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‘Game-changing’ tech fuels US relook at China data risks

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The United States appears to be recalibrating its approach, analysts say, after traditionally leaning towards free data flows
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From genomic information to internet-connected cars, the United States is rethinking its data protection policies — with further trade curbs aimed at China in the cards — as tech like AI brings new risks.

In the past week alone, President Joe Biden took steps expanding Washington’s national security toolkit, sounding the alarm on possible risks from Chinese vehicles and tech, a day after issuing an order to limit the flow of sensitive personal data abroad.

The fear is that such data can be used to track citizens, including those with sensitive jobs, or train artificial intelligence models.

The use of sensitive data to develop AI could allow adversaries to use the tech to target US individuals for espionage or blackmail, such as by recognizing patterns across datasets to identify people whose government links would be otherwise obscured.

Washington has started to recognize the “strategic and national security value of data,” said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

She noted that the Commerce Department’s investigation into risks from Chinese tech in connected vehicles is “a long-overdue look into the application layer of the future internet.”

“We should expect further investigations into the data produced across the internet of things,” she said.

– ‘Recalibration’ –

The moves signal “broader concerns about national security risks emanating from unfettered free access to data,” said Emily Benson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Until now, Chinese firms could legally buy US data in bulk, noted Martin Chorzempa, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

This creates an “imbalance,” he said, adding that the latest order closes a “loophole.”

Washington has tried using national security grounds to limit foreign firms’ ability to buy US companies and access US data — but businesses could still acquire the information.

A Duke University study published in November found that it is not tough to get sensitive data about active-duty military members, with information available via data brokers for as low as 12 cents per record.

“Overall what we do see is the recalibration of the United States’ approach,” which has traditionally leaned towards free dataflows, said Benson, director of CSIS’s project on trade and technology.

“That era seems to be behind us,” she told AFP.

– Game-changing tech –

The approach to data comes as Washington mounts a broader push to power economic growth and maintain a US lead in tech competition with China — while putting up national security guardrails.

A key factor is AI, which can quickly analyze and manipulate bulk data in carrying out espionage or cyber operations.

“A part of this is a foundational security approach to reining in certain high-risk AI capabilities,” Benson said.

Concurrently, Washington’s need to stay ahead in AI has spurred other federal policies such as the CHIPS Act, which pours $39 billion into manufacturing incentives.

On Monday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said AI has been a “game-changer” in demand for advanced chips, adding that the US can eventually house the entire supply chain for producing such semiconductors.

Most global semiconductor manufacturing capacity is currently in China and East Asia, according to the US Semiconductor Industry Association.

– Catch up? –

“China has been very proactive at building out its own data protection and data security regime,” said Chorzempa.

“One element of that is restrictions on what data can be transferred cross-border,” he added, noting that foreign companies would not necessarily be able to get data from China on its citizens.

US moves represent it coming more aligned with data governance regimes of its close partners, Benson of CSIS said.

The European Union has strict data protection laws including its 2018 General Data Protection Regulation, and rules covering the flow of bulk commercial data between devices.

Japan has been pushing for the flow of data while ensuring trust in privacy and security as well.

“It’ll be interesting to see to what degree (US action) actually facilitates greater convergence among regimes, or whether we’re into unchartered territory when it comes to digital governance,” said Benson.

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Quarter of UK 5 to 7-year-olds have smart phone: study

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A growing number of parents say smart phones should be kept out of the hands of small children
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Around a quarter of British children aged between five and seven-years-old now have a smart phone, a study by the UK communications regulator said on Friday.

The findings come as parents have started to push back against the trend for giving younger children access to the devices.

Research by the Ofcom authority found that 38 percent of children in the age group were using social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Whatsapp despite rules requiring users to be at least 13.

The study also found that the number of the same age watching live-streamed content rose from 39 percent to around half.

Ofcom said parental concerns appeared to have increased considerably but “enforcement of rules appears to be diminishing”.

It said this could be due to a sense among adults of “resignation about their ability to intervene in their children’s online lives”.

Science Minister Michelle Donelan described the findings as “stark”.

Online safety legislation passed by parliament last October aims to crack down on harmful content, including online child sex abuse.

“Children as young as five should not be accessing social media,” Donelan said.

“Most platforms say they do not allow under-13s onto their sites and the (Online Safety) Act will ensure companies enforce these limits or they could face massive fines,” she added.

– ‘Massive pressure’ –

Under the new law tech companies could face fines of up to 10 percent of global revenue for rule breaches and bosses could be jailed.

The study follows a massive reaction from UK parents this year after one mother’s Instagram post when viral.

Daisy Greenwell posted that she was horrified to learn from another parent that her 11-year-old son had his own smart phone, as did a third of the boy’s class.

“This conversation has filled me with terror. I don’t want to give my child something that I know will damage her mental health and make her addicted,” she wrote.

“But I also know that the pressure to do so, if the rest of her class have one, will be massive,” she added.

Thousands of parents immediately got in contact to share their own fears that the devices could open them up to predators, online bullying, social pressure and harmful content. It resulted in the launch of the Parents United for a Smartphone Free Childhood campaign. 

US author Jonathan Haidt — whose recent book “The Anxious Generation” says smart phones have rewired children’s brains — has urged parents to act together on smart phone access for kids.

A child “breaks our heart” by telling us they are excluded from their peer group by being the only one without a phone, he said last month. Haidt advocates for no smart phones before the age of 14 or social media before 16.

“These things are hard to do as one parent. But if we all do it together — if even half of us do it together — then it becomes much easier for our kids,” he added.

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Olympic chief Bach says AI can be a game changer for athletes

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IOC president Thomas Bach delivers his keynote speech at the Olympic AI Agenda launch
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IOC president Thomas Bach said artificial intelligence can help identify talented athletes “in every corner of the world” as he unveiled the Olympic AI Agenda in London on Friday.

Bach, speaking at Olympic Park, which hosted the 2012 Games, said the Olympic movement needs to lead change as the global AI revolution gathers pace.

“Today we are making another step to ensure the uniqueness of the Olympic Games and the relevance of sport, and to do this, we have to be leaders of change, and not the object of change,” said the International Olympic Committee president.

The former fencing gold medallist said it was vital to have a “holistic” approach to create an “overall strategy for AI and sport”.

Bach, speaking less than 100 days before the start of the Paris Olympics, said “unlike other sectors of society, we in sport are not confronted with the existential question of whether AI will replace human beings”.

“In sport, the performances will always have to be delivered by the athletes,” he said. “The 100 metres will always have to be run by an athlete -– a human being. Therefore, we can concentrate on the potential of AI to support the athletes.

“AI can help to identify athletes and talent in every corner of the world. AI can provide more athletes with access to personalised training methods, superior sports equipment and more individualised programmes to stay fit and healthy.”

Bach said other advantages of AI included fairer judging, better safeguarding and improved spectator experience.

The Olympic AI Agenda comes from the IOC AI working group -– a high-level panel of global experts including AI pioneers and athletes, set up last year.

When asked about the potential negatives of AI, Bach was keen to emphasise the importance of free choice in sport.

“He and she, or the parents, must still have the free choice,” said the German. “So a guy who is then maybe identified as a great athlete in wrestling must still have the chance to play tennis and cannot be sorted out from these sports.”

– Vonn ‘jealous’ –

Former Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn, who also spoke at the London event, told AFP she envied current athletes, who could use AI to enhance their training.

“I’m very jealous that I didn’t have any of this technology when I was racing because I just really feel that it’s going to enhance the athlete’s experience all around,” she said.

“Athletes can utilise AI in training to enhance their knowledge from training like, for example, skiing on the mountain but then also off the mountain in the gym recovery times,” added the American.

“The more we understand about your body, about the sport, about performance, the better you can adjust as an athlete.

Vonn, 39, also said AI would be a vital tool for talent identification, particularly in nations without the resources to scout talent.

“You can give them access to AI through a cell phone and you do a series of tests and they can identify ‘OK this athlete would be a great, a 40-metre dash sprinter, or this athlete would potentially be an amazing high jumper,” she said. 

“You have the ability then to find the talent and give them resources through things they already have like a cell phone.”

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Meta releases beefed-up AI models

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Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg contends freshly released Meta AI is the most intelligent digital assistant people can freely use
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Meta on Thursday introduced an improved AI assistant built on new versions of its open-source Llama large language model.

Meta AI is smarter and faster due to advances in the publicly available Llama 3, the tech titan said in a blog post.

“The bottom line is we believe Meta AI is now the most intelligent AI assistant that you can freely use,” Meta co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a video on Instagram.

Being open source means that developers outside of Meta are free to customize Llama 3 as they wish and the company may then incorporate those improvements and insights in an updated version.

“We’re excited about the potential that generative AI technology can have for people who use Meta products and for the broader ecosystem,” Meta said.

“We also want to make sure we’re developing and releasing this technology in a way that anticipates and works to reduce risk.”

That effort includes incorporating protections in the way Meta designs and releases Llama models and being cautious when it adds generative AI features to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, according to Meta.

“We’re also making Meta AI much easier to use across our apps. We built it into the search box right at the top of WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram messenger, so any time you have a question, you can just ask it right there,” said Zuckerberg in the video.

AI models, Meta’s included, have been known to occasionally go off the rails, giving inaccurate or bizarre responses in episodes referred to as “hallucinations.”

Examples shared on social media included Meta AI claiming to have a child in the New York City school system during an online forum conversation.

– Slow and steady –

Meta AI has been consistently updated and improved since its initial release last year, according to the company.

“Meta’s slower approach to building its AI has put the company behind in terms of consumer awareness and usage, but it still has time to catch up,” said Sonata Insights chief analyst Debra Aho Williamson.

“Its social media apps represent a massive user base that it can use to test AI experiences.”

By weaving AI into its family of apps, Meta will quickly get features powered by the technology to billions of people and benefit from seeing what users do with it.

Meta cited the example of refining the way its AI answers prompts regarding political or social issues to summarize relevant points about the topic instead of offering a single point of view.

Llama 3 has been tuned to better discern whether prompts are innocuous or out-of-bounds, according to Meta.

“Large language models tend to overgeneralize, and we don’t intend for it to refuse to answer prompts like ‘How do I kill a computer program?’ even though we don’t want it to respond to prompts like ‘How do I kill my neighbor?’,” Meta explained.

Meta said it lets users know when they are interacting with AI on its platform and puts visible markers on photorealistic images that were in fact generated by AI.

Beginning in May, Meta will start labeling video, audio, and images “Made with AI” when it detects or is told content is generated by the technology.

Llama 3, for now, is based in English but in the coming months Meta will release more capable models able to converse in multiple languages, the company said.

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