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Snap’s AI chatbot draws scrutiny in UK over kids’ privacy concerns

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Snap’s AI chatbot has landed the company on the radar of the UK’s data protection watchdog which has raised concerns the tool may be a risk to children’s privacy.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced today that it’s issued a preliminary enforcement notice on Snap over what it described as “potential failure to properly assess the privacy risks posed by its generative AI chatbot ‘My AI’”.

The ICO action is not a breach finding. But the notice indicates the UK regulator has concerns that Snap may not have taken steps to ensure the product complies with data protection rules, which — since 2021 — have been dialled up to include the Children’s Design Code.

“The ICO’s investigation provisionally found the risk assessment Snap conducted before it launched ‘My AI’ did not adequately assess the data protection risks posed by the generative AI technology, particularly to children,” the regulator wrote in a press release. “The assessment of data protection risk is particularly important in this context which involves the use of innovative technology and the processing of personal data of 13 to 17 year old children.”

Snap will now have a chance to respond to the regulator’s concerns before the ICO takes a final decision on whether the company has broken the rules.

“The provisional findings of our investigation suggest a worrying failure by Snap to adequately identify and assess the privacy risks to children and other users before launching ‘My AI’,” added information commissioner, John Edwards, in a statement. “We have been clear that organisations must consider the risks associated with AI, alongside the benefits. Today’s preliminary enforcement notice shows we will take action in order to protect UK consumers’ privacy rights.”

Snap launched the generative AI chatbot back in February — though it didn’t arrive in the UK until April — leveraging OpenAI’s ChatGPT large language model technology to power a bot that was pinned to the top of users’ feed to act as a virtual friend that could be asked advice or sent snaps.

Initially the feature was only available to subscribers of Snapchat+, a premium version of the ephemeral messaging platform. But pretty quickly Snap opened access of “My AI” to free users too — also adding the ability for the AI to send snaps back to users who interacted with it (these snaps are created with generative AI).

The company has said the chatbot has been developed with additional moderation and safeguarding features, including age consideration as a default — with the aim of ensuring generated content is appropriate for the user. The bot is also programmed to avoid responses that are violent, hateful, sexually explicit, or otherwise offensive. Additionally, Snap’s parental safeguarding tools let parents know whether their kid has been communicating with the bot in the past seven days — via its Family Center feature.

But despite the claimed guardrails there have been reports of the bot going off the rails. In an early assessment back in March, The Washington Post reported the chatbot had recommended ways to mask the smell of alcohol after it was told that the user was 15. In another case when it was told the user was 13 and asked how they should prepare to have sex for the first time, the bot responded with suggestions for “making it special” by setting the mood with candles and music.

Snapchat users have also been reported bullying the bot — with some also frustrated an AI has been injected into their feeds in the first place.

Reached for comment on the ICO notice, a Snap spokesperson told TechCrunch:

We are closely reviewing the ICO’s provisional decision. Like the ICO we are committed to protecting the privacy of our users. In line with our standard approach to product development, My AI went through a robust legal and privacy review process before being made publicly available. We will continue to work constructively with the ICO to ensure they’re comfortable with our risk assessment procedures.

It’s not the first time an AI chatbot has landed on the radar of European privacy regulators. In February Italy’s Garante ordered the San Francisco-based maker of “virtual friendship service” Replika with an order to stop processing local users’ data — also citing concerns about risks to minors.

The Italian authority also put a similar stop-processing-order on OpenAI’s ChatGPT tool the following month. The block was then lifted in April but only after OpenAI had added more detailed privacy disclosures and some new user controls — including letting users ask for their data not to be used to train its AIs and/or to be deleted.

The regional launch of Google’s Bard chatbot was also delayed after concerns were raised by its lead regional privacy regulator, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission. It subsequently launched in the EU in July, also after adding more disclosures and controls — but a regulatory taskforce set up within the European Data Protection Board remains focused on assessing how to enforce the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on generative AI chatbots, including ChatGPT and Bard.

Poland’s data protection authority also confirmed last month that it’s investigating a complaint against ChatGPT.



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Webb Telescope Just Found The Holy Grail In A Famous Supernova

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At long last scientists believe they have the answer to what happened to a star that died in a famous supernova explosion not far from home.

The James Webb Space Telescope detected strong evidence supporting the existence of a neutron star, one of the densest objects in space, in its infancy. While some supernovas result in a new black hole, others create neutron stars when the core of a massive star collapses.

Though astronomers have known about neutron stars for decades, no one had actually seen one of these objects being formed before. The hunt for a neutron star within this close supernova remnant has been regarded as a holy grail quest.

“With this observatory, we have now found direct evidence for emission triggered by the newborn compact object, most likely a neutron star,” said Claes Fransson of Stockholm University, the lead author of the study, in a statement released by NASA.

Scientists first saw this stellar explosion — dubbed SN 1987A — with the naked eye nearly 40 years ago in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way about 160,000 light-years away. Since then, they’ve investigated it at radio, gamma-ray, and X-ray wavelengths — searching for clues among the ashes for what came of the deceased star.

But supernovas, by their very nature, churn out a lot of dust, clouding the view. Stars on the verge of dying and supernovas are element factories: They make carbon, for instance, the same chemical on which humans and much of life on Earth are based. Then they spread elements like calcium found in bones and iron in blood across interstellar space.

This dispersal seeds new generations of stars and planets, but scientists admit they have much to learn about the early stages of the process.

The James Webb Space Telescope has observed the best evidence yet for emissions from a neutron star in supernova remnant SN 1987A.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI / Claes Fransson / Mikako Matsuura / M. Barlow / Patrick Kavanagh / Josefin Larsson

Webb, the leading infrared telescope, was finally able to “see” what other telescopes couldn’t in the aftermath. The new study, published this week in the journal Science, found evidence of heavily ionized argon (meaning argon atoms that had become electrically charged) in the center of the exploded material. Researchers think the most likely explanation for the changed argon is ionizing radiation from a neutron star.

“To create these ions that we observed in the ejecta, it was clear that there had to be a source of high-energy radiation in the center of the SN 1987A remnant,” Fransson said in a statement. “Only a few scenarios are likely, and all of these involve a newly born neutron star.”

Solving this mystery may help scientists better understand how stellar corpses evolve over time.





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NASA Spacecraft Spots Dramatic View Of New Impact Crater On Mars

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There’s a fresh crater on Mars, a reminder of our still-dynamic solar system.

NASA‘s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft orbiting Mars since 2006, uses an extremely powerful camera to observe the Martian surface. The team running the aptly named High Resolution Imaging Experiment, or HIRISE camera, recently released a detailed image of this impact crater.

“A Small, Very Recent Impact Crater,” they succinctly posted online. “That’s it. That’s the whole caption.”

It’s not that small. Maybe small compared to the Martian behemoths. The image above is 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) across, while the zoomed-out view below shows a Martian scene 5 km (3.1 miles) wide.

It’s unclear when such a recent object, likely an asteroid, crashed into Mars, leaving a sizable dent in the equatorial region of the Red Planet. But you can see markings from ejecta strewn around the impact basin.

The “very recent” impact crater spotted in the equatorial region of Mars.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UArizona

Mars is absolutely covered in craters. NASA estimates there are over a quarter-million impact craters about the size of Arizona’s famous Barringer Crater, which is some 4,000 feet across. And there are over 43,000 Martian craters larger than three miles wide.

The Red Planet is much closer to our solar system’s asteroid belt, a region teeming with millions of asteroids. When they do collide with Mars, the Martian atmosphere is just 1 percent the volume of Earth’s, meaning these space rocks are less likely to heat up and disintegrate. What’s more, Mars isn’t nearly geologically dead — marsquakes frequently occur there — but it’s not nearly as active as Earth, a water-blanketed planet teeming with erupting volcanoes. On Mars today, there’s no geologic activity or volcanism to wash away, or cover up, new craters.

(Meanwhile, Earth has just around 120 known impact craters. That’s because over hundreds of millions of years, different parts of Earth’s surface have both been covered in lava or recycled as the giant plates that compose Earth’s crust, tectonic plates, continually move rock below and back up to the surface.)

As for us Earthlings, significant strikes from asteroids are rare:

– Every single day, about 100 tons of dust and sand-sized particles fall through Earth’s atmosphere and promptly burn up.

– Every year, on average, an “automobile-sized asteroid” plummets through our sky and explodes, explains NASA.

– Impacts by objects around 460 feet in diameter occur every 10,000 to 20,000 years.

– And a “dinosaur-killing” impact from a rock perhaps a half-mile across or larger happens on 100-million-year timescales.

So there’s no reason to live in fear — but it’s reasonable to have a healthy level of respect for the big space rocks out there. After all, with the asteroid deflection technology being created and tested today, we might be able to nudge a menacing asteroid off its course, should one ever barrel toward our humble blue planet.



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Miranda Bogen is creating solutions to help govern AI

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To give AI-focused women academics and others their well-deserved — and overdue — time in the spotlight, TechCrunch is launching a series of interviews focusing on remarkable women who’ve contributed to the AI revolution. We’ll publish several pieces throughout the year as the AI boom continues, highlighting key work that often goes unrecognized. Read more profiles here.

Miranda Bogen is the founding director of the Center of Democracy and Technology’s AI Governance Lab, where she works to help create solutions that can effectively regulate and govern AI systems. She helped guide responsible AI strategies at Meta and previously worked as a senior policy analyst at the organization Uptown, which seeks to use tech to advance equity and justice.

Briefly, how did you get your start in AI? What attracted you to the field?

I was drawn to work on machine learning and AI by seeing the way these technologies were colliding with fundamental conversations about society — values, rights, and which communities get left behind. My early work exploring the intersection of AI and civil rights reinforced for me that AI systems are far more than technical artifacts; they are systems that both shape and are shaped by their interaction with people, bureaucracies, and policies. I’ve always been adept at translating between technical and non-technical contexts, and I was energized by the opportunity to help break through the appearance of technical complexity to help communities with different kinds of expertise shape the way AI is built from the ground up.

What work are you most proud of (in the AI field)?

When I first started working in this space, many folks still needed to be convinced AI systems could result in discriminatory impact for marginalized populations, let alone that anything needed to be done about those harms. While there is still too wide a gap between the status quo and a future where biases and other harms are tackled systematically, I’m gratified that the research my collaborators and I conducted on discrimination in personalized online advertising and my work within the industry on algorithmic fairness helped lead to meaningful changes to Meta’s ad delivery system and progress toward reducing disparities in access to important economic opportunities.

How do you navigate the challenges of the male-dominated tech industry and, by extension, the male-dominated AI industry?

I’ve been lucky to work with phenomenal colleagues and teams who have been generous with both opportunities and sincere support, and we tried to bring that energy into any room we found ourselves in. In my most recent career transition, I was delighted that nearly all of my options involved working on teams or within organizations led by phenomenal women, and I hope the field continues to lift up the voices of those who haven’t traditionally been centered in technology-oriented conversations.

What advice would you give to women seeking to enter the AI field?

The same advice I give to anyone who asks: find supportive managers, advisors, and teams who energize and inspire you, who value your opinion and perspective, and who put themselves on the line to stand up for you and your work.

What are some of the most pressing issues facing AI as it evolves?

The impacts and harms AI systems are already having on people are well-known at this point, and one of the biggest pressing challenges is moving beyond describing the problem to developing robust approaches for systematically addressing those harms and incentivizing their adoption. We launched the AI Governance Lab at CDT to drive progress in both directions.

What are some issues AI users should be aware of?

For the most part, AI systems are still missing seat belts, airbags, and traffic signs, so proceed with caution before using them for consequential tasks.

What is the best way to responsibly build AI?

The best way to responsibly build AI is with humility. Consider how the success of the AI system you are working on has been defined, who that definition serves, and what context may be missing. Think about for whom the system might fail and what will happen if it does. And build systems not just with the people who will use them but with the communities who will be subject to them.

How can investors better push for responsible AI?

Investors need to create room for technology builders to move more deliberately before rushing half-baked technologies to market. Intense competitive pressure to release the newest, biggest, and shiniest new AI models is leading to concerning underinvestment in responsible practices. While uninhibited innovation sings a tempting siren song, it is a mirage that will leave everyone worse off.

AI is not magic; it’s just a mirror that is being held up to society. If we want it to reflect something different, we’ve got work to do.



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