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Tech pessimism founded on ‘real concerns’



Mike Schroepfer

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Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer believes the pessimism surrounding technology in the world today is “founded on real concerns of the negative impacts of technology.”

In an interview on Tuesday with the president of the Oxford Union, the Oxford University debating society, Schroepfer said that in some cases “we haven’t really always done the homework upfront” and thought about what a “bad actor” might do with a particular product before releasing it.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday that he was talking about the tech industry as a whole as opposed to Facebook specifically. The social media giant has been widely criticized for a range issues including the spread of hate speech and misinformation, influencing elections, being addictive, and failing to keep children safe on its platform.

“The thing that’s often true of new technologies and advancements is they often have very clear, acute examples where things change or are disruptive,” said Schroepfer. “It may be a loss of jobs or a new form of scammer abuse. It’s something that’s really easy to understand as ‘bad.’ And then they have very generalized improvements in the quality of life. So if I say I’ve increased the GDP overall by 3%, I’ve made everyone slightly more prosperous, but it’s harder to weigh against these very acute, specific harms.”

Schroepfer said it’s up to technologists to try to minimalize or eliminate these harms from the beginning, adding that he wants to help people understand the world wouldn’t be what it is today without technology.

“If you go back, 50 years, 100 years, 300 years, and you look at how life was different then versus now, the biggest change in my mind is technology,” he said. “300 years ago, most of us would be subsistence farmers. Our average life expectancy would be half of what it is today.”

Schroepfer added: “It’s important for us all to be real about the risks, but still be optimistic about the better future we can build.”

A.I. push

Schroepfer said one of the main areas that Facebook is investing in is artificial intelligence, which has been hailed as a technology that could bring about a new industrial revolution.

Facebook set up a dedicated AI research lab around the same time that Google acquired London AI research lab DeepMind in 2014. Facebook AI Research, as the lab is known, is now spread across multiple offices around the world.

“In the first five years or so at Facebook, honestly a lot of our focus was just trying to keep up with scaling the site,” said Schroepfer. “There was a lot of technology and infrastructure work that had to be built to make sure that as millions, or tens of millions, of new people use their products the whole thing didn’t crash and burn.”

Once Facebook had grappled with scaling, Schroepfer said the company was able to start thinking about the next 10 years, adding that AI was making a breakthrough around the time.

“We realized we didn’t want to be reading other people’s (AI) research papers and trying to reimplement them,” he said. “We wanted to be pushing this at the frontier. We looked at a lot of technological areas and made a very explicit choice to build a research lab focused exclusively on AI, rather than a generalized research center, because we just felt like if we put all of our energy there, there’s so much that AI could do to Facebook and to the world.”

AI software now underpins many of Facebook’s products and Schroepfer said the company’s push into AI has worked out better than he hoped.

He pointed out that Facebook’s Oculus headset doesn’t work without computer vision, which is a field of AI that allows computers to “see” the world around them. AI software also allows Portal, Facebook’s video chat device, to automatically pan and zoom the camera. On the main Facebook platform, AI is used to translate languages and remove content that violates its policies. However, it doesn’t spot everything, and humans still play a significant role.

Artificial General Intelligence

AI keeps on advancing but Schroepfer isn’t as concerned as Tesla CEO Elon Musk about it being a serious danger to humans any time soon.

“I am in a very particular spot here,” said Schroepfer. “There are narrow AIs and there are generalized AIs.”

Narrow AI can excel at specific tasks whereas generalized AI can do multiple things well. Developing artificial general intelligence is often seen as the holy grail in AI.

“Generalizability and transfer learning is an unsolved problem in AI research in general,” said Schroepfer. “We’re quite a way away from a generalized intelligence,” he continued, adding that “this is what the worst of the worst fears of AI is.”

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Public support for Covid vaccines rises but skepticism remains: study



Pharmacist, Murtaza Abdulkarim (L) administers a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine to a patient at a temporary vaccination centre, staffed by pharmacists and pharmacist assistants, at the Al-Abbas Islamic Centre in Birmingham, West Midlands on February 4, 2021.

Oli Scarff | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — More than three quarters of people in the U.K. now say they are “very likely” to have a coronavirus vaccine, a survey by the University of Oxford has found, up from 50% among the same group of survey respondents five months ago.

The study, part of the University of Oxford-funded research projectCoping with COVID-19′, was conducted on a representative sample of over 1,600 U.K. adults using the polling company YouGov. 

It found that the percentage of people who are “likely” or “very likely” to take the vaccine has increased to 87% from 78% since the sampling of respondents last October.

It found that age remains a strong predictor of willingness to take the vaccine with the 50-59 age group now much more positive about the vaccine since October.

There is a group of around 7% of the population who remain “very unlikely” to take the vaccine and this has not shifted greatly, the study said.

The survey of 1,200 UK residents, contacted in early October 2020 and again in the first week of February 2021, showed strong relationships between political attitudes and the intention to accept the vaccine, however, and that important gaps remain, driven by income and ethnicity.  

Co-authored by scholars from the University of Oxford, London School of Economics, and University College London, the study found that people on lower incomes are, on average, much less willing to take the vaccine. It also found that ethnic minority participants’ opinion of the vaccine had edged slightly in favor of the shot, but still trailed the white population represented in the survey.

The U.K.’s vaccination rollout began in December, with priority given to the elderly, care home residents and staff, and health care workers. The nationwide vaccination program has been seen as a success so far, with the rollout now extending to more priority groups in younger age brackets, and those deemed clinically vulnerable. As of Monday, almost 18 million people have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Government officials have expressed concern over vaccine hesitancy among some key groups, however, including care home workers and some ethnic minorities.

Barriers to vaccine uptake can include a perception of risk, low confidence in the vaccine, distrust in the medical establishment and a lack of endorsement or communication from trusted providers and community leaders, the government said in a recent report. It has sought to tackle vaccine hesitancy by engaging faith leaders and local medical practitioners that can easily engage with their local communities and encourage vaccine take-up.

However, one’s political persuasion was found to affect vaccine acceptance too, according to the Oxford study, including whether respondents voted for Brexit or not. The study found “Remainers,” those who voted for the U.K. to stay in the EU, are 7 percentage points more likely to be willing to take the vaccine than “Leavers,” or those who did not vote in the 2016 referendum. 

People who voted for the Brexit party or Green in 2019 — and especially those who did not vote at all — were found to be the least willing to take the vaccine, with supporters of the Scottish National Party and Liberal voters most positively inclined.  

Much is riding on vaccine rollouts in the U.K. and beyond. The U.K. government has recently set out a four-step plan to lift a national lockdown in England over the coming weeks and months, but has said it would rely on data rather than dates in determining how and when it lifts restrictions. How quickly it can re-open public life will affect how quickly its economy, which contracted almost 10% in 2020, can bounce back.

Ben Ansell, professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University, said the findings showed “important gaps remain especially among groups whose trust in politicians is typically lower: non-voters, younger citizens, and poorer households.”

“When so much of the U.K. Government’s lockdown exit strategy rests on successful vaccine roll out, these insights will be of immediate importance to policymakers in both their internal deliberation on policy and their outward facing communication with the public.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit has forecast that, if vaccine rollouts proceed as it currently expects, most developed countries should have immunized 60-70% of their population by mid-2022. It believes the economic impact of vaccination rollouts should emerge sooner, however, with a global economic recovery to pick up pace from mid‑2021.

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Klarna CEO ‘deeply worried’ about tweets promoting BTC



Klarna co-founder and CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski speaks on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2019 on December 11, 2019.

Noam Galai | Getty Images

LONDON — The boss of European fintech giant Klarna says he’s “deeply worried” about posts promoting bitcoin on Twitter and thinks regulators should act to protect people from potential losses.

Sebastian Siemiatkowski told CNBC that, though he thinks bitcoin could be an “interesting technology,” he fears retail investors may get drawn in by tweets urging people to buy the cryptocurrency without thinking about the risks involved.

“If I go on Twitter and search for bitcoin, I can see people writing: ‘Buy now or you’re going to miss the biggest opportunity of your life,'” Siemiatkowski said in an interview Wednesday.

“If I would take Klarna stock and advertise it with similar writing I would get a fine or I would even be put to jail,” he added. “I am very surprised why regulators aren’t chasing these elements.”

Bitcoin has been on a wild ride lately. It’s surged more than 400% in the last 12 months, with backers pointing to increased demand from institutional buyers. Bitcoin’s climb has reminded some market watchers of its monster rally in 2017, which took the digital coin close to $20,000 only to shed 80% of its value the subsequent year.

Crypto bulls say things are different this time, with mainstream investors and large corporates like Tesla now buying into bitcoin. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently came out as a believer in bitcoin last month, briefly adding the hashtag #bitcoin to his Twitter bio — a move that led to a 20% spike in the cryptocurrency’s price — and calling it a “good thing” in a discussion on the buzzy audio chat app Clubhouse.

Musk has also tweeted several times about dogecoin, a meme-inspired token that started out as a joke. His tweets have caused concern for some investors, who worry people will lose substantial amounts of cash from speculative trading.

“It’s great that we can introduce new financial products and so forth,” Siemiatkowski said. “But they need to follow the standard regulations that we put in place and somebody needs to police that to make sure those are being met because otherwise what we will have is a lot of consumers losing a lot of money. And that’s just unfortunately what is happening.”

Fintech regulation

BNPL plans are touted as an alternative to credit cards. But consumer advocacy groups like Which? warn they often entice people — particularly young people — to spend more than they can afford.

Klarna, which has raised a total of $2.1 billion in funding to date and was last privately valued at $10.6 billion, said it welcomed the move toward regulation. However, Siemiatkowski warned authorities to avoid making “prescriptive regulation” that could harm innovation.

“If they want to regulate ‘buy now, pay later,’ don’t tell us exactly how to do underwriting,” he said Wednesday. “Tell us what the maximum losses are or how our losses should benchmark versus credit cards and other products in the market and then let innovation drive so we can create great experiences.”

Klarna is close to finalizing a deal to raise fresh funds ahead of a potential stock market debut, sources familiar with the matter told CNBC. The sources preferred to remain anonymous as the details haven’t yet been made public. According to a Bloomberg report, the round could value the firm at $31 billion. Klarna declined to comment when contacted by CNBC.

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