Day: February 15, 2020

This deepfake of Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland in ‘Back to the Future’ is unreal

This deepfake of Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland in 'Back to the Future' is unreal

Out of all the faces to put on Doc Brown and Marty McFly in Back to the Future, I never knew how bad I needed it to be Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland.

This deepfake clip superimposes the faces of Downey Jr. and Holland over the original actors Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox, giving us an incredibly convincing glimpse at what it would be like if the Avengers themselves rebooted the 1985 classic Back to the Future. YouTuber EZRyderX47 did a very good job with this one.

Given the two actors’ history as Iron Man and Spider-Man, and the pseudo-father-son dynamic that happened in the Marvel movies, this seems like it would be a great fit for Downey and Holland. Or we could just deepfake their faces into the entire movie. Read more…

More about Movies, Back To The Future, Deepfakes, Entertainment, and Movies Tv Shows

Can we debate free will versus destiny in four pages?

The informal TechCrunch book club (which is now a whole week off schedule thanks to the news cycle — let’s see if we can catch up here shortly!) is now venturing into the very, very short story What’s Expected of Us, the third piece in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. If you’re one of those people that fall behind in book clubs, don’t fret: you’ve had two weeks to read four pages. You can probably read the short story before finishing this post.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous editions of this book club which explores the first two (larger) short stories in the collection, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a beautiful story exploring predestination and fate, and Exhalation, a vital yet subtle story about climate change, the connections between people and society, and so, so much more.

Next, we will read the lengthier story The Lifecycle of Software Objects — some reading questions are posted at the bottom of this article.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

What’s Expected of Us

We are only three stories into Exhalation, but already there are threads that are starting to connect these disparate stories, none more important than the meaning of fate in lives increasingly filled with technological determinism.

Chiang loves to presuppose these novel technologies that prove that our fates are fixed. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, he imagines these teleporting gates that allows users to move forward and backwards in time, while in this story, it is the Predictor that sends a light signal back in time by one second after the button is clicked, forcing the device’s user to confront the fact that the future is already predetermined when the light burns bright.

While these two stories have certain symmetries, what’s interesting to me is how different their conclusions are from each other. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Chiang notes that while our destinies may be fixed, and even if we had a time machine, we couldn’t change the past to affect our futures, he essentially argues that the journey itself is often its own reward. The past may indeed be immutable, but our understanding of the past is in fact quite malleable, and learning the context of our previous actions and those of others is in many ways the whole point of existence.

In What’s Expected of Us though, the Predictor creates a dystopic world where lethargy among people runs supreme. Here’s a simple device that transmits a basic signal across a short period of time, but provides overwhelming evidence that free will is essentially a myth. For many, that’s enough for at least some people to become catatonic and just stop eating entirely.

Our occasional fiction review contributor on Extra Crunch Eliot Peper wrote in with his favorite passage and a thought, which gets at one of Chiang’s solutions:

“Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”

As science reveals a clockwork determinism behind reality’s veil, it becomes ever more important for us to believe the opposite in order to build a better future. A belief in free will is enfranchising. It is the spark of hope that inspires us to push back against the invisible systems that shape our lives — creating a chance for change.

Peper gets at the core message of this story, but frankly, self-deception isn’t easy (as any less-than-perfectly-confident startup founder who has attempted to persuade investors about their product can tell you). It’s one thing to say “pretend it all doesn’t matter,” but of course it does matter, and you intrinsically acknowledge and comprehend the deception. It’s like that self-help dreck about setting artificial deadlines to get stuff done — yet their very artificiality is precisely why they are ineffective. As Chiang writes about the Predictor, “The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means; over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in.” Fate locks into our very souls.

Chiang notes though that people respond differently to this realization. Some become catatonic, but it is implied in the story that others find a different path. Of course, those paths are all laid out before the Predictor even arrived — no one can choose their destiny, even about how they will confront the knowledge of fate and destiny itself.

Yet, even without that choice, we must move on. Structurally, the story (similar again to The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate) is told retrospectively, with a future agent sending a note back in time warning about the consequences of the Predictor. Rhetorically asking whether anything would change by this note, the future agent says no, but then says that “Why did I do it? Because I had no choice.”

In other words, maybe everything is indeed predetermined. Maybe everything in our lives can’t be changed. And yet, we are still going to move forward in time, and we are still going to take the actions we are predetermined to make. Maybe that requires self-deception to muddle through it. Or maybe, we just need to vigorously commit to the actions in front of us — regardless of whether we had the ability to choose them in the first place.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

The next short story in the collection is a bit more sprawling, touching on a huge numbers of topics around virtual worlds, the entities we raise in them, and what that means for us as humans. Here are some questions to think about as you read the story:

  • What’s it mean to love something? We understand love in the context of (human) children, but can you love an AI? Can you love an inanimate object like a statue? Is there a line when our ability to love stops?
  • What makes an entity sentient? Does it take experience delivered from others, or can sentience be constructed out of thin air?
  • Chiang sometimes fast-forwards time in a variety of different circumstances: hothouses to accelerate AI learning, and for the human characters themselves in the plot. What is the meaning of time in the context of the story? How do the concepts of time and experience interact?
  • The author touches on but doesn’t deeply explore the legal questions around “human rights” in the context of sentient AI beings. How should we think about what rights these entities have? Which characters’ views best represented your own?
  • How can we define concepts like consciousness, sentience, and independence? What elements of the story seem to indicate where Chiang defines the boundaries between those definitions?
  • One of the central under-tones of the plot is the challenge of money and the profitability of AI. Should AI be judged in terms of the utility it provides humans, or the ability of AI to create their own worlds and cultures? How do we think about “success” (very broadly conceived) in the context of what these computer programs can do?
  • How will human empathy change in the coming years as we surpass the uncanny valley and more and more technologies connect with our emotional heartstrings? Is this ultimately an evolution for humanity or just another challenge to overcome in the years ahead?

Living with the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

The Galaxy Z Flip ships with the same “Care Instructions” as the Fold. It’s a five-item list with the following basic points:

  • Don’t scratch the screen with a pen or fingernail
  • Don’t stick stuff between the screens when folding
  • Don’t get it dusty, wet or feed it after midnight
  • Don’t stick stickers to the screen
  • Don’t get it near credit cards or your pacemaker

Unlike the last time around, however, these warnings seem to have been included out of an (understandable) abundance of caution. As stated in my hands-on the other day, the Flip feels more solid than the Fold in just about every way, from the folding mechanism to the display, which now sports foldable protective glass.

A couple of notes before we start here. First, and most importantly, this is a rare 24-hour device loan. Short loan times are not entirely uncommon with high-end products, but a single day is a bit extreme. I’m being upfront about this because:

  1. You can only go into so much depth with limited time.
  2. It’s worth noting what appears to be a bit of caution on Samsung’s part.

This isn’t a case of an early product in limited supply. The Z Flip went on sale today (happy Valentine’s/Sonic the Hedgehog Day to you and yours). If I had to venture a guess, it would be that Samsung is still reeling a bit from fallout from the Fold, which found a number of review devices breaking prior to the product hitting the market.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

For all of the downside, however, I would argue that coverage that pushed the company to reinforce the product before actually selling it for $2,000 a pop was ultimately a good things. Besides, as was pointed out to me, most if not all of the faulty Folds went sideways before the 24-hour mark.

See also: the Moto Razr. Reviews of the product have started filtering in a week or so after the product hit the market. Seems the company opted not to give out review units until the product was already available (full transparency: I still haven’t gotten my hands on a review unit). The analogy I keep coming back to is movie reviews. If you don’t see any professional reviews by the time a movie hits theaters, that probably doesn’t bode well for spending $10 of your hard-earned cash.

None of this is an indictment of the Galaxy Z Flip, which so far is proving to be a pretty solid device. It’s more a comment on the optics of it all. Give than the handset is roughly the same price as 150 movies, reviews are all that much more valuable to consumers — many of whom are understandably wary after the category’s rocky start.

It’s a shame, because I’ve been enjoying my time with the Galaxy Z Flip. In many ways, this is exactly the device Samsung’s original foldable should have been. For starters, the form factor just makes more sense. The “why” of the Fold was significantly more difficult to explain to those outside the industry (and frankly, many of those inside it, as well).

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Anyone who’s ever used a clamshell phone, on the other hand, will immediately get the Flip. You’ve got a roomy 6.7-inch screen that you can snap shut and stick in your pocket. It’s pretty much as simple as that — it’s just that there was a lot of innovation that had to happen in order to get us back to square one with a larger, uninterrupted touchscreen display.

Also of note is the price. Of course, $1,380 isn’t cheap by practically any measure, but that’s a pretty big drop down from the $2,000 Galaxy Fold. The argument that Fold users should have been extra careful with the device given its price point have always struck me as somewhat counter-intuitive. If anything, a device that price ought to have added safeguards built-in.

The Flip has implemented a number of learnings from the earlier product, namely a glass covering, edges hidden beneath (sizable) bezels and an advanced folding mechanism designed to keep dust and debris out. In fact, this time out, the folding mechanism itself is considered a marquee feature. Per Samsung’s press material:

Inspired by a lotus blossom, the Hideaway Hinge is precisely articulated for a satisfying folding motion — even allowing you to adjust the folding angle. Sweeper technology helps repel dirt and dust to keep your folds as smooth as your style.

That’s a marketing way of saying that it’s a lot harder to get crap trapped behind the screen, which could eventually break it. The folding mechanism is, indeed, a nice step up. It feels more robust than the sometimes floppy Fold. You can keep it open at different configurations, like a 90 degree “L” shape for watching videos.

The biggest downside of the more robust mechanism is that it’s harder to flip open with a single hand, owing to resistance, and it doesn’t have as satisfying a snap shut. Those all seem like pretty minor quibbles, to be honest — especially if it means a more robust product. Samsung rates the Z Flip at 200,000 folds — same as the Fold. Of course, in CNET’s testing, the Fold lasted about 120,000 mechanical folds.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Not terrible, and definitely better than the 27,000 or so the Razr made it through. Also, unlike Motorola’s device, the Flip doesn’t make a troubling creaking sound when it opens and shuts. The Razr really does seem awash in first-generation problems. Motorola can’t be pleased that Samsung introduced a competing device with the same form factor soon after its own product and was able to bring it to market roughly a week after the Razr.

I can’t imagine either of these devices will prove huge sellers for their respective manufactures, but if I was Motorola, the Flip would be cause for concern. The Razr went from an exciting new entry in the foldable category to another strike against it when it was released and both consumer and professional reviews began trickling in.

A little bit of the novelty has worn off for Samsung. That’s honestly not a bad thing. By the second generation, the product should no longer be reviewed as a sort of oddity. Instead, it should be regarded as a, you know, phone. And as such, should be subject to the same sort of regular wear any smartphones go through.

In other words, it’s reasonable to expect that it can withstand, say, a hard press from a finger but not necessarily a five-foot drop onto concrete. Again, this is only after a day of use, but so far, so good on that front, at least.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

The 21.9×9 aspect ratio is an odd one. The phone is really tall and skinny. Also, the crease is still very noticeable — that much hasn’t changed. But the Flip looks mostly unremarkable when open. I was using it open on the subway ride home and no one seemed to notice (New Yorkers, amiright?). The Fold, on the other hand, drew curious looks every time I used it. If having strangers notice your expensive new phone is an incentive for spending $1,400, then that’s a downside, I suppose.

There haven’t been too many updates to the Android UI to accommodate the new screen paradigm. The biggest change is the ability to have two windows open in a vertical configuration. There’s also Flex model, which is currently limited to a select number of applications. Open, say, the camera app, bend the phone so it holds at a 90-degree angle and the app will adapt. In this case, the view finder moves up, occupying the top half of the screens while the controls take up the bottom. It’s a cool feature, with the device essentially serving as its own kickstand for things like taking selfies or reading the news.

Utilizing it more broadly is going to require more work on Google’s part — and more adoption from app developers. The latter especially is going to depend quite a lot on how many of these devices are actually sold. For now, YouTube is the one pure video app that utilizes it.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

That’s fine, honestly, as turning the device to landscape mode and opening it to about 130 degrees is actually an even better way to watch widescreen video. There are a smattering of other tricks here and there. Holding up a palm in selfie-mode, for instance, let’s you snap a photo without touching a button or using voice.

The Flip is the first Samsung device to bake Google’s Duo video calling directly into the UI. It’s a nice choice, too, since the Flex mode is basically built for video calling. Oh, and to answer the question I’ve been asked the most since the Flip was announced: yes, you can end a call by closing the phone. And yes, it is satisfying to give the person on the other end a tactile snap.

The feature is on by default and can be disabled in the settings menu. It won’t work if you have earbuds in, however, because in many cases you’ll want to be using them to chat while the phone is closed in your pocket.

As for the outside, Samsung’s gone decidedly minimalist. The inclusion of an exterior screen was a big selling point on the Fold, but honestly it was too skinny with too small an aspect ratio to do much. The outside of the device has a glossy mirror finish — black in my case. And yeah, it’s a complete fingerprint magnet.

There’s a one-inch display of sorts on the outside of the Flip, but it’s only large enough for small at-a-glance information like battery life and time. It can also show off notifications, but it’s too small to accomplish much without scrolling. If you’ve ever attempted to read a notification on a hybrid smartwatch, the experience is fairly similar.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

The little window is actually a touchscreen. A double tap will turn it on, and from there a swipe with show off information like the music you’re listening to. Attempting to click into an app icon for more information on a notification, however, will prompt you to open the phone for more information. Interestingly, the tiny screen also serves as a view finder. Double-clicking the fingerprint reader/power button will fire it up. It’s okay for getting a rough approximation of what you’re shooting (likely yourself), but is pretty useless beyond that.

And honestly, I think that’s fine. In fact, I would even go so far as to say I think that’s actually a strength. In an era when so many of us are grappling with smartphone use, there’s something to be said for the ability to snap the device shut and disconnect for a bit. You can keep streaming music or listening to podcasts, but when the phone is closed, it’s time to engage with the world around you.

Or not. I’m not going to tell you how to live.

Hey, it’s your $1,400. There are plenty of other ways to spend that much money, of course. You could also pick up the Galaxy S20 Ultra — the mega premium version of Samsung’s latest flagship. For that price, you get the same-old boring form factor, coupled with some crazy high-end specs, including a 5,000 mAh battery, 12GB of RAM and the latest Snapdragon 865, versus the Flip’s 3,300 mAh, 8GB and Snapdragon 855+.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

The Ultra also has an extreme edge on cameras, including a 108-megapixel wide angel, 48-megapixel telephoto, 12-megapixel ultra-wide and a time-of-fight sensor for depth. The Flip, meanwhile, sports a 12-megapixel zoom lens and 12-megapixel super-wide. There’s no competition, but Samsung’s breadth of imaging experience makes for a solid experience regardless.

Again, my time with the device has been limited, but so far I’m pretty satisfied with the combination of hardware an software options. The shots look good and have a nice color balance even in low light. I can’t see myself using Single Take too often, but the ability to get multiple different shot options with a single press could certainly prove useful for amateur photographers.

Perhaps the most notable omission of all is 5G. While it’s true that a number of other companies (*cough* Apple) don’t even offer the option, Samsung introduced a 5G version of the Fold last year (in select markets) and went all in on 5G with the S20 line. It’s clear that the company took feedback over pricing concerns to heart with the Flip. The device is only available in a single configuration, highlighting the gulf between it and the Fold.

Which is to say, it’s still expensive, but that $500 or so makes a difference. So, too, does more robust build and new form factor. I’m recommending you buy the Flip. We’re still very much in the early stages of foldables here. That said, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Flip over the Fold. And while I haven’t really spent time with the Moto Razr, well, that seems like a slam dunk, too. 

Again, if I was Motorola, I would be considering, at very least, a significant price drop. While the Flip likely won’t convince the skeptical that foldables are the future, it should, at very least, be a heartening indication that Samsung is headed in the right direction.

Jack Dorsey tweeted a real bummer of a WikiHow on Valentine’s Day

Jack Dorsey tweeted a real bummer of a WikiHow on Valentine's Day

It’s Valentine’s Day and Jack Dorsey is tweeting about wine. 

Or, more precisely, he tweeted a screenshot of a WikiHow article telling people how to properly hold a wine glass. Whatever you do, insists the article with an accompanying picture of a solitary hand holding a glass of wine, “Never hold the bowl.” It’s real depressing shit. 

The Twitter CEO shared the image late Friday afternoon after, we’re assuming, his date told him to stop being such a pretentious jerk and just enjoy the nice bottle of Priorat for crying out loud. 

More about Twitter, Jack Dorsey, Wine, Tech, and Big Tech Companies