PUBG, a twist in the tale; Facebook nudge; Predictive algorithms

This Week in Disruptive Tech | September 9, 2020: A roundup of news and perspectives on how technology is shaping the future, here in India and across the world

N S Ramnath

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PUBG: A twist in the tale

What’s the news: Last week, the Indian government banned another 118 Chinese apps even as tensions escalated at the border. The one that got the most attention was PUBG, short for PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds, a mobile game which has over 175 million downloads, making India its largest market. 

Why you should care

  • When two countries fight, their businesses get impacted. It’s the opposite of Thomas Friedman's Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. In the first round, it was TikTok, now it's PUBG, aimed to hurt Tencent, which is one of the big three tech companies in China.
  • Every ban creates an opportunity for others to step in and make money, a reason why it’s often a favourite tool for gatekeepers. One Indian gaming firm, nCore Games, headed by Vishal Gondal, rushed to announce the launch of Fau-G, with some help from actor Akshay Kumar. 
  • There is always a twist. The twist here is PUBG is not Chinese, but South Korean. Tencent was only a franchisee. The maker of PUBG issued a statement that it is cutting ties with Tencent, and will publish its game in India on its own or with an Indian partner.
  • Contrast these with TikTok in the US. Trump threatened to ban the app but settled for a sale to a local company, leading to a race to buy TikTok’s American business. TikTok sued the US government, even as it spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its stars to build goodwill. And China rewrote the rules on AI exports, which is likely to make the sale more complex.

Dig Deeper: 

  • India bans 118 Chinese apps as Indian soldier is killed on disputed border | NY Times
  • App ban fallout: PUBG cancels India franchisee with Tencent | ET

The Facebook nudge

What's the news: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a post that the social media behemoth, long criticised for having an outsized influence on voting, will block new political and issue ads during the final week of the campaign during the US presidential elections. 

Why you should care:

  • The problem with banning something is you also end up banning the good that might come of it. In this case, the axe also fell on ads purchased by election officials. As ProPublica reports, “the move effectively removes a key communication channel just as millions of Americans will begin to navigate a voting process different from any they’ve experienced before.”
  • Facebook seems to believe it’s all about fact-checking. As Zuckerberg explained in his post. “I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech, but in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims.”
  • However, the bigger problem with social media is propaganda and polarisation.
    • Propaganda is harder to call out. By definition, it is “an epistemically defective message used with the intention to persuade a socially significant group of people on behalf of a political institution, organisation, or cause." (Sheryl Tuttle Ross)
    • Polarisation is less about converting people but pushing people to extremes. Stopping new ads before a week of elections will not change this.
  • India has its own share of Facebook problems (Read the excellent WSJ reports on the issue here and here). But, it's important to see how Facebook deals with some of the issues abroad. Tech companies have the tendency to use the same hammer (with some cosmetic changes) everywhere they operate.

Dig Deeper

When law enforcement meets predictive algorithms

What’s the news: Tampa Bay Times reported that Pasco County Sheriff created a futuristic program to stop crime before it happens, and his deputies “continuously monitor and harass residents…without probable cause, a search warrant or evidence of a specific crime.”

Why should you care

  • Predictive algorithms sound scary, but a lot of our decisions—from where to invest, whom to lend to, whom to hire, which movie to watch—are based on some kind of calculation of future behaviour. Most apps that we spend a lot of time on—Amazon, YouTube, Facebook—use predictive analytics.
  • However, we should be very careful when such technology is used by law enforcement agencies. They have a monopoly over violence. And the harm that can result from their actions will be far greater than what Amazon or Spotify recommendation can cause an individual. (However, as we saw in the case of Facebook, the impact is scale-dependent. At a societal level some of the harms can be significant.) 
  • But, it’s a trend already. It will be increasingly difficult to draw a line separating fair use of technology by law enforcement and unfair use. Canada, which many of us think of as a benign country, has been extensively using predictive policing
  • It can be countered with hacks on the ground. The big news about the news is the news itself. The entire episode shows that serious investigative journalism by people closest to the problem (in this case a local newspaper) can provide a good counter to the unfair use of technology by people in power. 

Dig Deeper

  • Pasco’s sheriff created a futuristic program to stop crime before it happens. It monitors and harasses families across the county. | Tampa Bay Times

Did you know?

  • A study by Oxford University found that “if around half the total population use the [contact tracing] app, alongside other interventions, it has the potential to stop the epidemic and help to keep countries out of lockdown.” | Oxford University
  • India, which is a major supplier of vaccines worldwide, will need 400 million doses of coronavirus vaccine for those who are most at risk of exposure or severe infection. But, it’s going to be a struggle. | Nature
  • Amazon.co.uk’s top-most reviewer Justin Fryer reviewed £15,000 worth of products in August alone. He got most of the products free and gave five-star approvals to most of them at the rate of once every four hours. Amazon is investigating him and other top reviewers now. | Ars Technica
  • Google plans to launch AI ethics services—advice on spotting bias in algorithms or help in developing AI ethical guidelines, and audit customers’ AI systems for ethical integrity. Initially free, and then for money. | Wired
  • In the past brain-computer interface tech demanded extensive daily retraining. Now, UC San Francisco Weill Institute for Neurosciences researchers have shown that a paralysed person can control a computer cursor using their brain activity straight away with the help of machine learning | UCSF

Illustrations from: Undraw, Blush & Manypixels

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Writer

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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