Tech companies don't need to be creepy to make money / Humans + Tech - #82

+ The Long Arc of Time + A blind man can perceive objects after a gene from algae was added to his eye + Other interesting articles


I’ve been trying to wean myself off of Google for a while now. I mostly use DuckDuckGo and Startpage, both privacy-focused search engines. They work well for the majority of queries. I still have to go back to Google once in a while, but only when I can’t find a suitable answer.

I was glad to find out that DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014 and showing the world that you don’t need to hoard data, invade privacy, and track people across the internet to make money. More in the first article linked below.

Tech companies don't need to be creepy to make money

DuckDuckGo launched in 2008 as a privacy-focused search engine and have been making a profit since 2014 [Clive Thompson, WIRED].

Last year, the company’s traffic more than doubled. It has done this with no creepy surveillance: All it does is use whatever keywords you type in the search bar—“best inkjet printer,” “Boston hotels”—to customize an ad for that search. This is known as “contextual” targeting, distinct from the secret-police “behavioral” tracking that fuels advertising on many tech platforms and creates a mammoth dossier of your online activity. DuckDuckGo doesn’t even retain your search info. Every time you load the search engine, you’re a stranger.

“We questioned the assumption: Do you really need to track people to make money in advertising? And our answer is no,” Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo’s founder and CEO, tells me. Part of the company’s success, he notes, is that a significant chunk of people want more privacy. A Pew Research Center study found that 81 percent of Americans think the downsides of data tracking outweigh the benefits.

Google explains their data harvesting, and behavioural tracking helps them serve more relevant ads to you, allowing advertisers to get more value for their ad spend and provide you with things you’re more likely to want or need. But a survey by Digiday found that 45% of ad executives found no significant benefit from behavioural tracking, and on the contrary, 23% found that revenues declined.

The Long Arc of Time

A beautiful blog by Om Malik, marvelling at how far we’ve come and how much we’ve advanced in a relatively short span of a little over a hundred years [Om Malik, OM].

So much of human progress takes place in increments, and the most meaningful strides rarely get much attention. In roughly the same length of time that we have gone from flying gliders to flying solar-powered copters on Mars, the average human life span has doubled — and we have hardly noticed as it was happening.


Yet, even as our progress accelerates, appreciating it becomes increasingly difficult. We live in a world increasingly informed by memes, stories, and fables. Misinformation and distrust of science are the order of the day. For their own selfish and short-term needs, our leaders willfully sow doubt in what has served us so well — science and its offshoot, technology. For example, the technology behind the vaccines created to fight the dreaded coronavirus has been nearly three decades in the making. And now it could help find solutions for many other diseases. And yet, in the media, this incredible achievement is as much a flashpoint of controversy as a source of celebration. 

After reading this blog, I thought about it and realised how much progress has accelerated in the last century. Om is right. We live in a world of short dopamine bursts, and we rarely look back and realise how far we’ve really come.

At the same time, it’s crucial to stay vigilant in the present to continue to progress in the next 100 years and not get distracted by nonsense.

A blind man can perceive objects after a gene from algae was added to his eye

A 58-year-old blind man was given optogenetic therapy that involved introducing a gene from algae into his retina to provide him with partial sight again [Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review].

The doctors employed gene therapy to add a light-sensing molecule to one of the man’s eyes. The gene they added, called chrimson, comes from a single-celled algae species that is able to sense sunlight and move toward it.

The idea of adding the gene, says Roska, is to engineer retina cells called ganglions so they are able to respond to light, sending visual signals to the brain.

The strategy, being funded by a French company called GenSight Biologics, requires patients to wear a set of electronic goggles that capture light contrasts in the environment and then project an image onto the retina at high intensity using the specific wavelength of yellow-orange light that triggers the chrimson molecule.

Although his sight was only restored to the point where he could differentiate between intensities of light, with training, he was able to recognise when a notebook was placed on a table in front of him. Hopefully, as the treatment matures, the levels of improvement in eyesight will also increase.

Other interesting articles from around the web

🕶 Will virtual reality be the death of truth? [Jonny Thomson, The Big Think]

An interesting thought experiment from 1970 posed the following question:

The year is 2045, and an eccentric billionaire has revealed to the world an incredible new invention. It's called the "experience machine," and it's an utterly immersive virtual reality device. It provides multi-sensory stimulation with such sophistication and depth that it's effectively indistinguishable from real life. At a press of a button, the machine can give you constant pleasure of any kind. Mansions, fast cars, scoring a Super Bowl touchdown, winning the London marathon, ruling the Mughal Empire, never-ending orgasms — whatever you want.

The question is, if you had only two choices, would you live life in the experience machine or in the world as it is?

With VR technology advancing rapidly, this is a valid question to ponder over. This type of technology or something very close will likely exist by 2045.

What would you choose?

🤖 AI can write disinformation now—and dupe human readers [Will Knight, WIRED]

GPT-3 is an AI algorithm created by OpenAI that is capable of generating intelligible and comprehensible text. Georgetown researchers used GPT-3 to write misleading tweets about climate change and foreign affairs. People found the posts persuasive.

In experiments, the researchers found that GPT-3’s writing could sway readers’ opinions on issues of international diplomacy. The researchers showed volunteers sample tweets written by GPT-3 about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and US sanctions on China. In both cases, they found that participants were swayed by the messages. After seeing posts opposing China sanctions, for instance, the percentage of respondents who said they were against such a policy doubled.

GPT-3 is only capable of generating believable text the size of a tweet, but as its creators improve it, it will soon be capable of writing entirely persuasive articles.

😷 People are uncomfortable with digital health tools used to control COVID-19 [Nicole Wetsman, The Verge]

David Grande, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, along with his team, surveyed 3,547 adults in the US to gauge their attitudes towards the use of digital information to respond to the pandemic. Mostly, it showed that people were uncomfortable sharing their health data.

In general, people tend to be worried when they start hearing about the collection and use of health data, Grande says. Their personal digital data might already be collected by companies and used for things like advertising, but it might not be as apparent — and they’re not asked direct questions about it. People also don’t realize that virtually all of the data collected by companies can be analyzed to infer things about health, like their mood or behavior.

“I suspect that if we ask people direct questions about many commercial uses of their data that are currently taking place, we would see much greater resistance to those,” Grande says. “It’s just that many of those other uses aren’t so visible to consumers.”

Quote of the week

“Two hundred years ago, we were lucky if we could find a horse to ride — and now we are flying copters on the Red Planet. Imagine where we could be in another 100 years, especially if we don’t stand in our own way or allow ourselves to be distracted by nonsense. You have to believe that tomorrow can and will be better than today.” 

—Om Malik, from the article, “The Long Arc of Time” []

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)