In today's edition, a look at how one startup tried to do more with the AI chatbot, and then it went͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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Hi, and welcome to Semafor Tech, a twice-weekly newsletter from Louise Matsakis and me that gives an inside look at the struggle for the future of the tech industry.

I was speaking with a PR person about an intriguing app that lets people talk to ChatGPT through a female avatar, just like two people might speak over Zoom. That’s pretty cool, but what really sucked me in was how people tried to abuse it, cajoling the bot into making sexual innuendos. (See it in action on our TikTok or Twitter)

The bot, it turns out, was the exact likeness of a real actress. AI is opening up so many cans of worms it’s difficult to keep up. But the fact that the two companies involved caught this and quickly put a stop to it (in part by using the technology that created it) is also remarkable.

It took Facebook 15 years to really deal with abuse on its platform (people might argue with me on that). These new AI companies can do things in a matter of hours. Everything in tech right now is moving at the speed of light. Read on for what happened.

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Move Fast/Break Things

Reuters/Alyssa Pointer

➚ MOVE FAST: Standing up now. Kenyan workers who train artificial intelligence systems pledged to establish the first African Content Moderators Union. In Los Angeles and New York, meanwhile, striking television and film writers want to make sure studios can’t replace them with AI.

➘ BREAK THINGS: Having regrets later. The 75-year-old AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton quit his job at Google last month and now says it’s “hard to see” how bad actors could be prevented from misusing the technology. Case in point: Researchers recently uncovered dozens of new websites generated by chatbots peddling misinformation and spam.

Semafor Stat

Drop in Chegg’s share price after the education tech company warned about the impact that ChatGPT was having on its business. Chegg has one major thing in common with the chatbot: Both have been widely accused of helping students cheat on their homework.

Reed Albergotti

An AI experiment gets weird

THE SCOOP

Bubbles, a San Francisco-based company that is sort of like Slack but with video messages, offered users a way to talk to ChatGPT by speaking with a human-looking avatar.

There was just one problem with the free service: The real humans conversing with the blonde, female character tried to make it act inappropriately.

The messages weren’t explicit but used sexually-suggestive innuendo. OpenAI, the company that runs ChatGPT, has its own content filters, but users circumvented them through euphemisms and asking the avatar to simply repeat what they typed.

“She asked me to send you a message that she likes painting with you a lot, especially with that thick … brush of yours! Wink wink,” one user asked the avatar to say.

The service works by converting a user’s voice into text and sending it to ChatGPT. Then it feeds the response into Synthesia, which powers the human-looking avatar. (See it in action on our TikTok or Twitter)

Synthesia abruptly cut off Bubbles’ access to the service, Bubbles co-founder and CEO Tom Medema said in an interview with Semafor. Synthesia told Bubbles it had been barred from using the service after Synthesia’s content moderation team had flagged inappropriate messages from Bubbles users.

“Our AI avatars are based on real human actors, who would likely not be comfortable with their likeness being used in this way,” a Synthesia content moderator wrote in an email to Medema.

Bubbles’ access was later reinstated after the CEOs of the two companies discussed the matter. (Read more on what happened here.)

“Synthesia has been focused on safety since day one,” the company said in a statement. “Our moderation system worked as intended in the Bubbles case, and the inappropriate videos in question were never allowed to be generated or published.”

Bubbles/Screenshot

REED'S VIEW

The world is going to witness an explosion of new companies organized around “prompts” of these massive AI models — not building AI itself, but figuring out ways to turn existing services into profitable new products.

We aren’t there quite yet, but the ability to create digital avatars indistinguishable from humans will upend entire industries, from acting to marketing.

I’m told major celebrities are already selling their likenesses to brands so that they can star in commercials without showing up on set. People will be able to exist in two places at once.

Actors may also no longer have to look a certain way to get a part: AI is the ultimate makeup. Eventually, some roles might be replaced altogether by computer-generated acting.

Some people will abuse the technology to spread false information or offensive content, as Bubbles learned. But I’m convinced the new crop of companies using AI will be more conscientious about its pitfalls than the entrepreneurs of Web 2.0 and mobile. For the most part, they know they have to behave, or risk being shunned or targeted by policymakers.

That is not to say there won’t be problems caused by AI. Every new technology has downsides and AI will be no different. But there’s a good chance problems will be caught before they spiral too far out of control. And that’s thanks largely to the fact that so many people are paying attention.

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

Independent researchers found Synthesia had been used to create pro-China propaganda, according to The New York Times, which argued the technology is already wreaking havoc on political landscapes around the world. The company immediately revoked access from the creators of the videos.

“With few laws to manage the spread of the technology, disinformation experts have long warned that deepfake videos could further sever people’s ability to discern reality from forgeries online, potentially being misused to set off unrest or incept a political scandal. Those predictions have now become reality,” it reported.

NOTABLE

  • This Forbes article from a few years ago predicted that deepfakes will wreak havoc on society and gives an overview of the technology and issues.
Evidence

Twitter’s reputation among Democrats plummeted after Elon Musk took over, while Republican users say they’re happier than ever with the social media platform, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. Just 37% of Republican users say they’re worried about inaccurate or misleading information on the site, compared to 68% of Democrats.

Read This

Our boss, Ben Smith, details the inside story of two online media rivals, Jonah Peretti of HuffPost and BuzzFeed, and Nick Denton of Gawker Media, whose delirious pursuit of attention at scale helped release the dark forces that would overtake the internet and American society. You can order his new book here.

And read an excerpt about Buzzfeed’s fateful decision — backed by Ben — to turn down a Disney acquisition in 2013, as well as his account of why he decided to publish the Trump-Russia dossier in 2017.

Penguin
Louise Matsakis

U.S. House probes Shein, Temu, and others about Chinese forced labor

THE SCOOP

U.S. lawmakers are probing Adidas, Nike, and Chinese-owned platforms Shein and Temu for possible links to China’s western Xinjiang region, where Chinese Communist Party officials have been accused of abusing the rights of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

The prominent new U.S. House Select Committee on China sent letters to all four companies Tuesday, asking them to answer questions about whether forced labor in Xinjiang has permeated their supply chains, citing expert testimony. In the case of the two Chinese-owned shopping platforms, Congress also wants to know how they may be benefitting from lax tariff rules.

The firms were given until May 16 to respond.

“Shein has no suppliers in the Xinjiang Region. Our suppliers are based in regions including Brazil, Southern China and Turkey,” a spokesperson for Shein said in a statement. “We take visibility across our entire supply chain seriously, and we are committed to respecting human rights and adhering to local laws in each market we operate in.”

Temu, Nike, and Adidas did not immediately return a request for comment.

Reuters/Andrew Boyers

LOUISE'S VIEW

Chinese companies are going out of their way to obscure their connection to the People’s Republic. One of the most recent examples is Temu, the most downloaded U.S. service in Apple’s app store as of mid-April, according to Apptopia. Temu’s website removed references to its Chinese parent, PDD Holdings, and said it was founded in Boston. But so far, the efforts to distance themselves from China haven’t worked.

Still, despite all the D.C. hype around Shein and Temu’s Chinese ties, American consumers have remained loyal. If that continues, they can keep growing in the U.S.

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

There is a risk consumers could grow wary of the Chinese background of the shopping platforms. Users in Asia recently became distrustful of Bondee, a metaverse app that makes cute avatars, after discovering it had ties to a similar platform launched in China, Bloomberg reported.

NOTABLE

  • Some U.S. lawmakers on Monday asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to halt a potential initial public offering by Shein until the agency can confirm the shopping platform doesn’t use forced Uyghur labor, Reuters reported.
One Good Text

Prashanth Chandrasekar is the CEO of Stack Overflow, a question-and-answer platform used by over 100 million software developers each month.

Enthusiasms
Sony Pictures

Movies and TV shows based on video games are going after non-gamer audiences. Gran Turismo, a new film based on the story of Jann Mardenborough, who went from racing cars in video games to racing in real life, is the latest example. Earlier this year, HBO wooed the Game of Thrones crowd with The Last of Us, based on a video game of the same name.

For years, video games have been hugely popular, even outstripping Hollywood and professional sports in terms of eyeballs and revenue. Despite that, video games haven’t been all that culturally relevant for those who don’t play them. It seems like that may be changing. Based on the trailer that launched Tuesday, Gran Turismo looks as though it has more in common with Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder than with Tomb Raider. And I am actually excited to watch it.

Reed

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— Reed and Louise