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‘Death Stranding’ brings back appointment gaming

00:42 | 12 November

Game launches these days are frequently the very worst time to play them. Plagued by bugs, server issues, balance problems, and a lack of content, many “games as a service” titles are best consumed after a month or two. Not so with Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited Death Stranding, which if you’re going to play at all… you should probably play now.

This type of game comes out once every year or two: A title where the gradual discovery of mechanics and ideas by the players is part of the adventure. Being part of that vanguard of players who go in unsure of what to expect, learning by doing, and sharing that information with others has a special feeling, not of exclusivity exactly, but of a collective experience.

Sure, playing the new Call of Duty on day one can be thrilling, but it’s not exactly a journey of discovery. Furthermore, games like those tend to get better after the first few months as content is added, gameplay is tweaked, and so on.

But just as some TV and movies are best seen with friends on the day they’re released, some games beg to be played before they become over-amply documented, their mysteries vivisected and wikified.

The most frequent entries on this list are From Software’s Dark Souls type games, the esoteric workings of which are sometimes never fully revealed even years later. Bloodborne is still yielding up its secrets even now, for instance.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was another one, in which it wasn’t exactly that people were finding hidden things or speculating on lore, but rather finding how open-ended the world really was and demonstrating that in ingenious ways. When someone figured out you can trick an enemy into being struck by lightning by slipping them a metal weapon in a thunderstorm, it was like a million gamers worldwide squinted, said “wait, what?” and ran to their Switch to try it.

Death Stranding is likewise “appointment gaming,” because… well, it’s so weird. But it definitely belongs in the company of those games that are best experienced while steaming hot, like the frequent showers you’ll see Norman Reedus take in it. I’m glad I let a friend of mine convince me to jump in right away.

Don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling anything you don’t learn in the first couple hours. But there is a mechanic where items like ladders or climbing ropes you lay down to help navigate the terrain get shared with other people for their own use. Just as there is glory in being the first to call down lightning in Zelda, there’s a glory (slightly more obscure admittedly) in being the first to go a certain way and let others follow in your footsteps.

Lay down a bridge to reach a shelter more easily while carrying lots of cargo, and you may find that a day or two later, thousands of people have used it, given it “likes,” and maybe even upgraded or expanded it with their own resources.

The thing about this is that in a year or two, the locations of these bridges will have been optimized and documented for all to know, as if they were part of the game’s landscape to begin with. Where’s the fun in that? It’s a pleasure knowing that the environment around you is being improvised by players all over the world.

Similarly, there are “aha” moments already occurring. You’re told directly that your character’s bodily fluids seem anathema to the ghostly “BTs” that are your most serious enemies. You’re also given the option, once you’ve drank sufficient quantities from your canteen, to have a wee. Someone made that connection and decided to wee on the horrible ghostly BTs — and it repels them!

And a million gamers squint, say “wait, what?” and run to their PS4 to try it.

That collective experience that we shared when we sat in the same room to watch the Game of Thrones finale or, before that, Lost’s ultimately regrettable but thrilling perambulations, is present here in Death Stranding, as it has been for other games before it.

Is Death Stranding a game for everyone? Hell no. But nor was Dark Souls. Death Stranding is a game that is frequently original and odd and surprising, while also occasionally being heavy-handed, tedious, and obtuse. We need more of that in the increasingly cynical and predictable world of AAA gaming.

By its nature Death Stranding is something that, if you don’t give it a hard pass (and I definitely get that), you should be playing today — not next year or even next month. Get it, then be patient, be weird, have fun, and send likes.

 


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Facebook machine learning aims to modify faces, hands, and… outfits

23:53 | 11 November

The latest research out of Facebook sets machine learning models to tasks that, to us, seem rather ordinary — but for a computer are still monstrously difficult. These projects aim to anonymize faces, improvise hand movements, and — perhaps hardest of all — give credible fashion advice.

The research here was presented recently at the International Conference on Computer Vision, among a few dozen other papers from the company, which has invested heavily in AI research, computer vision in particular.

Modifying faces in motion is something we’ve all come to associate with “deepfakes” and other nefarious applications. But the Facebook team felt there was actually a potentially humanitarian application of the technology.

Deepfakes use a carefully cultivated understanding of the face’s features and landmarks to map one person’s expressions and movements onto a completely different face. The Facebook team used the same features and landmarks, but instead uses them to tweak the face just enough that it’s no longer recognizable to facial recognition engines.

This could allow someone who, for whatever reason, wants to appear on video but not be recognized publicly to do so without something as clunky as a mask or completely fabricated face. Instead, they’d look a bit like themselves, but with slightly wider-set eyes, a thinner mouth, higher forehead, and so on.

The system they created appears to work well, but would of course require some optimization before it can be deployed as a product. But one can imagine how useful such a thing might be, either for those at risk of retribution from political oppressors or more garden variety privacy preferences.

In virtual spaces it can be difficult to recognize someone at all — partly because of the lack of nonverbal cues we perceive constantly in real life. This next piece of research attempts to capture, catalogue, and reproduce these movements, or at least the ones we make with our hands.

It’s a little funny to think about, but really there’s not a lot of data on how exactly people move their hands when they talk. So the researchers recorded 50 full hours of pairs of people having ordinary conversations — or as ordinary as they could while suited up in high-end motion capture gear.

These (relatively) natural conversations, and the body and hand motions that went with them, were then ingested by the machine learning model; it learned to associate, for example, that when people said “back then” they’d point behind them, or when they said “all over the place,” they’d make a sweeping gesture.

What might this be used for? More natural-seeming conversations in virtual environments, perhaps, but maybe also by animators who’d like to base the motions of their characters in real life without doing motion capture of their own. It turns out that the database Facebook put together is really like nothing else out there in scale or detail, which is valuable in and of itself.

Similarly unique, but arguably more frivolous, is this system meant to help you improve your outfit. If we’re going to have smart mirrors, they ought to be able to make suggestions, right?

Fashion++ is a system that, having ingested a large library of images labeled with both the pieces worn (e.g. hat, scarf, skirt) and overall fashionability (obviously a subjective measure), can then look at a given outfit and suggest changes. Nothing major — it isn’t that sophisticated — but rather small things like removing a layer or tucking in a shirt.

It’s far from a digital fashion assistant, but the paper documents early success in making suggestions for outfits that real people found credible and perhaps even a good idea. That’s pretty impressive given how complex this problem proves to be when you really consider it, and how ill-defined “fashionable” really is.

Facebook’s ICCV research shows that the company and its researchers are looking fairly broadly at the question of what computer vision can accomplish. It’s always nice to detect faces in a photo faster or more accurately, or infer location from the objects in a room, but clearly there are many more obscure or surprising aspects of digital life that could be improved with a little visual intelligence. You can check out the rest of the papers here.

 


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Facebook finally lets you banish nav bar tabs & red dots

22:43 | 11 November

Are those red notification dots on your Facebook home screen driving you crazy? Sick of Facebook Marketplace wasting your screen space? Now you can control what appears in the Facebook app’s navigation bar thanks to a new option called Shortcuts Bar Settings.

Over the weekend TechCrunch spotted the option to remove certain tabs like Marketplace, Watch, Groups, Events, and Dating or just silence their notification dots. In response to our inquiry, Facebook confirms that Shortcut Bar Settings is now rolling out to everyone, with most iOS users already equipped and the rest of Android owners getting it in the next few weeks.

The move could save the sanity and improve the well-being of people who don’t want their Facebook cluttered with distractions. Users already get important alerts that they could actually control via their Notifications tab. Constant red notification counts on the homescreen are an insidious growth hack, trying to pull in people’s attention to random Group feeds, Event wall posts, and Marketplace.

“We are rolling out navigation bar controls to make it easier for people to connect with the things they like and control the notifications they get within the Facebook app” a Facebook spokesperson tells me.

Back in July 2018, Facebook said it would start personalizing the navigation bar based on what utilities you use most. But the navigation bar seemed more intent on promoting features Facebook wanted to be popular like its Craigslist competitor Marketplace, which I rarely use, rather than its long-standing Events feature I access daily.

To use the Shortcuts Bar Settings options, tap and hold on any of the shortcuts in your navigation bar that’s at the bottom of the Facebook homescreen on iOS and the top on Android. You’ll see a menu pop up letting you remove that tab entirely, or leave it but disable the red notification count overlays. That clears space in your nav bar for a more peaceful experience.

You’ll also now find in the three-line More tab -> Settings & Privacy -> Settings -> Shortcuts menu the ability to toggle any of the Marketplace, Groups, Events, and Pages tabs on or off. Eagle-eyed reverse engineering specialist

spotted in June that Facebook was testing Notification Dots settings menu that’s now available too.

A Facebook spokesperson admits people should have the ability to take a break from notifications within the app. They tell me Facebook wanted to give users more control so they can have access to what’s relevant to them.

For all of Facebook’s talk about well-being, with it trying out hiding Like counts in its app and Instagram (this week starting in the US), there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit. Better batching of Facebook notifications would be a great step, allowing users to get a daily digest of Groups or Events posts rather than a constant flurry. Its Time Well Spent dashboard that counts your minutes on Facebook should also say how many notifications you get of each type, how many you actually open, and let you disable the most common but useless ones right from there.

If Facebook wants to survive long-term, it can’t piss off users by trapping them in an anxiety-inducing hellscape of growth hacks that benefit the company. The app has become bloated and cramped with extra features over the last 15 years. Facebook could get away with more aggressive cross-promotion of some of these forgotten features as long as it empowers us to hide what we hate.

 


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Google Chrome to identify and label slow websites

22:29 | 11 November

Is it the web page that’s slow or is it your network connection? In the future, Google’s Chrome web browser may have an answer for you. Google announced today a plan to identify and label websites that typically load slowly by way of clear badging. The company says it may later choose to identify sites that are likely to be slow based on the user’s device and current network conditions, as well.

Google hasn’t yet determined how exactly the slow websites will be labeled, but says it may experiment with different options to see which makes the most sense.

For example, a slow-loading website may show a “Loading…” page that includes a warning, like a caution icon and text that reads “usually loads slow.” Meanwhile, a fast website may display a green progress indicator bar at the top of the page instead of a blue one.

And for links, Chrome may use the context menu to help users know if the site will be slow so you can decide whether or not you want to click.

In the long-term, Chrome’s goal will be to identify and badge websites offering “high-quality” experiences which may include other factors beyond just the website’s speed. The company didn’t yet detail what those other factors may be, but says the identification process will include more stringent criteria that’s rolled out gradually over time. However, the goal will be to make these “good user experiences” something any web developer can achieve.

In the meantime, Google suggests web developers visit its resources focused on site performance, including its learning platform web.dev./fast; online tool for optimization suggestions, PageSpeed Insights; and personalized advice tool, Lighthouse.

A faster, more usable web benefits Google, as it helps the company better cater to its primarily mobile users. Since 2015, the majority of Google users start their searches from mobile devices. But that shift has required new ways of indexing and ranking pages and serving users whose connection speeds vary and who may not have powerful devices.

Google now uses a website’s mobile version when indexing its pages, and it offers fast AMP pages to help mobile users get to information more quickly. It makes sense that a next step would be to nudge site owners themselves to speed things up or risk getting labeled as a “slow” website.

This sort of feature would particularly help Google users in emerging markets, like India, where decent bandwidth is often lacking and low-end smartphones are prevalent.

“Speed has been one of Chrome’s core principles since the beginning – we’re constantly working to give users an experience that is instant as they browse the web,” a Chrome blog post explained. “That said, we have all visited web pages we thought would load fast, only to be met by an experience that could have been better. We think the web can do better…,” it read.

 


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Amazon to open its first non-Whole Foods grocery store in 2020

20:32 | 11 November

Amazon is opening its first non-Whole Foods grocery store in the L.A. neighborhood of Woodland Hills, the retailer today confirmed. The news of the new store was first reported by CNET, which spotted several job postings referencing the location including those for a zone leader, grocery associates, and a food service associate.

Unlike Amazon’s growing number of cashierless Amazon Go convenience stores, the new store will feature conventional checkout technology, says Amazon. CNBC also noted the store may be located in a former Toys R Us location at a shopping center.

Amazon declined to offer more details about its plans for the store or others like it, but did confirm it’s opening a grocery store in Woodland Hills in 2020.

The retailer’s plans to expand its grocery operations beyond its Whole Foods brand was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal in October. Amazon, the report claimed, was planning a chain of dozens of grocery stores across the U.S., beginning with sites in L.A., Chicago, and Philadelphia. Woodland Hills was mentioned as being among the first locations, along with Studio City and Irvine.

Other locations being scouted included those in the New York metro area, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Amazon’s interest in an expanded brick-and-mortar presence comes at a time when Walmart’s grocery business has been booming, with some reports claiming it now dominates those from rivals, including Amazon, Instacart, and others.

Walmart in Q2 reported 37% increase in e-commerce sales, supported by the strong growth in online grocery. Much of its success in that area can be attributed to the proximity of its stores to its customer base. With no markups on food prices (as some of its competitors do), it’s affordable to order from Walmart Grocery online, then drive to pick up the groceries — or pay a small fee to have them delivered.

Amazon’s Whole Foods, meanwhile, has long had a reputation as a more expensive store. Following the acquisition of the grocery chain, Amazon has tried to combat that notion with weekly sales and discounts for Prime members. But Whole Foods is still considered to be a more high-end store, and its prices continue to reflect that.

The new Amazon grocery stores, on the other hand, will be targeted at the mainstream consumer who typically shops from more traditional, or even value, grocery chains.

“When it comes to grocery shopping, we know customers love choice and this new store offers another grocery option that’s distinct from Whole Foods Market, which continues to grow and remain the leader in quality natural and organic food,” an Amazon spokesperson told CNET.

They said Whole Foods would continue to expand, despite the launch of the new Amazon grocery stores. Whole Foods opened 17 locations this year and has more planned, the company said.

 

 


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Salesforce Ventures invested $300M in Automattic while Salesforce was building a CMS

20:27 | 11 November

In September, Salesforce Ventures, the venture of arm of Salesforce, announced a hefty $300 million investment in Automattic, the company behind WordPress, the ubiquitous content management system (CMS). At the same time, the company was putting the finishing touches on Salesforce CMS, an in-house project it released last week.

The question is, why did it choose to do both?

One reason could be that WordPress isn’t just well-liked; it’s also the world’s most popular content management system, running 34 percent of the world’s 10 billion websites — including this one — according to the company. With Automattic valued at $3 billion, that gives Salesforce Ventures a 10 percent stake.

Given the substantial investment, you wouldn’t have been irrational to at least consider the idea that Salesforce may have had its eye on this company as an acquisition target. In fact, at the time of the funding, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet that there could be some partnerships and integrations with Salesforce in the future.

Now we have a Salesforce CMS, and a potential partnership with one of the world’s largest web content management (WCM) tools, and it’s possible that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

 


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ViacomCBS shakes up its content leadership teams following merger

19:32 | 11 November

Following the merger of CBS and Viacom announced earlier this year, the combined company today confirmed its plans to restructure its content and digital leadership teams in order to streamline operations. Among the changes, which were first reported by The Wall St. Journal on Sunday, are the departures of Comedy Central Head Kent Alterman and Viacom Networks COO Sarah Levy. Meanwhile, CBS Chief Creative Officer David Nevins will add BET to his responsibilities, while President of MTV, VH1, CMT, and Logo Chris McCarthy, will now become President of Entertainment & Youth Brands, ViacomCBS Domestic Media Networks.

This will put McCarthy in charge of Comedy Central, Paramount Network, Smithsonian Channel and TV Land brands.

Nevins, in addition to BET, will also oversee CBS Television Studios, the CBS Television Network’s Entertainment division, the Showtime Networks and Pop, The CW, and the programming of streaming service CBS All Access.

In terms of children’s content, Nickelodeon President Brian Robbins will oversee kids and young adult-focused programming as President, Kids & Family Entertainment, ViacomCBS Domestic Media Networks. That puts him back in charge of Awesomeness, which he co-founded and sold to Viacom in 2018, in addition to Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Nick Jr., TeenNick, Nicktoons and Nickelodeon Studios.

ViacomCBS also said that Carolyn Kroll Reidy will continue her role as President and Chief Executive Officer of Simon & Schuster, Inc. And Jim Gianopulos will continue as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Paramount Pictures, a role that includes oversight of Paramount Animation, Paramount Features, Paramount Players and Paramount TV.

The exec shuffles follow other announcements about the combinations of the two companies’ advertising sales and content distribution teams.

In addition, the company had previously announced Joe Ianniello would serve as Chairman and CEO of CBS, which includes oversight of CBS Television Network (including CBS Entertainment, CBS News, and CBS Sports), CBS Television Studios, CBS Interactive (including CBS All Access) and CBS Television Stations. However, he lost oversight of Showtime and Pop TV to President and CEO of Viacom and ViacomCBS, Bob Bakish.

Also previously reported was that CBS Interactive chief Jim Lanzone had left for Benchmark Capital, to be replaced by Marc DeBevoise. This puts DeBovise in charge of digital operations and reporting to Bakish.

Viacom Digital Studios Kelly Day will continue in her role and report to DeBevoise, the company also said today. And CBS CTO Phil Wiser will become ViacomCBS CTO.

The free streaming service Pluto TV, headed by co-founder Tom Ryan, will report to Bakish. (In news unrelated to the exec changes, Pluto TV announced today it will start streaming music videos from Vevo across 10 new channels.)

These leadership changes are meant to consolidate operations while keeping the production arms of CBS Television Studios and Viacom’s counterpart, Paramount Television, separated, The WSJ said.

Beyond the exec shuffle itself, ViacomCBS also detailed how it plans to maximize its combined assets, on the content from. The company announced this morning it’s putting into place a new “Content Council” that will work to “maximize the use of IP and talent relationships” across the company. The council will be chaired by Nevins and include all the content leaders.

“ViacomCBS will be one of the largest premium content creators in the world, with the capacity to produce content for both our own platforms and for others,” said President and CEO of ViacomCBS Bob Bakish, in a statement. “This talented team of content leaders will work together to ensure we realize the full power of our brands, our deep relationships with the creative community and our intellectual property to drive our growth as a combined company,” he added.

The Viacom-CBS merger is expected to fully close in December.

 

 

 

 


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Stingray-inspired spacecraft could eventually probe the atmosphere of Venus

19:19 | 11 November

NASA’s next Venus probe could be an atmosphere-skimming robotic stingray designed by the University of Buffalo. UB’s CRASH Lab, which is the institution’s Crashworthinesss for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids laboratory, has been selected by NASA to get early stage funding as part of a program the agency devised to come up with new and innovative concept designs.

The stringray-style spacecraft design would have ‘wings’ that can flap in the high winds of the upper atmosphere of Venus, according to UB, which would allow controlled flight that’s possible with high efficiency. Using this design, the BREEZE design (as it’s called) would be able to make its way all the way around Venus every four to six days, while powering itself back up every two to three days while spending time on the sun-illuminated side of the planet.

Each ‘day’ on Venus is longer than a year on Earth, because of the way it orbits the Sun. That means that typical spacecraft design wouldn’t necessarily be able to stay afloat and powered in the planet’s atmosphere using existing strategies for propulsion and mobility.

BREEZE is still a long way away from actually dipping in and out of Venusian clouds, but this acknowledgment and award from NASA means it’s one step closer along the path to development.

 


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Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sales top $38 billion

19:13 | 11 November

After 24 hours of frenzied buying and selling, and weeks of advertising and promotions before it, the Alibaba Group said today its sales hit another record high on Singles’ Day, the biggest shopping day on the planet.

The Chinese e-commerce giant said its 11th Singles’ Day event sold goods worth 268 billion yuan, or $38.3 billion, easily exceeding last year’s record $30.7 billion haul. Electronics gadgets and fashion items were among the most sold goods this year, company executives said.

More than half a billion people from a number of countries participate in the event, which is China’s equivalent to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Except, Singles’ Day is much larger. The five-day Black Friday clocked under $25 billion in sales last year. Alibaba Group said earlier today that it had netted its first $1 billion in sales this year in just 68 seconds.

The shopping glitz hosted a number of celebrities including Taylor Swift and Asian pop icon GEM to generate buzz. This year, the Hangzhou-headquartered firm has also focused on live-streaming via its platform, a phenomenon that has gained significant traction in China.

In a live stream, Kim Kardashian announced last week that her fragrance brand KKW will be sold on Tmall this Singles’ Day.

One figure who was missing from the action was Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, who retired in September this year. In previous years, Ma has not only just delivered speech but also put on performances for employees and customers.

At a press briefing an hour ago, Alibaba Chief Technology Officer Jeff Zhang described 11.11 as an “airplane flying at turbo speed,” adding that the company has been improving the supposed engine for years.

 


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Twitter drafts a deepfake policy that would label and warn, but not always remove, manipulated media

18:11 | 11 November

Twitter last month

it was introducing a new policy to help fight deepfakes and other “manipulated media” that involve photos, videos, or audio that’s been significantly altered to change its original meaning or purpose, or those that make it seem like something happened that actually did not. Today, Twitter is sharing a draft of its new policy and opening it up for public input before it goes live.

The policy is meant to address the growing problem with deepfakes on today’s internet.

Deepfakes have proliferated thanks to advances made in artificial intelligence that have made it easier to produce convincing fake videos, audio, and other digital content. Anyone with a computer and internet connection can now create this sort of fake media. The technology can be dangerous when used as propaganda, or to make someone believe something is real which is not. In politics, deepfakes can be used to undermine a candidate’s reputation, by making them say and do things they never said or did.

A deepfake of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went viral earlier this year, after Facebook refused to pull down a doctored video that showed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stumbling over her words was tweeted by Trump.

In early October, two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (D-VA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), called on major tech companies to develop a plan to combat deepfakes on their platforms. The senators asked 11 tech companies — including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and LinkedIn — to come up with a plan to develop industry standards for “sharing, removing, archiving, and confronting the sharing of synthetic content as soon as possible.”

Twitter later in the month

to seek public feedback on the policy. Meanwhile, Amazon joined up with Facebook, Microsoft to support the DeepFake Detection challenge (DFDC) which aims to develop new approaches to detect manipulated media.

Today, Twitter is detailing a draft of its deepfakes policy. The company says that when it sees synthetic or manipulated media that’s intentionally trying to mislead or confuse people it will:

  • place a notice next to Tweets that share synthetic or manipulated media;
  • warn people before they share or like Tweets with synthetic or manipulated media; or
  • add a link – for example, to a news article or Twitter Moment – so that people can read more about why various sources believe the media is synthetic or manipulated.

Twitter says if the deepfakes could also threaten someone’s physical safety or lead to serious harm, it may also remove it.

The company is accepting feedback by way of a survey as well as on Twitter itself, by way of the

hashtag.

The survey asks questions like whether altered photos and videos should be removed entirely, have warning labels, or not be removed at all. And it asks whether certain actions are acceptable, like hiding tweets or alerting people if they’re about to share a deepfake. It also asks when it should remove a tweet with misleading media. The policy Twitter created says tweets will be removed if the tweet if it threatens someone’s physical safety, but will otherwise be labeled. The survey suggests some other times a tweet could be pulled — like if it threatens someone’s mental health, privacy, dignity, property, and more.

The survey takes 5 minutes to complete and is available in English, Japanese, Portuguese, Arabic, Hindi, and Spanish.

What isn’t clear, however, is how Twitter will be able to detect the deepfakes published on its platform, given that detection techniques aren’t perfect and often lag behind the newer and more advanced creation methods. On this front, Twitter invites those who want to partner with it on detection solutions to fill out a form.

Twitter is accepting feedback on its deepfakes policy from now until Wednesday, Nov. 27 at 11:59 p.m. GMT. At that time, it will review the feedback received and make adjustments to the policy, as needed. The policy will then be incorporated into Twitter’s Rules with a 30-day notice before the change goes live.

 

 


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