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TikTok Introduces AI Avatars for Ads as FTC Warns Companies Not to Do That

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TikTok Introduces AI Avatars for Ads as FTC Warns Companies Not to Do That

TikTok is making AI-generated avatars of real people for brands to use in ads, according to an announcement by the company Monday. The app’s new business video editing tool, called TikTok Symphony, provides both stock and custom digital avatars that brands can choose to use in their AI-generated ads. 

“Digital Avatars help breathe life into branded content with generative AI avatars of real people, which will enable new ways to scale creative strategies on TikTok,” the company said in its announcement. When making an ad in the AI-powered editing suite, brands can “select from a diverse cast of pre-built digital avatars, all created from video footage of real paid actors that are licensed for commercial use,” the company wrote. “Much like stock photos, they provide quick, accessible and cost-effective narration for brands to bring your products to life. Brands can also choose the voice and accent that fits best.” 

Alternatively, brands can create a custom avatar of a real creator that they’re partnering with or their own brand spokesperson, with “multi-language abilities,” letting brands “easily work with creators from around the world to help localize their global campaigns.” 

The announcement includes a TikTok video of various digital avatars based on real creators with hundreds of thousands of followers. The recreations are strikingly life-like. The avatars enthusiastically move their well-formed hands around while talking about TikTok’s new digital avatars, and their mouth movements closely match their words. In the bottom left corner is a disclaimer that the content is AI-generated. 

“With Avatars, I can speak any language, making it easier than ever to form real and native connections with local communities,” an avatar of gaming creator fatalglytch says in the video. The video then cuts to an avatar of oneilthomas97, which says in French, “In reality, I don’t speak French. But now, I can, thanks to Avatars.” 

@tiktoknewsroom

Introducing Symphony Digital Avatars, to help creators and brands captivate global audiences and deliver impactful messages in an immersive and authentic way. Check out our Newsroom to learn more.

♬ original sound - TikTok Newsroom

A digital avatar of a TikTok brand spokesperson.

The Federal Trade Commission warned about the dangers of using AI in marketing contexts just last week. 

“Don’t use consumer relationships with avatars and bots for commercial manipulation,” Michael Atleson, an attorney in the FTC’s division of advertising practices, wrote in a business blog post. “A company offering an anthropomorphic service also shouldn’t manipulate people via the attachments formed with that service, such as by inducing people to pay for more services or steering them to affiliated businesses.” 

AI-generated ads are not a new problem online. After a 404 Media investigation found that YouTube was plastered with AI-generated scam ads of celebrities, the company removed over 1,000 such videos from its platform. 

Atleson also warned AI companies not to misrepresent their services. “Your therapy bots aren’t licensed psychologists, your AI girlfriends are neither girls nor friends, your griefbots have no soul, and your AI copilots are not gods,” he wrote in the post. AI companion/therapist/girlfriend apps have recently taken the chatbot market by storm. Some influencers have created subscription AI-girlfriend versions of themselves. One Stanford study credited AI chatbot Replika with preventing suicide—although Replika has also had problems in the past with being too horny

“We’ve also repeatedly advised companies—with reference to past cases—not to use automated tools to mislead people about what they’re seeing, hearing, or reading,” Atleson wrote. “The Commission has also explored the wider problem of blurred digital advertising to children, advising marketers to steer clear of it altogether.” TikTok’s announcement makes no reference to how these new avatar ads will interact with children on the app.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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InShaneee
22 hours ago
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Check out these new ‘HeatRisk’ tools to stay up to date on US heatwaves

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A map of the US colored in yellow, orange, red, and magenta to indicate areas facing health risks related to extreme heat.
This screenshot of the National Weather Service and CDC’s new HeatRisk tool reflects the severity of potential health risks from heat on Tuesday, June 18th, 2024. | Screenshot: National Weather Service

Extreme heat is in store for communities across the US this week, and the CDC and National Weather Service (NWS) have new tools to help people prepare for the health risks.

Heat is the top weather-related killer in the US, a threat that’s growing worse with climate change. But even though heatwaves kill some 1,220 people in the US, according to the CDC, the health risks can often fly under the radar. Heatwaves don’t necessarily illicit the same sense of urgency as tropical storms, for instance, which are named and categorized according to their intensity.

This year, it’s easier to see how any impending heat spell might impact your area thanks to HeatRisk tools launched by the CDC and NWS this year. You can head over to the HeatRisk dashboard and plug in your zip code to see forecasts and health recommendations for your area. For a bigger picture of how heat is impacting the US, check out a still experimental HeatRisk forecast online tool with a new color-coded system for assessing health risks.

“With hurricanes and tornadoes, those might get much more attention because you can visibly see the damage that occurs. But with heat, it’s a lot harder to actually see the impact unless it happens to impact you,” says Jessica Lee, NWS public weather services program coordinator. “The main thing we hope to accomplish with HeatRisk is that it will be used by individuals to help them personalize what forecasted heat will mean to them and better understand what actions they may need to take.”

More than 72.9 million people — over a fifth of the population — are under active heat advisories as a record-breaking heatwave is forecast to unfold across much of the Central US and Northeast this week. Open up the National Weather Service’s HeatRisk tool, and you’ll see a map of the contiguous US ablaze in yellow, orange, red, and magenta colors. Each color is a warning about the potential impacts heat is expected to have in a particular location each day of the week.

For now, much of the Northwest is green, denoting “little to no risk from expected heat.” Yellow indicates a “minor” level of risk, although this can still affect people who are more susceptible to heat-related illness — especially anyone who has to spend time outdoors. “Moderate” risk, defined as affecting “most individuals sensitive to heat, especially those without effective cooling and/or adequate hydration,” is labeled orange.

Children and older people tend to be more vulnerable. Kids’ bodies are less efficient at cooling themselves down, and older adults might be taking medications that affect their body’s ability to thermoregulate or may have health conditions that heat can exacerbate. It’s a good idea to check in on loved ones who live alone or have chronic health conditions during an orange alert.

Red and magenta correspond with “major” and “extreme” health risks, respectively. At those levels, anyone might be at risk if they don’t have a way to cool down and stay hydrated. Parts of Texas and states across the Midwest, Ohio Valley, Mid-Atlantic, and New England are forecast to face bouts of “extreme” risk this week. That’s considered rare since it generally takes a prolonged heatwave with soaring daytime and nighttime temperatures to reach magenta-level risk.

It’s important to understand how heat interacts with an individual’s health history and their surroundings. City sprawl tends to trap heat, making urban neighborhoods feel much warmer than more rural areas. Cities in the Southwest meanwhile, might be better prepared for temperatures soaring above 90 degrees Fahrenheit than typically cooler regions in the Pacific Northwest where air conditioning isn’t as commonplace. The heat can even exacerbate air pollution in your area by supercharging the chemical reaction that creates smog. Entering your zip code into the CDC’s HeatRisk dashboard addresses a lot of these nuances, sharing air quality information on top of color-coded HeatRisk scores for the week and actions to take to protect your health.

The two websites launched on Earth Day, April 22nd, this year. The tools build off a similar system used in California since 2013 that expanded to other western states in 2017. Early iterations focused on climatological data, like how soaring temperatures compared to the norm for that area. Soon after, the NWS started working with the CDC to incorporate health information into its assessments and account for more humidity in the eastern half of the US.

HeatRisk is still an “experimental product” while the agencies continue to take public feedback on it through September 30th via an online form. Then, they’ll decide whether to implement changes based on that feedback and / or continue taking feedback. In 2022, the US launched yet another website called heat.gov to help city planners stay up to date on heat alerts and incorporate that data into their decision-making.

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You Probably Unwittingly Voted to Give Elon Musk a Huge Raise

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You Probably Unwittingly Voted to Give Elon Musk a Huge Raise

On Friday, if you have any investments whatsoever, you very well may have voted to give Elon Musk a gigantic, $56 billion pay package as the CEO of Tesla. You probably did this without even knowing it. 

This happened because of the incredible rise of “passive investing” or “index fund investing,” which has become one of the most popular ways of investing money in the stock market. If you are privileged enough to have a 401(k), an IRA, or any sort of investment account, it is likely that the investments inside it are held in exchange traded funds (ETFs), index funds, or mutual funds that buy shares of a large swath of the stock market. 

When people buy passive investment vehicles, they are giving their money to Vanguard,  Charles Schwab, Fidelity, or another investment giant, which then buys shares in a big swath of companies. Many of the most popular funds contain lots of Tesla stock, because Tesla is one of the largest companies in the world. Tesla stock makes up 1.11 percent of VOO, a Vanguard ETF that mirrors the S&P 500. It is the 13th-largest holding in that fund. VTI, Vanguard’s “total stock market” ETF contains 3,663 companies. Tesla is the 13th largest holding in VTI, also, making up .95 percent of the entire fund. Tesla also makes up a significant portion of various retirement “Target Date” funds and similar products across different investment firms. 

What this means in practice is that, because of its millions of investors who put billions of dollars into its investment vehicles, Vanguard itself has 232 million Tesla shares, and owns 7 percent of the company. It is the second largest shareholder of Tesla stock, behind only Musk himself. This money is not actually “Vanguard’s,” it is the money of all of the investors and 401(k) holders using Vanguard to invest. But Vanguard does not ask those individual investors if they want to give Elon Musk a gigantic raise. Vanguard votes on their behalf.

This is exactly what happened with Musk. On Friday, Vanguard announced that it has changed its vote from “no” to “yes” on whether Musk deserved a massive new compensation package. In an investors note originally obtained by Reuters, the company said it had switched its vote “given the strong alignment of executive pay with shareholder returns since 2018 and the benefits the board asserted related to the motivational value for the CEO in preserving the original deal.” Vanguard also voted to allow Musk to relocate the company from Delaware (which is the site of a big lawsuit about Musk’s pay) to Texas.

We do not yet know how other major investment firms voted on Musk’s compensation package, but most of them likely approved it, because 72 percent of votes cast (which were not cast by Musk himself) supported Musk’s pay raise. 

Vanguard’s oversized influence on Tesla is not a one-off. Because of the way passive investing works, Vanguard (and Fidelity, and BlackRock, and State Street, etc) owns huge stakes in most every publicly traded company and can similarly exert its influence on company operations. 

Part of the allure of passive investing is that it is passive—these funds basically just mirror the stock market or different sections of it, and they are considered to be one of the easiest and least expensive ways to invest because they have very low fees. They are seen as one of the most responsible ways to save for retirement, and investing in funds via a 401(k) is incentivized by laws passed that makes investing in them tax-advantaged. Passive investing is now the most popular way of investing in the United States. 

The massive popularity of them have had the effect of collectively giving huge voting power in the operations of many publicly traded companies to a handful of investment firms. If, for example, you were to try to build your own investment fund that mirrored the S&P 500, you could do this yourself by buying and selling small bits of stock from 500 different companies. This would be a pain in the ass, but if you did this, you would have shareholder rights at each of these companies and could vote at their shareholder meetings. When investing through Vanguard or another firm, you rarely actually get those rights, and the ways that these investment firms vote on your behalf very well may not line up with your values as a person. 

This lack of representation is no secret. The founder of Vanguard, John Bogle, who popularized and championed passive investing and who died in 2019, gave a speech in 2017 about the fact that firms like his have amassed a large amount of power and noted that “until recently, nearly all money managers have been conspicuous by their absence from the corporate governance scene, generally endorsing slates of corporate directors and approving management’s proxy recommendations.” 

Vanguard, State Street, and BlackRock are experimenting with something called “voting choice,” which was covered in this New York Times article from February: “What the companies are experimenting with isn’t true ‘pass-through voting,’ which would involve asking millions of fund shareholders how they want to vote in thousands of specific proxy contests each year, and then actually casting those individual votes accordingly.” The companies are instead asking their investors a series of vibes-based questions about climate change, “Catholic faith,” “social responsibility,” etc. The investment companies will then take your answers on these questions and will theoretically apply them when shareholder votes come up, aggregated across all of its other investors. 

Tesla, of course, is just one company that people may be investing in without actually thinking about it. The massive rise of Nvidia, which is powering AI infrastructure, has made it one of the most-held stocks in various indexes and therefore, by American investors. Unless you specifically seek to avoid investing in companies like Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Amazon, and various financial giants, putting money into passive funds means you are likely putting money into these companies. This tension between "saving for retirement" and "accidentally supporting some of the most destructive companies on Earth" is of course a product of living in a capitalist society; these issues are also behind the broader "divestment" movement.

In recent months there have been a handful of major articles about the incredibly popularity of index funds and passive investing, and the knock-on effects that its popularity might have. The June cover of Harper’s Magazine, for example, asks “Does the rise of index funds spell catastrophe?” The general thesis of this argument is that passive investing has become so popular that it is creating a gigantic bubble in the stock market. People are unwittingly investing in companies regardless of if the companies are well-run or not because the money is apportioned across large numbers of companies regardless of their fundamentals. This means people are just investing in “the market” and not specific winners and losers. All of this investment is driving up stock prices based solely on the fact that people are putting money into these companies at basically regular and predictable intervals, and that one day this bubble will burst. 

We have no idea how all of this will turn out, but it is at least worth understanding the general dynamics of how passive investment has given a huge amount of power to firms like Vanguard and BlackRock. 

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InShaneee
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Three of Vietnam's Five Undersea Internet Cables Are Down

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Three out of Vietnam's five active international undersea internet cables are down, state media said over the weekend, the second major round of outages in the country in just over a year. From a report: The problems with the three cables, which connect Vietnam with the United States, Europe and Asia, have "significantly affected Vietnam's internet connection with the world", reported the official Vietnam News Agency. Vietnam is connected to the global internet mainly via five undersea cables with a combined capacity of nearly 62 Tbps, according to data from FPT, one of the country's top internet service providers. It's not clear if the three cables referred to, which account for most of the bandwidth, are totally or partially down.

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Proton is transitioning towards a non-profit structure

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From the very beginning, Proton has always been a different type of organization. This was probably evident from the way in which we got started via a public crowdfunding campaign that saw 10,000 people donate over $500,000 to launch development. As a company created by scientists who met at CERN and that, to this day, remains run by scientists, Proton has never been led by people who are driven by the maximization of profit. What has always mattered most is impact, led by a deeply held belief that people must come before profits.

Proton’s mission has always been unique. Most companies are created to be sold, and they achieve that by placing profit above all other considerations. For most businesses providing “services” to the masses, the easiest way to profit has been to misuse user data and engage in surveillance capitalism to the detriment of society and democracy. At Proton, we have intentionally taken a different path to achieve a more difficult mission. We want to remake the internet in a way that is private by default and serves the interests of all of society, not just the interests of a few Silicon Valley tech giants. In short, we want to create an internet that is able and willing to defend freedom, no matter the cost.

For exactly 10 years, we have done this, as today marks the 10th anniversary of the initial Proton Mail crowdfunding campaign in 2014. Our journey has not been an easy one, but thanks to the support of all of you, we have persevered and thrived despite all the obstacles thrown in our way. For this reason, community is the most important thing to us, and we want to ensure that Proton continues to faithfully serve the community for the next 10 years and beyond. To achieve this goal, I, as Proton’s founder, joined together by Jason Stockman (Proton’s co-founder) and Dingchao Lu (Proton’s first employee), have jointly endowed the non-profit Proton Foundation through a donation of Proton shares. These transfers and commitments from the foundation founders make the Proton Foundation the primary shareholder of Proton and make irrevocable our wish that Proton remains in perpetuity an organization that places people ahead of profits.

Why a non-profit foundation?

The fact that Proton was not previously a non-profit has certainly not prevented us from supporting our beliefs. In the past five years, Proton has given grants worth more than 2.7 million dollars to advance online freedom and democracy around the world. Organizations that have been funded include the Tor Project, the European Digital Rights network, GrapheneOS, and many others. In the world of open source, we continue to develop and freely license some of the most widely used encryption libraries, such as OpenPGPjs, in a bid to make end-to-end encryption more widely available. Proton also continues to fund and operate services that can never be profitable, such as the Proton VPN projects to maintain free and open internet in countries like Iran and Russia, work that was featured on the front page of the New York Times.

However, adopting a Swiss non-profit structure provides additional security, which a corporation cannot achieve. Because Proton has no venture capital investors, we can take this additional step to secure the future. Swiss foundations do not have shareholders, so Proton will no longer be dependent upon the goodwill of any particular person or group of persons. Instead, Swiss foundations and their board of trustees are legally obligated to act in accordance with the purpose for which they were established, which, in this case, is to defend Proton’s original mission. As the largest voting shareholder of Proton, no change of control can occur without the consent of the foundation, allowing it to block hostile takeovers of Proton, thereby ensuring permanent adherence to the mission.

In addition to its governance role, the Proton Foundation will also be consolidating, continuing, and expanding our existing grant-giving efforts to support organizations that are aligned with our mission to defend online and offline freedom around the world. To support this work, Proton is pledging 1% of our net revenues to the foundation when conditions allow, further committing the financial success of Proton to the public good. Finally, the Proton Foundation will also be an investor active in supporting companies and technologies that advance our vision of a free and open internet. In pursuing these activities, the foundation will not act like a traditional venture capital investor. We have no fiduciary duty to deliver a financial return – our success will be measured instead by impact.

A structure for sustainable change

While comparisons may be drawn to the non-profit Signal Foundation or Mozilla Foundation, the Proton Foundation seeks to tread a different path. We believe that if we want to bring about large-scale change, Proton can’t be billionaire-subsidized (like Signal), Google-subsidized (like Mozilla), government-subsidized (like Tor), donation-subsidized (like Wikipedia), or even speculation-subsidized (like the plethora of crypto “foundations”). Instead, Proton must have a profitable and healthy business at its core. For this reason, our services will continue to be offered through the for-profit Swiss corporation Proton AG, which now operates under the supervision of the non-profit foundation, which is its primary shareholder. This change in governance does not signal a shift in how our core businesses are run. Proton is not profit-driven, but we still must retain profitability as a core objective because a cornerstone of safeguarding Proton’s mission is independence through self-sustainability.

As with much of what we do, this approach is unique, but we believe this hybrid model offers the best of both worlds. For instance, the for-profit corporation is not prevented from issuing stock options to attract and incentivize the best talent in tech. Nor would it even prevent the corporation from raising capital on public markets if additional resources are required to win the fight for the future of the internet. However, the foundation’s control would always require the company to act in a way that does not jeopardize Proton’s original mission, and Proton’s financial success is directly committed to the public good. In this way, we seek to preserve not only Proton’s values, but also our culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and ambition, and our relentless competitive spirit.

The next 10 years and beyond

In the past 10 years, we have launched five services and reached 100 million people. In the process, we have also grown from a team of 3 to a team of 500. But we have not gone far enough or fast enough towards achieving our vision. In the next 10 years, we will work harder, ship faster, and make bigger and bolder bets because in seeking to upend the status quo, sometimes the biggest risk is not taking risk. We enter our second decade hopefully wiser, learning from mistakes and having a better appreciation of the challenges ahead. But most importantly, we remain just as committed to keeping our promises to you.

We believe the change to a non-profit structure is right for the community and allows us to pay your support forward by ensuring that Proton’s mission continues to be protected into the future. We want to thank you for your trust and support for Proton’s mission, from our initial crowdfunding days to the present and into the brighter future we are building together.

Visit the Proton Foundation website

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ASUS Promises Support Overhaul After YouTube Investigators Allege Dishonesty

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ASUS has suddenly agreed "to overhaul its customer support and warranty systems," writes the hardware review site Gamers Nexus — after a three-video series on its YouTube channel documented bad and "potentially illegal" handling of customer warranties for the channel's 2.2 million viewers. The Verge highlights ASUS's biggest change: If you've ever been denied a warranty repair or charged for a service that was unnecessary or should've been free, Asus wants to hear from you at a new email address. It claims those disputes will be processed by Asus' own staff rather than outsourced customer support agents.... The company is also apologizing today for previous experiences you might have had with repairs. "We're very sorry to anyone who has had a negative experience with our service team. We appreciate your feedback and giving us a chance to make amends." It started five weeks ago when Gamers Nexus requested service for a joystick problem, according to a May 10 video. First they'd received a response wrongly telling them their damage was out of warranty — which also meant Asus could add a $20 shipping charge for the requested repair. "Somehow that turned into ASUS saying the LCD needs to be replaced, even though the joystick is covered under their repair policies," the investigators say in the video. [They also note this response didn't even address their original joystick problem — "only that thing that they had decided to find" — and that ASUS later made an out-of-the-blue reference to "liquid damage."] The repair would ultimately cost $191.47, with ASUS mentioning that otherwise "the unit will be sent back un-repaired and may be disassembled." ASUS gave them four days to respond, with some legalese adding that an out-of-warranty repair fee is non-refundable, yet still "does not guarantee that repairs can be made." Even when ASUS later agreed to do a free "partial" repair (providing the requested in-warranty service), the video's investigators still received another email warning of "pending service cancellation" and return of the unit unless they spoke to "Invoice Quotation Support" immediately. The video-makers stood firm, and the in-warranty repair was later performed free — but they still concluded that "It felt like ASUS tried to scam us." ASUS's response was documented in a second video, with ASUS claiming it had merely been sending a list of "available" repairs (and promising that in the future ASUS would stop automatically including costs for the unrequested repair of "cosmetic imperfections" — and that they'd also change their automatic emails.) Gamers Nexus eventually created a fourth, hour-long video confronting various company officials at Computex — which finally led to them publishing a list of ASUS's promised improvements on Friday. Some highlights: ASUS promises it's "created a Task Force team to retroactively go back through a long history of customer surveys that were negative to try and fix the issues." (The third video from Gamers Nexus warned ASUS was already on the government's radar over its handling of warranty issues.) ASUS also announced their repairs centers were no longer allowed to claim "customer-induced damage" (which Gamers Nexus believes "will remove some of the financial incentive to fail devices" to speed up workloads). ASUS is creating a new U.S. support center allowing customers to choose either a refurbished board or a longer repair. Gamers Nexus says they already have devices at ASUS repair centers — under pseudonyms — and that they "plan to continue sampling them over the next 6-12 months so we can ensure these are permanent improvements." And there's one final improvement, according to Gamers Nexus. "After over a year of refusing to acknowledge the microSD card reader failures on the ROG Ally [handheld gaming console], ASUS will be posting a formal statement next week about the defect."

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