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Is your product’s AI annoying people?

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Artificial intelligence is allowing us all to consider surprising new ways to simplify the lives of our customers. As a product developer, your central focus is always on the customer. But new problems can arise when the specific solution under development helps one customer while alienating others.

We tend to think of AI as an incredible dream assistant to our lives and business operations, when that’s not always the case. Designers of new AI services should consider in what ways and for whom might these services be annoying, burdensome or problematic, and whether it involves the direct customer or others who are intertwined with the customer. When we apply AI services to make tasks easier for our customers that end up making things more difficult for others, that outcome can ultimately cause real harm to our brand perception.

Let’s consider one personal example taken from my own use of Amy.ai, a service (from x.ai) that provides AI assistants named Amy and Andrew Ingram. Amy and Andrew are AI assistants that help schedule meetings for up to four people. This service solves the very relatable problem of scheduling meetings over email, at least for the person who is trying to do the scheduling.

After all, who doesn’t want a personal assistant to whom you can simply say, “Amy, please find the time next week to meet with Tom, Mary, Anushya and Shiveesh.” In this way, you don’t have to arrange a meeting room, send the email, and go back and forth managing everyone’s replies. My own experience showed that while it was easier for me to use Amy to find a good time to meet with my four colleagues, it soon became a headache for those other four people. They resented me for it after being bombarded by countless emails trying to find some mutually agreeable time and place for everyone involved.

Automotive designers are another group that’s incorporating all kinds of new AI systems to enhance the driving experience. For instance, Tesla recently updated its autopilot software to allow a car to change lanes automatically when it sees fit, presumably when the system interprets that the next lane’s traffic is going faster.

In concept, this idea seems advantageous to the driver who can make a safe entrance into faster traffic, while relieving any cognitive burden of having to change lanes manually. Furthermore, by allowing the Tesla system to change lanes, it takes away the desire to play Speed Racer or edge toward competitiveness that one may feel on the highway.

However, for the drivers in other lanes who are forced to react to the Tesla autopilot, they may be annoyed if the Tesla jerks, slows down or behaves outside the normal realm of what people expect on the freeway. Moreover, if they are driving very fast and the autopilot did not recognize they were operating at a high rate of speed when the car decided to make the lane change, then that other driver can get annoyed. We can all relate to driving 75 mph in the fast lane, only to have someone suddenly pull in front of us at 70 as if they were clueless that the lane was moving at 75.

For two-lane traffic highways that are not busy, the Tesla software might work reasonably well. However, in my experience of driving around the congested freeways of the Bay Area, the system performed horribly whenever I changed crowded lanes, and I knew that it was angering other drivers most of the time. Even without knowing those irate drivers personally, I care enough about driving etiquette to politely change lanes without getting the finger from them for doing so.

Post Intelligence robot

Another example from the internet world involves Google Duplex, a clever feature for Android phone users that allows AI to make restaurant reservations. From the consumer point of view, having an automated system to make a dinner reservation on one’s behalf sounds excellent. It is advantageous to the person making the reservation because, theoretically, it will save the burden of calling when the restaurant is open and the hassle of dealing with busy signals and callbacks.

However, this tool is also potentially problematic for the restaurant worker who answers the phone. Even though the system may introduce itself as artificial, the burden shifts to the restaurant employee to adapt and master a new and more limited interaction to achieve the same goal — making a simple reservation.

On the one hand, Duplex is bringing customers to the restaurant, but on the other hand, the system is narrowing the scope of interaction between the restaurant and its customer. The restaurant may have other tables on different days, or it may be able to squeeze you in if you leave early, but the system might not handle exceptions like this. Even the idea of an AI bot bothering the host who answers the phone doesn’t seem quite right.

As you think about making the lives of your customers easier, consider how the assistance you are dreaming about might be more of a nightmare for everyone else associated with your primary customer. If there is a question regarding the negative experience of anyone related to your AI product, explore that experience further to determine if there is another better way to still delight them without angering their neighbors.

From a user-experience perspective, developing a customer journey map can be a helpful way to explore the actions, thoughts and emotional experiences of your primary customer or “buyer persona.” Identify the touchpoints in which your system interacts with innocent bystanders who are not your direct customers. For those people unaware of your product, explore their interaction with your buyer persona, specifically their emotional experience.

An aspirational goal should be to delight this adjacent group of people enough that they would move toward being prospects and, eventually, becoming your customers as well. Also, you can use participant ethnography to analyze the innocent bystander in relation to your product. This is a research method that combines the observations of people as they interact with processes and the product.

A guiding design inspiration for this research could be, “How can our AI system behave in such a way that everyone who might come into contact with our product is enchanted and wants to know more?”

That’s just human intelligence, and it’s not artificial.

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Biz & IT

Netflix’s ad-supported plan likely to have another drawback: No video downloads

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Getty Images | Bloomberg

The presence of advertisements apparently won’t be the only major difference between Netflix’s ad-supported and ad-free plans. Text reportedly found in the code of Netflix’s iPhone app suggests the ad-supported plan won’t let users download movies and shows for offline viewing.

The text says, “Downloads available on all plans except Netflix with ads,” according to a Bloomberg report yesterday. The text was discovered by iOS developer Steve Moser, who wrote about it on his blog. Unsurprisingly, the Netflix app “code also suggests that users won’t be able to skip ads—a common move in the streaming world—and playback controls won’t be available during ad breaks,” Bloomberg wrote.

Netflix has been offering video downloads in its apps since late 2016. A Netflix spokesperson told Ars, “We are still in the early days of deciding how to launch a lower-priced, ad-supported tier and no decisions have been made. So this is all just speculation at this point.”

Moser’s blog post said he also found Netflix app text from a setup process for new subscribers who select the ad-supported plan. The text refers to the use of personalized ads. “Now, let’s set up your ad experience. We just need a few details to make sure you get the most relevant ads on Netflix. It’ll be really quick, we promise!” the text says.

Hulu similarly makes downloads available only to users on its no-ads plans. HBO Max also requires an ad-free plan for downloads.

Ad tier planned for early 2023

After years of resisting ads, Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings announced in April that the streaming service will offer an ad-supported tier. Netflix says it plans to launch the ad-supported tier in early 2023.

Netflix prices in the US range from $9.99 for “Basic” to $19.99 a month for “Premium.” Netflix says the “lower priced ad-supported subscription plan” will be offered “in addition to our existing ads-free basic, standard, and premium plans.”

Netflix hasn’t said what the ad-supported plan will cost or whether it will have other limits like the ones in Netflix’s cheapest current plan. The Basic plan, which is currently the cheapest option, does not provide high-definition video and has two other notable limits: Basic users can’t watch on more than one screen at a time, and they can only download videos on one phone or tablet.

The $15.49-per-month Standard plan allows HD video and lets subscribers watch on two screens simultaneously and download videos on two devices. The $19.99 Premium plan allows 4K viewing, the ability to watch on four screens simultaneously, and downloads on up to four devices.

Netflix losing subscribers

Netflix is also cracking down on account-sharing by testing an “extra member” fee in some countries and an “extra home” fee in others. A Netflix letter to shareholders said the company aims to complete a broader rollout of sharing fees next year.

Netflix last month reported a loss of 970,000 paid streaming subscribers in Q2 earnings after having lost 200,000 customers in the first quarter of 2022. Worldwide paid memberships decreased from 221.64 million to 220.67 million in Q2, and revenue growth has slowed dramatically.

Netflix says the ad-supported tier is key to improving revenue and profits. “While it will take some time to grow our member base for the ad tier and the associated ad revenues, over the long run, we think advertising can enable substantial incremental membership (through lower prices) and profit growth (through ad revenues),” Netflix’s quarterly letter to shareholders said.

Netflix hired Microsoft to provide advertising technology, saying that “Microsoft offered the flexibility to innovate over time on both the technology and sales side, as well as strong privacy protections for our members.”

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Zoom patches critical vulnerability again after prior fix was bypassed

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Enlarge / A critical vulnerability in Zoom for MacOS, patched once last weekend, could still be bypassed as of Wednesday. Users should update again.

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It’s time for Zoom users on Mac to update—again.

After Zoom patched a vulnerability in its Mac auto-update utility that could give malicious actors root access earlier this week, the video conferencing software company issued another patch Wednesday, noting that the prior fix could be bypassed.

Zoom users on macOS should download and run version 5.11.6 (9890), released August 17. You can also check Zoom’s menu bar for updates. Waiting for an automatic update could leave you waiting days while this exploit is publicly known.

Zoom’s incomplete fix was reported by macOS security researcher Csaba Fitzl, aka theevilbit of Offensive Security. Zoom credited Fitzl in its security bulletin (ZSB-22019) and issued a patch the day before Fitzl tweeted about it.

Neither Fitzl nor Zoom detailed how Fitzl was able to bypass the fix for the vulnerability first discovered by Patrick Wardle, founder of the Objective-See Foundation. Wardle spoke at Def Con last week about how Zoom’s auto-update utility held onto its privileged status to install Zoom packages but could be tricked into verifying other packages. That meant malicious actors could use it to downgrade Zoom for better exploit access or even to gain root access to the system.

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Ring patched an Android bug that could have exposed video footage

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Enlarge / Ring camera images give you a view of what’s happening and, in one security firm’s experiments, a good base for machine learning surveillance.

Ring

Amazon quietly but quickly patched a vulnerability in its Ring app that could have exposed users’ camera recordings and other data, according to security firm Checkmarx.

Checkmarx researchers write in a blog post that Ring’s Android app, downloaded more than 10 million times, made an activity available to all other applications on Android devices. Ring’s com.ring.nh.deeplink.DeepLinkActivity would execute any web content given to it, so long as the address included the text /better-neighborhoods/.

That alone would not have granted access to Ring data, but Checkmarx was able to use a cross-site scripting vulnerability in Ring’s internal browser to point it at an authorization token. Next, Checkmarx obtained a session cookie by authorizing that token and its hardware identifier at a Ring endpoint and then used Ring’s APIs to extract names, email addresses, phone numbers, Ring device data (including geolocation), and saved recordings.

Checkmarx’s video, featuring footage tests and a hoodie-wearing hacker.

And then Checkmarx kept going. With access to its own example users’ recordings and any number of machine-learning-powered computer vision services (including Amazon’s own Rekognition), the security firm went wide-angle. You could, the firm found in its tests, scan for:

  • Safes, and potentially their combinations
  • Images of documents containing the words “Top Secret” or “Private”
  • Known celebrities and political figures
  • Passwords and passcodes
  • Children, alone, in view of a Ring camera

To be clear, the vulnerability was seemingly never exploited in the wild. Checkmarx reported it on May 1, Amazon confirmed its receipt the same day, and a fix was released (3.51.0 for Android, 5.51.0 for iOS). Checkmarx says that Amazon responded to the high-severity issue with acknowledgment but also deferral. “This issue would be extremely difficult for anyone to exploit because it requires an unlikely and complex set of circumstances to execute,” Amazon told Checkmarx.

Erez Jalon, VP of security research at Checkmarx, told The Record that taped-together vulnerabilities are coveted among hackers.

“Each would be problematic, but chaining them together, something hackers always try to do, made it so impactful.”

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