Author Archive

Putting the Art into ARTificial Intelligence

Wednesday, September 14th, 2022

Recent developments have brought a discussion on whether machines can make art. Surely your social media has been flooded with Midjourney creations in recent weeks. The text-to-image software takes an input from a user and delivers an image generated by machine-learning algorithms drawing from a large corpus of images online. You may have also come across the debate about Theatre d’Opera Spatial, which won at Colorado state fair last month. Other AI content generators include Dall-E (text-to-image), Stable Diffusion (t2i), Runway (text-to-video), Plotagon (text-to-video) and many others.

This begs many questions: Who should be considered as creator? Will machines replace artists? And… can you compete in art?

But first – how new is this debate? South-African author JM Coetzee – a Nobel-prize winner – tells a fascinating story in his autobiographical Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II (Secker and Warburg, 2002). Working as a programmer in the UK in the 1960s, Coetzee programmed the big mainframe computers of the time. He describes how the computer was programmed to have a sort of intelligence, allowing it to prioritise and plan the various computation tasks that the programmers gave it. In his free time, the author programs the computer to write poetry. He writes that some of those poems were published by a news-paper in Johannesburg. (I have tried to find them, but no success.)

The discussion on AI and art is at least six decades old. Who should be considered creator in this case? Coetzee who programmed the poetry-AI and selected the works that were brought to the newspaper (perhaps also making edits)? The owner of the mainframe computer? The original programmer of the operating system that could prioritise its tasks?

The same questions come with the recent AI art discussion, but with one more layer: the text-to-image systems mentioned above are machine learning systems looking at big corpuses (or is that corpi?) of images online. Someone made the images that the AI was trained on. Several people have made the point that the AI would be useless without those works and the creators and rights-owners ought to be duly compensated.

The games industry has used what is there called procedural content generation systems at least since 1990s. Remember Sid Meier’s Civilization? IMHO the most captivating game of all time. You start with an all-blacked out map, except a small spot where you see what is around you. As you explore the map, you find mountains, rivers, seas and all kinds of landscapes. The map is new every time. No one made those maps by hand, the software generated them. It would be a very time-consuming (and tedious!) task to make hundreds of thousands of maps by hand. 2021 hit Valheim is a modern-day example using the same technology. Does this take away jobs from map-makers? No, the games would not have been feasible without this technology. (The copyright questions are not concerning as this is in-house technology.)

Surely, we will see the more technologies like these. Perhaps a text-to-game AI will be next? The point of license for the material that goes into training the machine-learning will need to be addressed.

Should Jason Allen’s Colorado art prize be recalled? He was transparent about the creative process. He made edits to the AI-generated image. He made a number of versions. If someone would use the artwork without permission, it is likely that he would win the lawsuit. The protection is perhaps weaker than some other works, but this case is rather clear. Copyright is not always binary. AI is.

The AI Effect

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

Artificial intelligence – defining it is like trying to lift water with your hands. It escapes definition, in part maybe because it’s such a broad and developing concept. In part maybe because it has such mythical proportion (Can it “wake up”? Might it wipe out the human race? Can it fix global warming?). In part maybe because it is the domain of especially smart experts. Or maybe for other reasons, in any case the concept of AI is both real business and a canvas onto which we project our fears and dreams.

AI seems to always be just around the corner, never quite here. Like a mirage, the oasis in the desert that keeps moving away as you approach. Or that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, that no-one seems to be able to find because the rainbow disappears when you get near. Or like Xeno’s myth of Achilles who could never quite catch up with the turtle. This phenomenon has a name: “The AI effect”. What we think of as AI is always in the future. As soon as it is brought into our everyday lives, it loses it mythical qualities. It becomes as mundane as the everyday problems it is meant to solve. The magic falls away.

Consider machines reading and understanding text – optical character recognition or OCR. In the 1960’s this was the frontier of AI research. These days we use it every time we pay our bills without thinking twice. No mystery there. No one calls it artificial intelligence anymore, now it’s just a way save some time.

How about book or film recommendations based on your past choices? Analyzing such data and making personalized recommendations used to be science fiction. Still a focus area for research today, but we encounter them each time we shop online or watch some episodes of The Americans. We might laugh at their often useless recommendations, but it has no God-like qualities.

Voice-recognition, route recommendations, enemies in games, chatbots, financial advice tools, facial recognition and filters, automated photo albums, memories on social media, internet search, personalized ads… not to mention the calendar reminders (how about four reminders from different softwares for the appointment that had already been cancelled anyway?). The list can be made very long, but for each of them the pattern is that they moved from fantasy to boring the instant we started using them.

This is the AI effect, a psychological phenomenon that has more to do with human nature than technology. The AI-revolution is of the slower kind, it changes our world not in great leaps but in baby steps. It changes the work-life, our habits, our consumption… it relies on public investment, research, competition and loads of data. It contributes both to power-concentration and better toys.

Trying to understand, and not least make policy for it, we may be better off looking back than forward. If or when self-driving cars break through, they will already be yesterday’s news. And when Skynet becomes self-aware, we might collectively yawn because we’re looking at time-machines or teleporters or just a way to tell the AI that we already bought that kettle it keeps advertising to us.

Nobel Laureate Calls Oversight Board “Deflection” – She Is Right and Here Is How

Monday, June 20th, 2022

The most powerful moment at the recent Wexfo World Expression Forum was when Maria Ressa held Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s hand on the closing panel as she explained that the organization Thorning-Schmidt fronts is a deflection.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt is a superstar in European policy, former primer minister of Denmark for the Labour party. Her husband is Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil Kinnock who challenged Margaret Thatcher in UK politics in the 1980’s. These days, HTS appears on panels as the chair of the Oversight board – you know the supposedly independent committee that was put in place to advise Meta on publishing ethics and to which users can complain. Advice being the operative word, no duty for Meta to follow it.

Maria Ressa is a Nobel Peace Price Laureate, a Filipino-American journalist, author and free speech-activist who was sentenced to jail by for online libel following her investigative reporting on Philippines-president Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights crimes. She is a worthy winner, having fought for the truth and taken much risk. Ressa’s news channel Rappler started as a Facebook-page, but more recently she has criticized Facebook for not acting on how its platform is weaponized against journalists.

So Maria Ressa held HTS’s hand as she softly told her that the Oversight board is a deflection, comforting her as a person but relentlessly criticizing her work. It was strange and beautiful to watch, such a powerful and yet loving move. And Ressa is right.

On the day before, Dex Hunter-Torricke had appeared on a different Wexfo-panel. His title is a mouthful: Vice President of Global Communications & Public Engagement for Meta’s Oversight Board. Discussing the Oversight Board’s role, he said that there is no single solution that will fix all problems online. As if anyone had thought so! He said it to play down the board’s power, but of course all anyone could ask for is for them to live up to their mission and make sure that Meta plays by the same rules as anyone else distributing content in the public sphere. You know… press ethics.

Lo and behold, what did Helle Thorning-Schmidt say on the Day 2-panel? That there is no single solution that will fix all problems online. That’s right, Meta’s spin doctors could use some more overtime on their talking points. Or even better, they could write real answers instead of… deflection.

The Oversight board can only criticise bad take-downs, not material that stays up. It’s a one-way streetsign. No use for privacy, fake news, copyright or such problems then. No need for Meta to worry about that. Anyway, Meta seems to take the independence very literally, following the board’s guidance when it wants. 14 of the 18 recommendations to date have been implemented. Earlier this spring, Meta turned to the board for advice on how to moderate content relating to Russia’s renewed war in Ukraine. Except Meta got cold feet and withdrew the request, with no further explanation than “ongoing safety concerns”. Perhaps Meta agrees that even the Oversight board is not a single solution to fix all the problems online?

So Difficult to Make Good Propaganda these Days

Friday, June 17th, 2022

It’s so difficult to make good propaganda these days. Or perhaps it was always the case.

Many moons ago, I did mandatory army service in Sweden. The officers once showed us a propaganda film from Russia, covering a big army exercise. One shot was from inside an airplane carrying paratroopers. The camera zoomed in on two soldiers and the voice-over said “when we filmed this, we did not know that these two would become heroes”. Then there was some story of how one had saved the other when one parachute failed to open properly. Very easy to see through, hard to imagine how anyone would buy it, am I right?

Fast-forward to the renewed Russian war in Ukraine and the attached propaganda. On February 22nd (two days before the renewed invasion), Russia claimed a terrorist attack had killed three people in a car in Donetsk and used that for a casus belli. However, on closer inspection, the story was as full of holes as the paratroopers thirty years before – investigative reporting from Bellingcat demonstrated that the incident had been manufactured and the dead bodies likely had been taken from a morgue and put in the burnt-out car.

Speaking at the recent Wexfo – World Expression Forum in Lillehammer, Norway, Bellingcat’s executive director Christo Gozev explained their work method. Not looking for sources, but verifiable facts. Through “open-source intelligence” (looking at publicly available sources) Bellingcat geo-locates and “chrono-locates” images, videos and other content and thus investigates stories. “Shared facts lead to shared values” said Gozev.

Some propaganda may be more difficult to dismiss for anyone without special training or access to tools – think about deep fakes for example – the answer is not that we are post-truth and all information is equal. Rather, this is a moment for proper investigative reporting and for us readers to choose carefully which reporting we put our trust in. And perhaps educate ourselves on some critical thinking…

Done right, we can see through at least the most obvious cases of propaganda, such as claims that one of the bomb victims in Mariupol was an actor. Brings to mind an epistemology principle often quoted in cheap crime fiction: Occam’s Razor – the explanation with the fewest parameters is likeliest to be true.

Maybe it’s not so difficult after all to make good propaganda these days. But we can make it difficult for it to have an impact.

The Power of Ownership – Follow Musk

Friday, May 6th, 2022

There was no shortage of jokes last week, when superstar tech entrepreneur and (maybe) richest man in the world Elon Musk announced his bid to buy all the shares in Twitter. Some of the best jokes were cracked by Musk himself, such as buying Coca-Cola and putting the cocaine back in.

First, let me come clean and say I’m sort of a Musk fanboy. I love the Tesla cars and that company has put pressure on the entire automotive industry to move to electric drive. Also fascinated by Space X and curious about Starlink (usual ISP-liability issues to follow though). Neuralink is more creepy and some of Musk’s tweeting… let’s say it takes some effort to love it.

A lot has been said about Musk’s plans for Twitter. Rolling back some of the restrictions and community rules, as well as some new features can be expected. Some say that might bring back Donald Trump to Twitter, which can be a blessing or the end of the world depending on your politics (I’m in the latter camp if you must know, surprise surprise). Elon Musk’s view of freedom of speech leaves some room for improvement, he himself has tried to cancel those who disagree with him on  several occasions. (Remember the boys stuck in the cave in Thailand? Musk hired an investigator to dig up dirt on the journalist who called his failed rescue sub a “PR stunt”.)

But this blog takes away something else from this story: the power of ownership. Musk doesn’t like the direction of his favourite online platform. So he buys it to make it more the way he wants it to be. Netopia has pondered before how to make Big Tech act more responsibly and clean up its own mess. Staff walk-outs, government intervention, ad boycotts… nothing seems to do the trick. But taking a page from Elon Musk, it’s the owner who has the ultimate power. The owner is the one who can bring change.

Great if you are the (maybe) richest man in the world, you might say. But do you know who owns Big Tech? Take a look in the mirror. A majority of the value of Big Tech shares is held by institutions. That means your pensions and mine. Our savings. Meta (Facebook): 80% institutions. Alphabet (Google) 67%. Amazon 67%. Apple 60%. Sure, there are portfolio managers who control these investments and not all shares have the same vote. But still: What if we were to take a page from Elon Musk and actually use some of this power? What would you do? Put the cocaine back in? Save democracy? Make the internet great again?

Can Copyright Save the Planet?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Today on World Intellectual Property Day, Netopia asks this question: Can copyright save the planet?

The UN’s climate panel recently released its recommendations on technologies that can mitigate climate change, help reduce carbon emissions, or even take away carbon-dioxide (and other green-house gases) from the Earth’s atmosphere. That is great, while some seem to think we must reduce our quality of life in order to mitigate climate change, that is not necessarily the case.

Planet Earth’s resources are limited, but the human population grows and we all hope to have a better life. Is this an impossible equation? Do we need an extra planet? Can there be economic development without killing Mother Earth? The UN-report offers many great suggestions, mainly focusing on how our activities can be more green: hauling goods on electric trucks, sustainable energy production, more efficient building construction and more.

Ideas brought out to solve the seemingly impossible equation of economic growth and a limited planet often touch some of these topics:

Electrification – stop using fossil fuels, instead move to various forms of electric mobility. It can be based on batteries, hydrogen or other technologies (hyper-speed carbon rotors, anyone?).

Services – repair rather than buy new consumer goods. Increase value of existing offerings by adding related services. Move from product to service: rent before buy. Many of the industrialized value chains rely on extracting raw materials and refining them, moving to more circular value chains (=services) is one way to break the vicious cycle.

Digitalization (1) – going digital can make process more efficient, increase productivity and thereby profitability. Or the productivity gains can be exchanged for more climate friendly business. A manufacturing plant for let’s say shovels might produce more if it digitalized stock-keeping of input materials, decrease waste and energy use. With that, the management could decide to make more shovels, decrease prices, increase profits or just make the same amount with less impact on the planet. That is one side of digitalization: take an existing process and make it digital.

Digitalization (2) – the other chapter of digitalization is new offerings that arrive. There were no social media editors before the internet (and for quite a few years after to be honest). The words “search engine optimization” made no sense in the 20th century.

All of these are fine and well, good ideas on how to maintain and grow our quality of life within the scope of the planetary boundaries. They are not “green-washing” – that is when a climate-intensive business pretends to be green by some symbolic gesture (looking at you, oil companies who brag about planting trees). No, these are legit and well-researched ideas. Only this writer would like to offer one more: immaterial value. That’s right, economic value that has no material form, usually in the shape of intellectual property. As the word immaterial suggests, the impact on the planet is virtually non-existent. Sounds too good to be true? Consider this:

In 2004 the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office EIPO participated in an international aid program supporting local coffee farmers. By developing trademarks and origin recognitions, the value of the coffee multiplied. Combined with some smart sales strategies (selling to café chains rather than wholesalers), the coffee growers’ revenue increased 6-8 times. Same coffee beans. Same patch of land. Same work input. Seven times the money, made possible with intellectual property.

There are more examples of intellectual property used to increase value in developing countries, this writer has met a lady who works with textile workers and helped them increase their gains by taking control of their intellectual property: brands, patterns, business agreements. Same work, same yarn, better pay.

A knowledge economy is based on intellectual efforts, many of which create immaterial value. This value can grow over and over again, the resources needed stay the same. I don’t need more food or use any more power to write these words than had I not (I would probably have been watching stupid videos on my phone so a net positive for the planet in more ways than one!).

And these trends can support and multiply each other:

Think about video games – the European digital champions. The turn-over of the games companies in Sweden grew from 1,2 Bn SEK (~€120M) in 2010 to 35 Bn SEK (~€3,5Bn) in 2020*, rivalling some traditional exports such as paper pulp and iron ore. That’s right, more than 30 times the value, with very little extra resources used (some more electricity and office space). Combining services, digitalization and immaterial value creation, these powers support and reinforce one another.

The answer is yes. The immaterial economy delivers sustainable growth. Carbon emissions can be reduced, we don’t have to move back into caves. Copyright can save the planet.

*) Full disclosure, this writer also works for the organisation that publishes this report

If Putin Pulls The Plug

Monday, April 4th, 2022

The Kremlin has directed Russian businesses use the .ru-domain rather than .com – symbolic? Some experts say the Russian regime performed a “dress rehearsal” of disconnecting from the global internet in 2019. Will Putin’s War Split the Internet? 

Will Putin’s War Split the Internet?

Tuesday, March 15th, 2022

The sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cover many sectors, including online businesses. Either on order from the authorities or from their own initiative, many have ceased or decreased operations in Russia (and Belarus to some extent). Twitter has “shadow-banned” Russian propaganda accounts.

In response, the Russian government has banned Facebook and Twitter, now “moves to ban” Instagram and Whatsapp. It says Western “IT Giants” not only provide the environment for disinformation but are actively involved.

Not limited to social media, the information battles are fought in parallel with the actual combat: memes, videos, maps, infographics and so on. Denial of service-cyber attacks on websites, such as Ukranian embassies and government functions.

European internet service providers have stopped access to six Russian media sites following an EU ban, which also applies to social media and search.

The Kremlin has directed Russian businesses use the .ru-domain rather than .com or other foreign top domains and to move to domestic servers and service-providers. While the domain-changes may be symbolic, some experts say the Russian regime performed a “dress rehearsal” of disconnecting from the global internet in 2019.

The domain name servers that direct internet traffic to the intended pages are overseen ICANN, which now warns that Russia might cut ties with the global internet. Either by exiting the ICANN domain-system and setting up it’s own. The domain name servers are often described as the “internet’s phonebook”. Without them, internet resources can still be accessed directly to the IP-address (a sequence of numbers that look like The second option would be more brutal, to actually pull the cables connecting Russia from the rest of the world. This is highly unlikely according to experts, as it would create all sorts of problems: logging into office software, all sorts of background functions and antivirus updates or data stored on cloud services. Many Russian users would not be able to log onto accounts they use every day.

However, there is nothing in the technology that prevents Russia from setting up a national network using the internet protocols and software, much like a corporate intranet except on the scale of a nation. The same hardware and software already in place could be used, it is simply a question of directing the data traffic. This would create a national internet, similar to North Korea’s, with little or no interaction with the outside world.

There was a time when the Internet was expected to bring democracy and freedom of information. Then it turned it could just as well be a tool for repression and control. Now it may be that we can’t talk about the internet as some unified entity. Maybe it never was, but there is a realistic scenario that Putin’s war will split the internet.

The First Casualty of War

Friday, March 11th, 2022

War in Europe, Russia invades peaceful neighbor Ukraine. Or rather, steps up its on-going invasion, eight years on. Many old truths have been reversed, such as: EU sending fighter jets. Germany increasing military spending. Sweden sends anti-armor weapons.

Some old truths come back strong: truth is the first casualty of war. As in the casus belli is full of lies: genocide, Nazism, history. Newspeak: “military-technical measures”, “peace-keeping” or “de-militarisation” rather than invasion.

“War is a mere continuation of politics by other means”, wrote Prussian major-general Carl von Clausewitz in On War (1832). Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin proves the point by claiming historic rights to Ukraine, saying it’s not a proper country. (Historian Yuval Noah Harari points out Ukraine has 1000 years of history as a nation.)

Except in this case, truth died long before the war. The fake news, the farce of Russian politics, the troll factories. Perhaps truth is not the first casualty of war, but rather war is the consequence of an absence of truth? If so, the war on truth has been going on for decades. Yes, there has always been propaganda and misinformation, but the digital public sphere struggles to tell truth from lies.

Other public spheres have measures in place to maximize truthfulness – checks and balances. Classic media has press ethics, publishes corrections, is run by educated editors, has a system for scrutiny of publishing decisions and more. It tries to learn and do better. In science, there is the peer-review system for publishing papers in academic journals, contributions to conferences and awarding degrees. In representative democracies, the political opposition keeps its thumb firmly in the eye of the rulers, there are auditors, elections, free press and NGOs scrutinizing decisions and holding the people making them to account. Publicly traded companies must publish quarterly reports, big and small investors continuously evaluate their business, auditors check the numbers, the exchange holds up rules, the finance analysts and business media do their best to find correct information, there are authorities overseeing trade and so on. This is not to say these systems work perfectly, rather they are full of flaws. But there is an ambition to truth, and an ambition to do better.

This is in stark contrast to the online public sphere. Internet platforms shy from any sort of editorial responsibilities. In fact, sometimes algorithms amplify fake news and profit from hate, a result of the business model. Maybe the nihilist attitude to truth is a consequence of digital technology basics: all ones and zeros are equal. All data has the same value. Every impulse to distinguish true from false or to install a dimension of quality must be added on, rather than integrated to the data-traffic.

My social media is full of people who – as far as I can tell – volunteer in spreading Putin’s war propaganda. They say Ukraine prolong the war by fighting back. They have all kinds of videos and infographics to support their case. Except each of them falls apart upon closer inspection. On a personal level, this is throwback to all other fights I’ve had with trolls over the years: pirates, anti-vaxxers, racists, sexists, Qanon… even the NFT-crowd. Different topics, sometimes the same people, the modus operandi is the same. The bait is ambiguous statements that can be interpreted as something horrible but just as easily denied. When challenged, they pedal back from the horrible interpretation, then offer all kinds of arguments to support it. The false statements, videos, infographics and comment come in quicker than I can double-check them. It is very effective. I try not to take the bait, but I often fail – thinking somebody has to bring a different view. They share the view that institutions cannot be trusted. “Do your own research” is the call-to-arms. This article describes the psychological process, except only to fall into its own trap of thinking there is a bigger force behind it all, pulling the strings.

Of course, Putin’s apologists and everyone else have a right to their own opinion. But do they have a right to their own facts?

To their credit, Big Tech has taken some action – too little to late but welcome all the same. The basic problem remains, there are no press ethics, no system, no real ambition to separate truth from lies. This is not an unsolvable problem, in fact it has been solved many times – as demonstrated by the examples mentioned above. Ironically, it is a Belarusian expat who explains this best: in his 2011 book The Net Delusion (Public Affairs), Evgeny Morozov makes the point that Big Tech’s loyalty will be to their share-holders rather than liberal ideology, if or when it comes to taking sides.

Internet platforms are in no way to be held accountable for Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. The responsibility lies solely with the Russian regime. Putin himself is the one who can stop the war. There are many things in the balance, social media plays an important part for keeping in touch while in shelters or seeking refuge, much of the news from the war zones come via digital channels. It is fair to say that the Ukrainian leadership has been able to use social media to get support for their fight. All those things and more are good. At the same time, internet platforms are channels for propaganda and fake news.

The European Union has taken steps to counteract Russian misinformation or “psy-ops” as the military calls it, including restricting access to some Russian sources, thus walking the tightrope of freedom of speech versus information wars. I have people in my social media calling this censorship and not trusting the European citizens to see through Russian propaganda. On the other hand, I some of those European citizens in my social media amplifying the Russian propaganda. Again, this dilemma might have been avoided if platforms had transparency and editorial policies.

How can we have more of the good and less of the bad? How can we bring back truth? This may be the key to avoiding conflict in the future.

This time, the free world stands united. Let’s do what we can to keep it that way.

Facebook’s Myspace Moment

Monday, February 14th, 2022

Big Tech has often responded to various charges by saying things like “competition is just one click away” or pointing to how the once-great Myspace faded away in the face of more modern competitors. In fact, they said it so much, I gave it a chapter in 21 Digital Myths. Except now I’m not so sure anymore that it’s a myth.

Last week, 26% of Faceboo… sorry: Meta’s market value was wiped out in a day, the share price dropping from 323 USD to 238. Analysts say it’s the market’s reaction to decrease in number of users and ad revenue. Facebook may be turning into boomer-book when younger users prefer Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, Twitch and other fonkier services.

The drop in ad revenue is linked to Apple’s change in privacy policy, making it more difficult to track users. It’s easy to feel Zuckerberg’s pain, the fate of his company so much in the hands of the competition. According to one Meta insider this writer spoke with, this may be part of the reason for the focus on VR and “metaverse” – building an independent eco-system. Including cool Ray-Ban shades.

So far, its metaverse prototype hardly lives up to the hype (in the words of gamer site Kotaku “it sucks”). Surely more to come, but it is odd to think that if Facebook was built on connecting people who know each other in real-life and focusing on social activities, can the same recipe be applied to meeting strangers and… going to work?

We’ll see, but perhaps this was not Facebook’s Myspace-moment, but its Second Life-moment.