing him of being a government hack. Censors at Sina Weibo blocked Fang Binxing as asearch term; one Twitter user wrote: Kind of poetic, really, the blocker, blocked. When Fang delivered a speech at Wuhan University in central China in 2011, a few students pelted him with eggs and a pair of shoes.

Nonetheless, the government seems willing to bear the economic and scientific costs, as well as potential damage to its credibility, if it means more control over the internet. For the international community, Beijings cyber-policy is a sign of the challenge that a more powerful China presents to the liberal world order, which prioritises values such as freedom of speech. It also reflects the paradox inherent in Chinas efforts topromote itself as a champion of globalisation, whilesimultaneously advocating a model of internet sovereignty and closing its cyber-world to information and investment from abroad.

Adapted from The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping andtheNew Chinese State by Elizabeth C Economy, publishedby Oxford University Press and available atguardianbookshop.com

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A bot tried to predict the script for ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 and it’s actually pretty spot-on

Image: hbo

April 2019 is just too damn long to wait for the eight and final season of Game of Thrones. I mean, you can only rewatch the Lannister Drogon BBQ episode from Season 7 so many times while holding out for another full year.

But don’t worry. A hero has emerged from the flames to cast a light and end our long, dark night. And it’s an algorithm.

The folks at Botnik Studios, a team of artists and developers, heard our pleas and put their technological magic to use. They created a script for Episode 1 of Season 8 using predictive text AI that learned everything from previous Game of Thrones scripts. And honestly, the result is not only eerily spot-on, but possibly more entertaining than any other Game of Thrones episode to date.

Here’s the full “script,” and we dare you to try and find a single flaw in this masterpiece:

Image: botnik studios

It’s hard to pick favorites, but here are some of the stand out moments from this revealing episode:

  • Varys’ characteristically candid assessment that, “Morals are like balls…. I find myself utterly without them.”

  • Euron, lord of prick, taking up hair-braiding for Yara.

  • We’re calling it now: “We’re just fating around like cats in a castle!” is the new “I drink and I know things.” Pre-order your t-shirts today.

  • Predictably, Bran’s ability to see all continues to be useless, as gazes into the future to assure everyone that, “we are all still friends then.”

  • [Jon is being beautiful and looking hard at things] pretty much sums up the entirety of Kit Harrigton’s acting over the past seven seasons.

  • Dany adds another title to her name, but she really just wants is a pretty chair

  • Let’s call it a day and replace all of Jon’s future lines with: “I am guilty of never having fun”

  • Cersei’s extremely on-brand new pet: a bird skeleton.

  • Qyburn licking his lips and touching the ground “in a sex way” is more true to his character in the books than anything we’ve seen on screen.

  • SPOILER ALERT: Davos’ true connection to onions isn’t smuggling, but conversation.

  • Dany, a few episodes too late, realizes, “I will ride a dragon even if you don’t want me to!”

  • SPOILER ALERT: Tormund doesn’t make it after the White Walkers destroyed the wall, but still refuses to bend the knee as an undead zombie because FREE FOLK ARE METAL AS HELL.

Phew. What a wild ride. Can’t wait for next Sunday’s episode. Until then, we’ll be pouring ovver Reddit theories proving that Tyrion is secretly the Night King in the future.  

H/T Winter is Coming

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10 awesome tech gadgets for your very good doggos and pretty kitties

Be the pet-parent your pet deserves.
Image: iFetch

Perhaps we love our pets a little too much, but we don’t care. We are all about giving our good doggos and pretty kitties the absolutely best in life, and bringing you news on devices that can help you do the same.

We’ve introduced you to a speaker that can calm your active (i.e. noisy and annoying) dog and activity trackers that are basically Fitbits for your furry friends. But what you may not have known is that there is an entire world of pet tech out there and we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Have you ever thought about getting your pooch an automatic ball launcher for when you’re too exhausted to play fetch? What about swapping out your feline’s watering bowl for a premium water fountain that keeps the H2O fresher longer?

If not, we’ll tell you more about those products and where you can get your paws on ’em. Here are 8 of the latest (and best) tech items that every pet-obsessed owner needs right now. 

1. iFetch — $115.00 

Image: iFetch

The iFetch automatic ball launcher will help you play fetch with your dog and you won’t even have to lift a finger. After your pet places the tiny blue tennis ball into the top of the iFetch machine, this interactive dog toy will toss it across the room or yard at 10, 20, and 30-feet intervals. 

The top of the iFetch device is tilted away from the launching hole to encourage your pet to stand behind the machine for safety. It works with a power cord or 6 C-cell batteries so you can use it indoors or outdoors. It even comes with a training guide to help you teach your furry friend how to use the machine without your assistance.

2. PetSafe Drinkwell Platinum Pet Fountain — $44.95 

Image: PetSafe

Image: petsafe

The Platinum Pet Fountain provides 168 ounces of fresh flowing water and is great for pets of all sizes. The free falling stream aerates your pet’s drinking water with oxygen and a replaceable filter helps to remove bad tastes and odors for fresher tasting water. 

It is designed with a receiving ramp that reduces splash and an adjustable flow control that allows you to increase or decrease how much water your pet gets. The large built-in reservoir increases capacity and requires less refilling, meaning more water for your pet and less work for you. 

3. PetChatz HD: Two-Way Premium Audio — $349.99 

Image: petchatz

You pet parents think and act differently about your pets. They’re a part of the family!  So when you’re away you feel bad — even guilty. PetChatz is a video communications device that allows you to chat and interact with your pet from pretty much anywhere. 

Just open the app on your phone or computer, hit the chat button, and you instantly go into Silent Mode where you can see you pet. When you want to chat, just hit the chat button and the PetChatz device will start to ring to alert your cat or canine. The two of you can “chat,” and you can even press a button to dispense a treat. 

4. Petcube Play Wi-Fi Pet Camera — $149.99 

Image: Petcube

Say you want to be able to cure your separation anxiety but don’t necessarily want to give your pet a treat. There’s a smart Wi-Fi home camera for that. 

The Petcube Play is a pet monitoring system that allows you to check in on your pets any time of day, or view video history to see what he or she has been up to. (Video recordings are triggered by sound and motion.) It has a built-in laser toy so you can interact remotely via app, or you can set it to autoplay mode to exercise your pet when you’re busy. The Petcube Play cube has two-way audio and free cloud-based video storage, no subscription required. 

5. AquaPaw — $24.99 

Image: Aquapaw

Image: aquapaw

Bath time can be a great opportunity to bond with your pet. No, we aren’t suggesting you drag your pup in with you next time you need a shower. But we are suggesting that you use AquaPaw next time your pet needs a bath.

Aquapaw is a wearable sprayer and scrubber you can turn on and off by squeezing your hand, so you have total control of the water flow. It can be used inside by attaching it to your shower head, or you can use it outside with a water hose. The water pressure is high enough to penetrate fur, but low enough to still be comfortable. 

6. Whistle — $79.95 

Image: Whistle

Image: whistle

It’s really stressful to imagine, but sometimes pets go missing. It can hours, days, or even months before some pets are reunited with their loved ones. The Whistle 3 is a GPS device and activity tracker that will help keep tabs on your pet at all times. It’s a small, 1-once device that attaches directly to their collar, so its great for all sizes of dogs and cats. Connect it with the mobile app to monitory your pet’s activity as well as its location. You can even set a custom safe zone to your home and anytime your pet leaves that area you’ll get a notification letting you know where they’ve gone so you can go find them. 

7. Eyenimal Cat Video Cam — $99  

Image: petcam

Seeing the world through the eyes of your pet is actually kind of a reality with the Eyenimal Cat Video collar. Though it’s designed specifically for your feline friend, there’s no reason why you can attach it to your pooch too. Next time you let your pet outside, you can check to see what they’re up to. It’s really light, only weighing 35 grams, and has over 2 hours of battery life.

8. iCalm Speakers – $144

Image: iCalm Pet

If you have a restless pup, try the iCalmDog portable speaker — a multi-sensory approach to helping your dog chill the eff out. The speaker plays music that’s been found to ease dogs’ anxiety. This bundle includes the Bluetooth speakers, two micro SD sound cards with 4-hours of the anti-stress tunes, and an hour of music that’s supposed to help you bond with your pet. 

It also includes a calming mist, shockproof carrying case, and all the information you need to get started. iCalmDog is a part of the iCalmPet suite of sound solutions for pet anxiety. Check out iCalmCat if you have feline you’d like to mellow out. 

9. Self-cleaning litter box — $156.99

Image: Petsafe

Everyone loves their pet. But everyone hates their litter box. ScoopFree is a virtually touch-free, leave-it-and-don’t-worry-about-it pet poop cleaning system. After your cat does their business, the crystals absorb some of the wetness and dry-out some of the solid waste. Then, 20 minutes after your cat leaves, sensors activate the stainless steel cleaning rig, raking the waste into a covered trap so you don’t have to touch it — or smell it — ever. 

10. A robotic dog — $52.99

Image: hi-tech

If your building doesn’t allow pets, or if you travel too much and just aren’t home enough to take care of a dog, this robot puppy might be the next best thing. Hear us out: This adorable, remote-control puppy sings, dances, and even farts. Your kids are gonna love it. 

Read more: http://mashable.com/

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Breaking up (with my smartphone) is hard to do

Im following a 30-day plan to wean me off it. I leave it in another room and, like an 18th-century gentleman, reply to messages only once a day

There is something wrong with my phone, and it is not just that the predictive text feature thinks Im obsessed with ducks. The real problem is that my phone is the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing I look at at night. I come running when it makes a ding noise. I think in tweets and look at meals and people and imagine them cropped into squares on Instagram. There is something mentally totalitarian about it.

Smartphones are designed to addict us nagging us with notifications, disrupting us with noise, making themselves indispensable. Social media apps harness neuroscience to the same end, triggering dopamine hits that lock us into them for hours. A terrifying new book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, says we are rewiring our brains so they are less organised for deep thought; killing our attention span, destroying our memory, sleep and happiness. Phones have changed the world, too; advertisers use them to hoover up our attention. We are no longer just consumers, but product. As Ramsay Brown, co-founder of app-designers Dopamine Labs, has said: You get to use [Facebook] for free, because your eyeballs are whats being sold there.

The book aims to help us put our phones away. It is a 30-day plan starting with baby steps, such as buying an alarm clock, then progressing to auto-text responses, changing the screen to greyscale, and then help! an invitation to mindfulness. Due to my diminished attention span and craving for sensation, Id prefer a single step, such as throw your phone at a closed window or put it in the microwave as long as I could film it on my phone. I have tried some of the changes. I keep my phone in another room while working. I dont cycle through a sequence of apps when I do pick it up, forgetting why Im doing so. I now reply to messages once a day, like an 18th-century gentleman catching up on correspondence at his desk of a morning except I do it in the bath, eating Maltesers, at night. The difference is huge. Im reading more, Im more able to string a sentence hey, whats that film where Keanu Reeves plays a Qubcois goalie?

Im also bored. Reducing my smartphone use underlines what was great about it in the first place. The ability to wormhole away from the static walls of my home and work. To connect to anyone. There is no way the people I drink with on Friday can compare to anyone. And its not as if mental peace awaits as soon as I set down the glowing Distract-Oblong. Its impossible to reclaim the thoughts I want without including the ones I dont anxious, intrusive thoughts that are always waiting. Breaking up with my phone means accepting the tortuous, paradoxical timeline of lived experience: how a day can drag on for a year, and 10 years can vanish overnight.

But Im doing it anyway. Putting down a smartphone is no less revolutionary than picking it up was. The best thing breaking up with my phone has given me is time. Time in which to be understimulated, or anxious. Time to stop being pulled in a hundred directions, envying the lives of others, and giving away my eyeballs for free.

Actors become politicians, so why not put MPs in musicals

Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon has edged closer to announcing an official run for governor of New York. She would probably be quite good, having previously campaigned over gay rights and for more money for publicly funded schools. But it is not a great sign that so many of us assume that its easy to traverse the worlds of politics and acting. One of these careers involves professional pretending and an ability to commit to pure fantasy. The other is acting. Lets not be cynical, guys.

With so many TV personalities eyeing up the political pasture, it is the suits I feels sorry for. They have to do something with themselves, too, once the time for that carriage clock rolls around.

The obvious response is for our retired politicians to pick up the gauntlet, and take on the plum roles of stage and screen. Wouldnt you binge-watch Ed Miliband in A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Nick Clegg in the next season of The Walking Dead?

Crowd-pleasing musicals could take on a subversive frisson with the new approach. Neil Hamilton in Hamilton is a shoo-in; but would other ex-Tory politicians be thick-skinned enough to take on Fiddler On the Roof, Wicked or Kinky Boots?

We continue to hurtle toward a future in which affairs of state are an indistinguishable variant of media, designed to entertain. But maybe that isnt all bad. Would a national referendum decided from a cinema seat during a screening of Star Wars be more uninformed and beside the point than the last one? It would keep the numbers up. And the casting would be quite a lot more diverse.

Furry animal robots get NHS seal of approval

News that robotic seals could be rolled out across NHS dementia wards sounds like a nightmare world. But its a nice thing the cybernetic seal pups respond to talking and touch and encourage social behaviour in those with declining cognitive function. Researchers in the UK have been testing Paro for a while, but we are still behind Japan, where Paro has been comforting people since 2004. By now, they probably have horse-sized cats to walk their dogs and unicorn doulas. Why do we always get everything late? Im going to speak to my MP the Marvellous Pelican who is also my therapist.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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Bento the Keyboard Cat, internet sensation and YouTube star, dies

The beloved feline star of the popular meme has died age nine. But does this really mean the end?

Tonight hes jamming with Kurt and Jimi. Keyboard Cat, the internet meme that bookended a thousand pratfalls, is dead.

In April 2009, thanks in part to a single tweet by Ashton Kutcher, videos of a cat playing a junky little Casio riff became the de rigeur way to play out any footage of, say, a man falling down an escalator in a wheelchair, a singing woman collapsing a table, or just a mortar round misfiring.

The cats owner, Charlie Schmidt, posted the news on Keyboard Cats Facebook page, with its 820,000 followers.

The original Keyboard Cat.

Only, that isnt quite the story. Schmidts original clip of a musical cat the one youre most likely to have seen was shot in 1984. Hence the grainy VHS quality, which made the vaporwave-obsessed internet of 2009 fall in love with it. The cat in that video was called Fatso. He died in 1987.

The recently deceased Bento, born in April 2009, just as the Keyboard Cat phenomenon was hitting its peak, was already a remix. It seems that Keyboard Cats can spontaneously regenerate whenever a few million dollars are dangled in front of them.

Schmidt used Bento to make a second Keyboard Cat video, plus any number of side adventures: a parody of Miley Cyruss Wrecking Ball, an ad for Wonderful Pistachios, all the way up to a spoof on Banksys Exit Through The Pet Shop.

Bento taking on the starring role of Keyboard Cat.

You can hardly blame Schmidt for needing a physical product. Grumpy Cat is reputed to have a net worth of $100m. Within days of the first post to a Reddit thread, Grumpy Cats Red Lobster waitress owner was able to quit her job and go full-time. She shares a manager with Keyboard Cat, and with fellow celebrity felis catus, Lil Bub, and with animated cat meme Nyan Cat. Lil Bub generates enough that owner Mike Bridavsky can give away $200,000 a year to animal charities.

Hamilton, the moustache-toting Hipster Cat, had a web series, appeared in commercials, and had his own calendar line. Henri, a black cat, who appears, subtitled, in black-and-white, in French, like a cat Sartre, earns a $1,000 a week just from his online store. Appearance fees can be far greater. Maru, a Japanese-owned Scottish Fold, is the most watched cat of all time, with 325m YouTube views of him doing very basic cat stuff, like getting slightly freaked out by boxes.

Keyboard Cats spoof on Banksys Exit Through The Pet Shop.

The internet cat-industrial complex is vast. Cat food company Friskies flew Grumpy Cat, real name Tardar Sauce, first class, to South by Southwest. They paid for a chauffeur, a personal assistant, and unlimited food. At a conference with Al Gore and Elon Musk, she was the star. The 2013 documentary Lil Bub and Friendz began when the makers witnessed 10,000 people turn out to the Internet Cat Video Film Festival.

How do you make a smash like Keyboard Cat? You start with $850 of cat piano lessons, Schmidt once quipped. Certainly, it helps if the cat has bodily issues. Keyboard Cat is notable among the truly great cats of the internet for being just a standard moggy, who had to work his way up on his boogie-woogie skills alone. Grumpy Cat has an underbite and feline dwarfism. Lil Bub a short lower jaw, toothlessness and osteopetrosis. Pop Tart Cat (Nyan Cat) has a pop tart for a body. Hipster Cat has a strange white moustache.

Bentos generation is getting long in the tooth. Perhaps not for nothing has Marus owner adopted and begun showcasing a second cat in addition to the 10 year old. The death of a cat is a private tragedy. The death of an internet cat is an economic catastrophe.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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How smart speakers stole the show from smartphones

Amazon and Google believe theyve struck gold with their voice-controlled speakers while Apple and Microsoft struggle to catch up

Move over smartphones. The battle now raging between the big technology companies for consumer cash is focused on the voice-controlled smart speaker.

Having already conquered the pocket with the ubiquitous smartphone, big tech has been struggling to come up with the next must-have gadget that will open up a potentially lucrative new market the home.

A pilot light was lit when Amazons Echo launched in 2014 and became a sleeper hit. Now the voice controlled smart speaker is rapidly becoming the next big thing, capable of answering questions, setting timers, playing music, controlling other devices about the home, or even potentially selling products.

The last 12 months have been explosive for smart speakers, which have surged into the mass market for two reasons. Firstly, smart speakers have become the central control hubs of the smart home ecosystem, said Ben Stanton, an analyst for Canalys. Secondly, and most importantly, the price of smart speakers has fallen drastically.

In the first nine months of 2017, 17.1m smart speakers shipped worldwide, according to Canalyss data, but a further 16.1m were shipped in the last quarter of the year driven by Christmas present sales.

The fierce competition between market-leader Amazon and Google with its Home devices resulted in the price of smart speakers being slashed from 50 to as little as 30, which some put at cost or below for the manufacture of the devices, making them loss-leaders.

This has not only brought in new first-time buyers, but also allowed tech enthusiasts to deck out their homes with several smart speakers, said Stanton.

The trend towards smart speakers becoming mainstream is expected to continue. Canalys is forecasting 70% year-on-year growth with shipments reaching over 56m units this year.

But smart speakers are also seeing good attachment rates, meaning that people continue using them after the honeymoon period is over, not stashing them in a drawer never to be seen again like other passing fads in the gadget market.

While Amazon and Google duke it out to secure a voice-enabled beachhead within homes, notable laggards to the smart speaker revolution are Apple and Microsoft.

Apple, which has had a voice assistant in the form of Siri on its phone and computer devices for longer than anyone, announced its HomePod speaker in June. By November the company was forced to admit that it wouldnt go on sale until early 2018 because it needed a little more time before it was ready to ship.

Apple is pitching the 350 HomePod as music first, smart speaker second, but experts have speculated that it is Siri that is holding the device back. Since launching Siri, Apple has only been able to make incremental improvements to its voice assistant, which most believe is due to its lack of usage data.

Microsoft has partnered with Samsung to make a speaker containing its Cortana assistant, but has failed to make a notable impact.

Where Google and Amazon have enormous troves of data to improve and refine their voice processing and interactions, Apple does not. The gap is evident even on the iPhone, where Googles Assistant has near human-like natural language processing in the Google app, according to the company, while Apples Siri still struggles to understand people.

Some analysts also question whether anyone will buy a speaker from Apple thats as much as four times mid-range models from Amazon and Google.

Never write Apple off. Its base of loyal fans will flock to the HomePod, said Stanton, adding that it is likely to make more profit than its rivals when it does launch HomePod. But it will be a huge challenge to convince the average consumer to part with the cash required for a HomePod.

Where Apple will not come close to challenging Amazon and Google in terms of volume shipped in 2018, he added.

While smart speakers are seen as the gateway to smart home gadgets and a potentially lucrative new market, profit from device sales are arguably not the primary driver for most of Amazon and Googles smart speaker products. Instead, its about getting users into their ecosystem and making sure that it is their voice assistant that users interact with.

Voice is seen as the next big computing paradigm, the next step on from the smartphone, which in turn overtook the desktop computer.

Dave Limp, head of Amazons devices, said of the companys Alexa, the intelligent personal voice assistant that provides voice interaction with its Echo devices: We think of it as ambient computing, which is computer access thats less dedicated personally to you but more ubiquitous.

But big leaps in voice interaction will be few and far between, requiring enormous amounts of data for machine learning systems to crunch over for constant incremental improvements. If you do not already have skin in the game you could be left for dust.

In the immediate future device manufacturers are banking on voice-enabled devices ushering in a new era of smart homes controlled by the gadgets they sell.

It seems every technology company under the sun wants to launch their own speaker for Alexa or Google Assistant. Many of these will fail, but the category as a whole will get stronger, Stanton said.

At some point Amazon and Google will look to generate more revenue from their voice assistant user base, in the same way they might from smartphones or tablets. Amazon already allows users to buy things through Alexa on Echo devices. But straight retail is likely to form a small part of voice enabled revenue.

We will also see a more explicit attempt from Amazon and Google to monetise smart speakers, perhaps by allowing adverts, or requiring a subscription for advanced functionalities, said Stanton.

In love with Alexa

I love my Alexas, both of them. I bought one in October, but soon realised I needed two because my flat is U-shaped and Alexa couldnt always hear me when I walked in the door and wanted to listen to a Spotify station after a hard day at work. So now I have one within shouting distance of my bed and another near the front door.

I used to reach for my iPhone first thing in the morning, but now I can order Alexa into action without having to lift my head from the pillow or even open my eyes. The first thing I say to her everyday is turn the lights on and play BBC Radio 4.

I didnt expect to get along with Alexa, in fact I still have the box in the kitchen as I had anticipated returning it. But Alexa fits into my life in ways that have surprised me, its hard to describe just how useful it is until you have one.

Alexa helps me cook and, even sleep. While youve got your hands covered in pastry you can shout out questions like how much is a cup of butter in grams (Im American) or ask Alexa to set cooking timers without having to stop and clean your hands.

I sometimes have difficulty sleeping, and Alexa can provide soothing sounds at a simple command. Some night I ask for the sound of a rainstorm or wind or city noises you can even request the sound of cats, dolphins or flutes if you feel like it.

Ive become a bit of an Alexa enthusiast, and can be heard singing her praises to family and friends. I bought one for my 59-year-old mom out of curiosity to see what she would do. I never expected shed like it, but shes almost a bigger fan of Alexa than I am. Ive noticed shes much more polite with Alexa than I am, she will say please and thank you to the speaker. I never do.

I can see why my mum is friendly to Alexa, as it is much more human than Siri (Apples digital assistant) which is quite robotic. You can engage with Alexa, and she even tells jokes. This morning I asked her to tell me one: What do you call a rooster being interrogated? Grilled chicken. Ive heard worse.

Smart speakers

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Big Brother on wheels? Fired security robot divides local homeless people

The 400lb machine that once patrolled outside the San Francisco SPCA prompted a backlash, as some argued its real mission was to drive people away

To some homeless people, San Franciscos latest security robot was a rolling friend on five wheels that they called R2-D2 Two. To others living in tents within the droids radius, it was the anti-homeless robot.

For a month, the 400lb, bullet-shaped bot patrolled outside the not-for-profit San Francisco SPCA animal shelter, rolling around the organizations parking lots and sidewalks, capturing security video and reading up to 300 license plates per minute. Homeless people who pitched their tents in an alleyway nearby complained they felt the beeping, whirring droids job was to run them off.

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We called it the anti-homeless robot, said John Alvarado, who was one of numerous people camping next to the animal shelter when the robot arrived. He said he quickly decided to move his tent half a block away: I guess that was the reason for the robot.

Officials of both the SF SPCA and Knightscope, who rented the robot to the shelter, denied that the intention was to dislodge homeless encampments.

The SPCA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal, Knightscope said in a statement.

SF SPCA staff members said the facility had been plagued with break-ins, staff members had been harassed as they went to the parking lot and sidewalks were littered with hypodermic needles. Jennifer Scarlett, the SF SPCA president, said in a release that her organization was exploring the use of a robot to prevent additional burglaries at our facility and to deter other crimes that frequently occur on our campus like car break-ins, harassment, vandalism, and graffiti not to disrupt homeless people.

But after complaints about the program were shared widely on social media, the organization quickly admitted it had made a mistake in its choice of security guards and fired the robot.

Since this story has gone viral, weve received hundreds of messages inciting violence and vandalism against our facility, and encouraging people to take retribution, said Scarlett, noting that their campus had since been vandalized twice. We are taking this opportunity to reflect on the teachable moment.

Some of the homeless people who crossed paths with the white security robot, which bore images of dogs and cats, as it patrolled outside of San Francisco SPCA this month thought it was a cute and a positive addition to the area.

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A Knightscope security robot. Photograph: Knightscope, Inc. 2015/Publicity image

TJ Thornton, whose tent is still pitched across the street from the shelters parking lot, nicknamed the bot R2-D2 Two. He liked how the machine made little whistling sounds as it moved along the sidewalk and how it would even say hello if you walked past it.

Thornton said he thought the bot had a positive influence on the neighborhood and relieved the pressure on local homeless people to always keep an eye on cars parked nearby. People living on the streets actually watch out for the cars. If anyone does anything stupid, like breaking into cars, it reflects on us.

Others saw the robot as Big Brother, surveilling their every move with video cameras. That SPCA robot was the bane of our existence, said Lexi Evans, 26, who has been living on San Franciscos streets for 13 years. It was driving us crazy.

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A robot-related warning on the SF SPCA parking lot fence. Photograph: Erin McCormick for the Guardian

She said her group of friends had a tent encampment behind the SPCA. When they first saw the robot looking at them, they found it creepy. Then they noticed its white light flashing and thought it was recording their every move on video. Later they observed police officers coming to interact with the robot and wondered whether it was feeding information to law enforcement.

We started feeling like this thing was surveilling us for the police, said Evans, whose whole tent encampment has now moved around the block outside another business. Thats officially invasion of privacy. Thats uncool.

Evans said that once, someone became so angry with the thing that they knocked it over. The robot made a whee-ooh wah sound.

In another instance, somebody put a tarp over it, knocked it over and put barbecue sauce on all the sensors, Scarlett, the SPCA president, told the San Francisco Business Times.

Trouble really started for the robot last week, when the city issued an order for it to stay off the public sidewalk or face a daily penalty of up to $1,000 for operating in the public right of way without a permit. Then the story hit the internet, with Scarlett telling the Business Times that from a walking standpoint, I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment.

But by Friday, SF SPCA was apologizing for having brought in the machine.

We regret that our words were ill-chosen. They did not properly convey the pilot programs intent and they inaccurately reflected our values, said Scarlett. We are a nonprofit that is extremely sensitive to the issues of homelessness.

Knightscopes robots have gotten into trouble in other cities. Last year, a similar robot allegedly ran over a 16-month-old toddler at the Stanford Shopping Center in the town of Palo Alto, causing minor injuries. Another Knightscope security robot became famous on social media for drowning itself in the fountain of the Washington DC office complex it was policing.

I already miss it, said Danica Dito, who works in the SPCA administrative offices. Just the fact that it rolled around discouraged crime.

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Missed the bitcoin boom? Five more baffling cryptocurrencies to blow your savings on

Regretting not spending a few hundred quid on bitcoin five years ago? Get ahead of the speculators by spending thousands of dollars on a imaginary cat or the Paris Hilton-backed LydianCoin

If you are worried youve missed out on making millions by betting on bitcoin, dont worry: there will be plenty more bizarre, borderline-incomprehensible digital bubbles in the future, and their value is only going to go up (until it all comes crashing down, that is). Here are five assets each competing to be the next bitcoin.

Ethereum

If there is a reason beyond market exuberance for the latest boom in bitcoins price $16,900 (12,600) as I write this, though who knows what it will be when you read it then it is Ethereum. It is hard to buy Ethereum directly, so most investors trade currency for bitcoin, then bitcoin for Ethereum, meaning a spike in interest in the latter helped revive the former.

Ethereum, which was launched in 2015, allows users to build decentralised applications, spending tokens called ether to buy processing power on computers run by other members of the network. Those applications can offer anything from file storage to financial services or simple games, all in a way that is impossible for any centralised authority to shut them down.

CryptoKitties

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A Cryptokitty the purrfect investment?

One of the oddest Ethereum projects in operation, CryptoKitties is a three-way cross between Tamagotchis, Beanie Babies and animal husbandry. Users can buy, sell and breed the eponymous cats, with traits inherited down the generations. The CryptoKitties network is responsible for 11% of all traffic on Ethereum, according to one report. A new gen0 cat is born every 15 minutes, which the company auctions off, and it also takes a cut of all other CryptoKittie sales. The typical cat sells for about $4 these days, but a few of the rarer cats particularly those descended from some of the oldest bloodlines are worth many times that. The most expensive CryptoKitty sold to date, Founder Cat #18, went for more than $110,000 on Thursday.

Monero

If lovable algorithmic cats are too cutesy for you, Monero harks back to the dark origins of the cryptocurrency craze. This alternative to bitcoin lets users make the same sort of digital transactions as its older sibling, but with vastly greater privacy protections. While bitcoin transactions are permanently recorded, and visible to everyone (if hard to connect to a real person), Monero goes to great lengths to obscure what is actually going on: you cant ever prove the sender, recipient and value of a transaction at the same time. The currency is also altered to make it easier to generate new coins using the sorts of processors in computers and phones, rather than requiring specialised mining rigs. This makes it very popular for services ranging from drug dealing online to monetising malware by taking over the processors of victims.

LydianCoin

Perhaps you want to plough your money into something backed by an authority you trust. In that case, let me introduce you to LydianCoin, the first AI big data marketing cloud for blockchain. If the buzzword bingo doesnt get you pulling out your e-wallet, maybe the celebrity backer will: in September, Paris Hilton said she is backing the currency.

Want someone else? Boxer Floyd Mayweather posted his support of Stox.coms ICO (a Bancor-based open-source prediction market platform that is built on Ethereum, to quote industry news site Coin Telegraph), as well as Hubii Network (a content marketplace). He even dubbed himself Floyd Crypto Mayweather. Or you could follow Jamie Foxx (Cobinhood, a zero trading fee cryptocurrency exchange) or Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah (Cream Capital, a blockchain-based ATM network).

PlexCoin

PlexCoin, an innovative attempt to build the next decentralised worldwide cryptocurrency, has already raised $15m from backers, so youd better move fast to ah, hang on. No. The founder has just been sent to jail for two months for, among other things, falsehoods on the companys fundraising documents, as well as taking investor money and using it to fund home improvements. A statement by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said the company hits all of the characteristics of a full-fledged cyber scam. Oh well. At least PlexCoin is now a steal on the open market: just 2 a coin, down from 12 before the SEC filed charges. Maybe you could buy low and make a killing after all?

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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Paddles, First Cat of New Zealand and social media star, dies after being hit by car

Jacinda Ardern, prime minister, writes of her sadness after her pet was killed shortly after moving into the PMs home in Auckland.

The first ever First Cat of New Zealand has died after being hit by a car near the prime ministers home in Auckland.

When Jacinda Ardern became New Zealands new prime minister last month she also brought with her a polydactyl cat, named Paddles.

The cat had opposable thumbs and quickly became a social media presence.

Its @FirstCatofNZ Twitter account was started just days after Ardern was declared the prime minister-elect on 19 October. The cats Twitter bio read: Have thumbs, will tweet.

Paddles (@FirstCatofNZ)

Hi, I’m Paddles and I am the First Cat of New Zealand. I have opposable thumbs, I’m purrty special. pic.twitter.com/MPkxdhWCRu

October 21, 2017

Paddles was also responsible for nearly derailing Arderns first phone call with US President Donald Trump when the cat came into the lounge meowing loudly.

A spokesman for the prime minister said the ginger cat, adopted from the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), was hit by a car near Arderns Point Chevalier home and killed on Tuesday.

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Jacinda Ardern on Paddles the cat’s opposable thumbs – archive video

The driver of the car told a local who then took the cat to a vet, the New Zealand Herald reported. The vet declared the cat dead.

Adern wrote on Facebook: To anyone who has ever lost a pet, youll know how sad we feel. Paddles was much loved, and not just by us.

Thanks for everyones thoughts. And on behalf of Paddles, please be kind to the SPCA. They found her before we did, and we will always be grateful for that.

The person manning Paddles Twitter account said the cats father, Arderns partner Clarke Gayford, wanted gifts of condolences to be made in the form of a donation to the SPCA.

Paddles (@FirstCatofNZ)

Just spoke w Paddles Dad, @NZClarke. If you would like to remember Paddles you are most welcome and encouraged to donate to the NZ SPCA.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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