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Josie Ford

This is not an apple

Another week, another artificial intelligence going decidedly off-piste. We recently mentioned the autonomous video-interviewing system that appeared to be grading candidates on the strength of the bookcase behind them (27 February). Now a paper published on the website of the company OpenAI reveals how CLIP, a neural network system that learns to recognise visual concepts through being fed verbal descriptions of them, can be spoofed simply by overlaying an image with text declaring it to be something else.

Stick a sticker on an apple declaring it to be a different apple product, an iPod, and the AI says it is an iPod 99.7 per cent of the time. Plaster dollar signs on a picture of anything, from a poodle to a chainsaw to a horse chestnut, and, with a charmingly artless naivety, CLIP mostly returns the answer “piggy bank”.

This suggests an excellent way to defy privacy-violating face-recognition systems when on nefarious business: simply attach a sheet of paper about your person declaring yourself to be your favourite frenemy or privacy violating tech guru.

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In the matrix

That last item gives us pause for thought when combined with this week’s cover story on the nature of quantum reality (backwards readers: we mean the front cover, and you will find it towards the rear). We precis Carlo Rovelli’s message as: things don’t exist, and that’s a jolly good thing too.

We recall, however, the very clever philosophical considerations that say that, if it is in principle possible for an advanced civilisation to develop enough computing power to simulate an entire universe, then someone has most probably already done it, and we are in it. So here’s Feedback’s alternative proposition: if we keep getting reality wrong, it is because this is the matrix, and we are very confused AIs that someone is feeding false training data to for giggles. If you can confirm that, please don’t.

Too many Melbournes

Andrea Thompson writes to point out that, in mentioning the town of Melbourne, Derbyshire, being so often scandalously overlooked in favour of its larger antipodean namesake (20 February), we have overlooked the still smaller village of Melbourne in Yorkshire, UK.

What moves Andrea to write from Brisbane, Australia – at least we assume Australia – to point this out, she doesn’t say, although she does say that this is the first time she has written to any publication about anything. Andrea, lovely to have you, and we are pleased to correct our omission. Equally, we have now reached our minimum size threshold for acknowledging Melbournes.

Hydrogenated water

If we appear unusually sprightly this week, it must be the hydrogenated water.

Hydrogen, the website blurb for the Prager Hydrogen Facial informs us, “is the most potent, easily absorbed anti-oxidant available. It can be inhaled, dissolved into drinking water, the possibilities are endless.”

Indeed, many additional doors open to you when you are the smallest of all molecules. Doubters might carp that a “deep cleansing facial which uses hydrogenated water to jet wash the skin” wouldn’t provide much more benefit than pointing a standard water pistol at your head.

But at least water with extra H is a more promising option than water with extra O. The exfoliating capabilities of H2O2, aka hydrogen peroxide, aren’t in doubt, although we wouldn’t advise trying it at home. Or indeed anywhere else.

Corrosive conspiracy

We interrupt our normal programme of nodding and smiling while staring into the middle distance when anyone mentions a certain topic starting N. D. to note the co-author of two studies on the factors that influence people to believe conspiracy theories, Joseph A. Vitriol.

Our thanks for that to Mike Tanner – various forms of vitriol being very useful in the tanning industry, we believe – whom we can only identify via his email address as “of New Zealand”. Although is he? Given that well-known conspiracy theory about how often that country fails to make it on to world maps, we are inclined to doubt.

Down to a t

There we were wondering what AI actually is good for when the perfectly manicured hand of our long-time correspondent Jeff Hecht proffers a PR puff through the stationery cupboard door. Thanks to “groundbreaking technology in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine vision along with a series of complex algorithms to replicate behavioral mechanics”, it informs us, “Nimble, the world’s first device that uses artificial intelligence to self-paint and dry nails in under 10 minutes”, will shortly be available for pre-order.

The system can “autonomously size and accurately spec nails within seconds offering long lasing, salon quality manicures from the comfort of home”. We will freely admit that our gels are starting to look a bit tired in lockdown. But long-lasing replacements? That’s a bit over the top even for our glitzy, off-the-wall style. And as per discussions above, we will reserve judgement on the “accurately” bit.

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