Rolling out some new Blogs
From Sustainable Materials To Disaster And Pandemic Measures, Startups Are Addressing Social Issues In Japan’s Tohoku
In 2011, the Tohoku region in northern Japan was devastated by one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, causing thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in damage. Ten years later, however, Tohoku is continuing to rebuild and recover. In 2020, the Japanese government’s J-Startup program, which seeks to foster internationally competitive startup companies, was extended to support businesses in regional areas including Tohoku. Today, a number of local entrepreneurs are acting as changemakers by introducing unique products and services.
A growing startup ecosystem and sustainable business
“Startups are receiving greater recognition as leaders of the new era, creators of the future, and workplaces to build new careers in Japan,” says Horie Ari, CEO and founder of Silicon Valley-based Women’s Startup Lab. “However, they still face small early-stage investments. The Japanese government is actively working to fortify startup ecosystems by providing intensive support for regional areas, and I’m looking forward to the results.” Horie, an industry veteran who has nurtured many entrepreneurs, focuses on a J-Startup business called Fermenstation. This Tokyo biotechnology company has a lab in Tohoku and produces ethanol from organic rice grown in fields that were formerly unused. The ethanol can be used to produce cosmetics as well as sanitizing wipes, an essential product amid the coronavirus pandemic, while rice fermentation byproducts can be turned into feed for livestock. Founded in 2009 by entrepreneur Sakai Lina, the company uses its fermentation technology to foster a circular society and a zero-waste business model. It has been selling its cosmetics, including soaps and scented sprays, online and in shops across Japan. Horie notes that Fermenstation’s raw materials cost is very low, allowing it to scale its business quickly. Having a female CEO is another big plus because reflecting the diverse needs of society places the company on a path to success, she adds. “What we’re trying to do is to put resources that remain unused in society to effective use by using them to produce ethanol and sediment left from fermentation,” Sakai was quoted as saying by METI Journal in The Japan Times. “We want to develop an ultimate recycling model through this process.”
Responding to local needs in the pandemic
Another regional J-Startup company is Forte, an IT solutions provider in the city of Aomori in northern Tohoku. Since its establishment in 2005, Forte has developed a range of products including navigation devices, GPS trackers and bone-conduction wireless headsets. It’s now focused on measures to prevent coronavirus infections. One is Midera, which employs artificial intelligence and contactless technology to monitor health and coronavirus precautions. Midera is a face-recognition system that can be deployed in network cameras or tablets, and can automatically detect people’s temperatures, faces and whether they are wearing masks. Potential users include medical institutions, clinics, restaurants and event spaces. The company has sold more than 5,000 units amid the pandemic. “People ask why we are based in Aomori, a prefecture whose main industries are agriculture and tourism,” says CEO Kasai Jun, who worked at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) for 25 years before founding Forte. “It’s because in regional areas where communities are often smaller, we can easily grasp the issues that people face and we benefit from intimate business exchanges for developing new solutions. There are fewer people here, but digital transformation can save on human resources. Implementing digital transformation in Tohoku has a lot more impact than in a large metropolis.” One example of how Forte is responding to local needs is a product aimed at enabling safe restaurant dining. As local eateries have seen revenues plummet while customers stay home, Forte wanted to help by encouraging diners to minimize chatting at the table, a precaution that may reduce virus transmission. Forte developed a system called Shizuka Gozen, a name that implies “silent dining.” The AI-powered device tracks exhalation pressure and sound, alerting customers when they’re speaking too loudly. It also checks ambient CO2 levels and can automatically activate connected ventilation systems. After a successful 10-day test in a seafood restaurant, Forte is being prepared for commercialization. “We are also developing smart glasses products and lithium solid-state batteries to respond to the needs of businesses and consumers,” says Kasai. “We believe in the importance of community building by talking to people in the street and understanding their needs. With those things in mind, we focus on whatever challenge we want to tackle and build on our experience to realize a solution.”
Practical solutions based on disaster experiences
ONETABLE is another regional J-Startup company that is responding to local needs. It’s a disaster-prevention business with diversified products and services. ONETABLE was founded by Shimada Masayuki, whose life was changed after experiencing the 2011 tsunami in his hometown of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture. Even before that day, Shimada had been interested in food entrepreneurship. The catastrophe motivated him to help distribute emergency food aid and become an active player in economic revitalization. Since then, ONETABLE has fostered businesses on land that was redeveloped after the tsunami. They include a resort hotel and a factory that employs people with disabilities. The latter turns out a unique product inspired by the disaster: LIFE STOCK, an energy jelly drink developed in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). LIFE STOCK can be used both as emergency rations and as an everyday energy boost or nutrition supplement. It has a shelf life of five and a half years, much more than other emergency foods, which are typically rice or biscuits. In another project, ONETABLE provided consulting for the production of a six-wheeled cart to transport kindergarteners in emergencies. Its ergonomic design allows teachers to bring children to higher ground in the event of a tsunami warning. “My idea of disaster prevention is that it’s got to be something for everyday use,” says Shimada. “The cart can be used to take kids to parks and it’s easier to handle than conventional carts. Our jelly drinks can be consumed for school lunches, patient recovery following surgery, elderly care or even baby food. We need to do away with the division between products intended for disaster prevention and those for everyday use.” Apart from JAXA, ONETABLE collaborates with businesses in fields as diverse as education, elderly care and design. It is also cooperating with municipal governments on disaster preparedness. One service under development is a simulation system that can track the number of residents in a municipality and their food, shelter and other needs in a disaster, as well as mobility and other factors. These are compared to the municipality’s stockpile of emergency supplies so that governments can get a comprehensive understanding of how to better respond when disaster strikes. ONETABLE has completed the first phase of the project with local partners and plans to eventually roll out the service across Japan. “In a way, experiencing the 2011 disaster is an asset because it can give rise to new industries,” says Shimada. “Japan has more disasters than just about anywhere, but we can use this to generate new products. We see the concept of disaster prevention as a driver for social innovation.”
April 2021, CICO writerStaff Reporter Japan Region
Democracy Strikes Back!
When was the last time you voted in an election? Last year? Last month? Never? If the answer is the latter, then you’re definitely not alone. Chances are, if you are young, you are unlikely to vote. It’s a fact that is presented to us time and time again in football league-style election turnout stats. “Look, youth are coming last in the ranking (again).” The shaky relationship between young people and the ballot box is not exactly a recent development either. It’s a phenomenon that has been pondered over and analysed many times. Type “young people” and “voting” into Google and you’ll be met with thousands of articles attempting to break down all the possible reasons why the young demographic consistently fail to cast their ballot in elections. Are we really a lost generation of voters? There are approximately 3.5 billion of us young people, making up over half of the world’s population. We are, or should be, a critical majority when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. However, the potential influence of our generation on the outcome of elections too often does not translate into actual votes – whether it be at local, national or even European level. In the minds of our political leaders this makes us less of a priority in their campaigns, manifestos and policy decisions. Despite all of this, I am here to argue that young people should still be considered a force to be reckoned with. Here’s why.
Don’t ask what youth can do for democracy, but rather what can democracy can do for youth
Young people face significant challenges and barriers linked to their age. They are most exposed, for example, to precarious working conditions, poverty, and lack of adequate housing, to name a few. This is in addition to other forms of discrimination they might face based on their different identifies, such as their racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender and other backgrounds. You could be forgiven then, as a young person, for having ‘active citizenship’ and ‘political engagement’ down in your list of priorities. Even less motivating is when you feel like your elected representatives are not hearing you, acting to address your needs, hopes for the future, or challenges in accessing rights. One might think that the simple solution would be for young people to wake up and smell the coffee: they need to get more active and engage in those institutional politics and decision making processes if they want to increase their political influence and be heard. It is just not that simple. If we want to start rebuilding a democratic system that is befitting of today’s realities, and ready to face future challenges in a more sustainable way, the democratic system needs first to address these issues of power imbalance, and give a meaningful way of participating to those who are and feel excluded from democratic life, including young people
The end of democracy as we know it?
We need to change the status quo. Rather than putting all decision-making power in the hands of elected officials – likely to prioritise policies that create short term political gains – a revitalised democratic system should also allow for the needs of future generations to be considered. They might not be born yet, but will certainly be affected the most by bad policies and decisions made today. Democracy, one might say, seems to have rested on its laurels for too long, and forgotten that its reason to be and own legitimacy depends on it listening to citizens’ voices – and of all people, all groups, and not the privileged few who are the most vocal.
A New Hope!
Contrary to popular misconceptions of the “apathetic youth”, young people use their creativity and innovation in how they choose to engage in the political process. Young people’s increased participation in alternative forms of political action, including signing a petition, protests, boycotting or supporting certain products and brands, social media campaigning, shows that this generation of young people is interested in politics – perhaps more than ever. In other words, choosing to stay away from the more established, recognised, forms of democracy, like voting, must not be taken as the reality.. From examples of participatory budgeting to citizens assemblies, to sortition (random selection of officials from citizens groups), there are countless numbers of success stories that have managed, through innovation, to revitalise democracy and get young people back on board. These need to become the mainstream however, and not just a few exceptional cases by a handful of progressive politicians. And this change needs to happen now, and at all levels of governance.
The Return of the Youth
UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake: “The youth can be a force for democracy” The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises young people as “critical agents of change”. But for them to take this active and leading role they need the right support, willing political institutions, and the right tools. Only when these conditions are met can we expect young people to take a leading role in building new, future-proof and sustainable democratic systems, and become the heroes of democracy we all need them to be.
March 2021, CICO writerStaff Reporter Kristen Aigro
Creating and weaponizing deepfake videos
How to identity and detect deepfakes
Professor Hany Farid of UC Berkeley spoke at Avast’s CyberSec&AI Connected virtual conference last week. The event showcased leading academics and tech professionals from around the world to examine critical issues around AI for privacy and cybersecurity.
Farid has spent a lot of his time researching the use and evolution of deepfake videos. It was an intriguing session and demonstrated the lengths that the creators will go to make them more realistic and what security researchers will need to do to detect them.
His session started off by taking us through their evolution: What began as innocent and simple photo editing software has evolved into an entire industry that is designed to “pollute the online ecosystem of video information.” The past couple of years has seen advances in more sophisticated image alteration and using AI tools to create these deepfakes. Farid illustrated his point by merging video footage of Hollywood stars Jennifer Lawrence and Steve Buscemi. The resulting clip retained Lawrence’s clothes, body, and hair, but replaced her face with that of Buscemi. Granted, this wasn’t designed to fool anyone, but it was a quite creepy demonstration of how the technology works nonetheless.
Farid categorizes deepfakes into four general types:
- Non-consensual porn, which is the most frequently found example. One woman’s likeness is pasted into a porn video and distributed online.
- Misinformation campaigns, designed to deceive and “throw gas on an already lit fire,” he said.
- Legal evidence tampering, such as demonstrating police misconduct that never actually happened. His non-academic practice has frequent consultations in this area, where he is hired to ferret out these manipulations, and
- Outright fraud, which could also have criminal or national security implications. He cites an audio deepfake from last fall of a wire transfer that was requested from a UK energy company. The audio was supposed to be from the firm’s CEO.
How to beat the fakes?
So how do you detect these fakes? One way is to very carefully analyze the facial mannerisms and expressions and see how they are unique to each individual. He calls this a “soft biometric,” meaning it isn’t an exact science in the same way DNA or fingerprints can ID someone. The predictability goes up for often-filmed celebrities, where there is a huge amount of existing video footage that can be used to compare these visual “tics.” As an example, try saying the words mother, brother and parent without closing your mouth. “You can’t do it, unless you are a ventriloquist,” he said. When Alec Baldwin does his Trump impressions, he doesn’t quite get these mannerisms exactly right, which can be a “tell” to indicate that it could be a fake. He has mapped the various political candidate videos on an earlier project, and you can see that there is a cluster of fake Obama videos from this graph:
There are several challenges ahead. First the technology is quickly evolving and getting better at creating more convincing deepfakes. The transmission velocity across social networks is also increasing. What used to take days or weeks now gets noticed within hours or even minutes. The public is now polarized, which means that people are willing to believe the worst in those holding opposite viewpoints or those that they don’t particularly like. There is also the rise of what he calls the liar’s dividend, meaning that just saying something is fake is usually enough to neutralize something, even when it isn’t. “That means nothing has to be real anymore,” said Farid.
Social media platforms need to be proactive
“There is no single magic answer to solving the misinformation apocalypse,” argues Farid. Instead, the social platforms must be more responsible, and that means a combination of better labeling, a better focus on regulations of reach (rather than just deleting offensive or fake content), and the presentation of alternative views
Professor Farid spoke at CyberSec&AI Connected, an annual conference on AI, machine learning and cybersecurity co-organized by Avast. To learn more about the event and find out how to access presentations from speakers such as Garry Kasparov (Chess Grandmaster and Avast Security Ambassador) visit the event website.
February 2021, CICO writerStaff Reporter David Strom
Deconstructing Deepfakes. How do they work and what are the risks?
Last month, Microsoft introduced a new deepfake detection tool. Weeks ago, Intel launched another. As more and more companies follow suit and more concerns arise about the use of this technology, we take a look in today’s WatchBlog at how this technology works and the policy questions it raises.
What is a deepfake?
A deepfake is a video, photo, or audio recording that seems real but has been manipulated using artificial intelligence (AI). The underlying technology can replace faces, manipulate facial expressions, synthesize faces, and synthesize speech. These tools are used most often to depict people saying or doing something they never said or did.
How do deepfakes work?
Deepfake videos commonly swap faces or manipulate facial expressions. The image below illustrates how this is done. In face swapping, the face on the left is placed on another person’s body. In facial manipulation, the expressions of the face on the left are imitated by the face on the right.
Deepfakes rely on artificial neural networks, which are computer systems that recognize patterns in data. Developing a deepfake photo or video typically involves feeding hundreds or thousands of images into the artificial neural network, “training” it to identify and reconstruct patterns—usually faces.
How can you spot a deepfake?
The figure below illustrates some of the ways you can identify a deepfake from the real thing. To learn more about how to identify a deepfake, and to learn about the underlying technology used, check out our recent Spotlight on this technology.
What are the benefits of these tools?
Voices and likenesses developed using deepfake technology can be used in movies to achieve a creative effect or maintain a cohesive story when the entertainers themselves are not available. For example, in the latest Star Wars movies, this technology was used to replace characters who had died or to show characters as they appeared in their youth. Retailers have also used this technology to allow customers to try on clothing virtually.
What risks do they pose?
In spite of such benign and legitimate applications like films and commerce, deepfakes are more commonly used for exploitation. Some studies have shown that much of deepfake content online is pornographic, and deepfake pornography disproportionately victimizes women.
There is also concern about potential growth in the use of deepfakes for disinformation. Deepfakes could be used to influence elections or incite civil unrest, or as a weapon of psychological warfare. They could also lead to disregard of legitimate evidence of wrongdoing and, more generally, undermine public trust.
What can be done to protect people?
As discussed above, researchers and internet companies, such as Microsoft and Intel, have experimented with several methods to detect deepfakes. These methods typically use AI to analyze videos for digital artifacts or details that deepfakes fail to imitate realistically, such as blinking or facial tics. But even with these interventions by tech companies, there are a number of policy questions about deepfakes that still need to be answered. For example:
- What can be done to educate the public about deepfakes to protect them and help them identify real from fake?
- What rights do individuals have to privacy when it comes to the use of deepfake technology?
- What First Amendment protections do creators of deepfake videos, photos, and more have?
- Deepfakes are powerful tools that can be used for exploitation and disinformation. With advances making them more difficult to detect, these technologies require a deeper look.
January 2021, CICO writerStaff Reporter Karen Howard