Facebook says it will remove more COVID-19 conspiracies that discourage vaccination


Vaccine misinformation has been around since well before the pandemic, but ensuring that anti-scientific conspiracies don’t get boosted online is more crucial than ever as the world races against the spread of a deadly, changing virus.

Now, Facebook says it will expand the criteria it uses to take down false vaccine claims. Under the new rules, which Facebook said it made in consultation with groups like the World Health Organization, the company will remove posts claiming that COVID-19 vaccines aren’t effective, that it’s “safer to get the disease” and the widely debunked longstanding anti-vaxxer claim that vaccines could cause autism.

Facebook says it will place a “particular focus” on enforcement against Pages, groups and accounts that break the rules, noting that they may be removed from the platform outright.

Facebook took steps to limit COVID-19 vaccine misinformation in December, preparing the platform for the vaccine rollout while still lagging well behind the rampant spread of anti-vaccine claims. The company began removing posts containing some misinformation about the vaccine, including “false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips” and content claiming that the vaccine is being tested on portions of the population without their consent.

Why this kind of stuff didn’t already fall under Facebook’s rules against COVID-19 misinformation is anyone’s guess. The company came out of the gate early in the pandemic with a new set of policies intended to prevent an explosion of potentially deadly COVID-related conspiracies, but time and time again the company fails to evenly and firmly enforce its own rules.


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What Andy Jassy’s promotion to Amazon CEO could mean for AWS


Blockbuster news struck late this afternoon when Amazon announced that Jeff Bezos would be stepping back as CEO of Amazon, the company he built from a business in his garage to worldwide behemoth. As he takes on the role of executive chairman, his replacement will be none other than AWS CEO Andy Jassy.

With Jassy moving into his new role at the company, the immediate question is who replaces him to run AWS. Let the games begin. Among the names being tossed about in the rumor mill are Peter DeSantis, vice president of global infrastructure at AWS and Matt Garman, who is vice president of sales and marketing. Both are members of Bezos’ elite executive team known as the S-team and either would make sense as Jassy’s successor. Nobody knows for sure though, and it could be any number of people inside the organization, or even someone from outside. (We have asked Amazon PR to provide clarity on the successor, but as of publication we had not heard from them.)

Holger Mueller, a senior analyst at Constellation Research, says that Jassy is being rewarded for doing a stellar job raising AWS from a tiny side business to one on a $50 billion run rate. “On the finance side it makes sense to appoint an executive who intimately knows Amazon’s most profitable business, that operates in more competitive markets. [Appointing Jassy] ensures that the new Amazon CEO does not break the ‘golden goose’,” Mueller told me.

Alex Smith, VP of channels, who covers the cloud infrastructure market at analyst firm Canalys, says the writing has been on the wall that a transition was in the works. “This move has been coming for some time. Jassy is the second most public-facing figure at Amazon and has lead one of its most successful business units. Bezos can go out on a high and focus on his many other ventures,” Smith said.

Smith adds that this move should enhance AWS’s place in the organization. “I think this is more of an AWS gain, in terms of its increasing strategic importance to Amazon going forward, rather than loss in terms of losing Andy as direct lead. I expect he’ll remain close to that organization.”

Ed Anderson, a Gartner analyst also sees Jassy as the obvious choice to take over for Bezos. “Amazon is a company driven by technology innovation, something Andy has been doing at AWS for many years now. Also, it’s worth noting that Andy Jassy has an impressive track record of building and running a very large business. Under Andy’s leadership, AWS has grown to be one of the biggest technology companies in the world and one of the most impactful in defining what the future of computing will be,” Anderson said.

In the company earnings report released today, AWS came in at $12.74 billion for the quarter up 28% YoY from $9.6 billion a year ago. That puts the company on an elite $50 billion run rate. No other cloud infrastructure vendor, even the mighty Microsoft, is even close in this category. Microsoft stands at around 20% marketshare compared to AWS’s approximately 33% market share.

It’s unclear what impact the executive shuffle will have on the company at large or AWS in particular. In some ways it feels like when Larry Ellison stepped down as CEO of Oracle in 2014 to take on the exact same executive chairman role. While Safra Catz and Mark Hurd took over at co-CEOs in that situation, Ellison has remained intimately involved with the company he helped found. It’s reasonable to assume that Bezos will do the same.

With Jassy, the company is getting a man who has risen through the ranks since joining the company in 1997 after getting an undergraduate degree and an MBA from Harvard. In 2002 he became VP/technical assistant, working directly under Bezos. It was in this role that he began to see the need for a set of common web services for Amazon developers to use. This idea grew into AWS and Jassy became a VP at the fledgling division working his way up until he was appointed CEO in 2016.


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This is the new interior of Tesla’s Model S


The Model S will see some significant changes to its interior this year. After months of rumors, Tesla confirmed the revisions in a few images released just ahead of its quarterly earnings call scheduled for later this afternoon.

Some of the changes — like the shift to a widescreen display — are things that have made their way over from the Model 3. Others are entirely new.

(Update: Tesla has updated its website with refreshed ordering pages that indicate the Model X SUV will be getting the below revisions as well!)

Here’s what we’ve spotted so far:

An airplane-style steering “yoke” (similar to the one spotted in prototypes of Tesla’s new Roadster) instead of a standard round wheel.

Image Credits: Tesla

The front center screen is now a 17″ widescreen display, instead of a 17″ tall/portrait display. The resolution, meanwhile, is shifting from 1900×1200 to 2200×1300.

Image Credits: Tesla

In addition to the 12.3″ driver display above the steering yoke, there’s also now an 8″ display in the rear (presumably so passengers can more easily play the car’s built-in games in the back, as displayed.)

Image Credits: Tesla

Tesla’s earnings call is scheduled to start at 3:30pm Pacific. If they mention anything else changing about the interior, we’ll update this post.


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Marc Lore leaves Walmart a little over four years after selling Jet.com for $3B


Marc Lore, the executive vice president, president and CEO of U.S. e-commerce for Walmart, is stepping down a little over four years after selling his e-commerce company Jet.com to the country’s largest retailer for $3 billion.

Lore’s tenure at the company was a mixed bag. Walmart instituted several new technology initiatives under Lore’s tenure, but the Jet.com service was shuttered last May and other initiatives from Lore, like an option to have customers order items via text, was also a money-loser for the Bentonville, AK-based company.

“After Mr. Lore retires on January 31, 2021, the U.S. business, including all the aspects of US retail eCommerce, will continue to report to John Furner, Executive Vice President, President and Chief Executive Officer, Walmart U.S., beginning on February 1, 2021,” Walmart said in a filing.

Walmart has continued to push ahead with a number of tech-related initiatives, including the launch of a new business that will focus on developing financial services.

That initiative is being undertaken through a strategic partnership with the fintech investment firm, Ribbit Capital and adds to a startup tech portfolio that also includes the incubator Store N⁰8, which launched in 2018.

“Reflecting on the past few years with so much pride – Walmart changed my life and the work we did together will keep changing the lives of customers for years to come. It has been an honor to be a part of the Walmart family and I look forward to providing advice and ideas in the future,” Lore said in a statement posted to Linkedin. “Looking forward, I’ll be taking some time off and plan to continue working with several startups. Excited to keep you all up to date on what’s next.”





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Human Capital: What’s next for Dr. Timnit Gebru


Congrats on surviving this wild first week of 2021. Outside all-things political, a few labor developments happened that are worth noting. Also, shortly before the mob of Trump supporters wreaked havoc on the U.S. Capitol, I caught up with Dr. Timnit Gebru, the prominent AI ethics researcher who said she was fired from Google last month for speaking out about diversity issues. Our full conversation will be available to listen to next Saturday on the newest episode of TC Mixtape, but I’ve included some snippets for y’all below.

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Google, Alphabet workers unionize

A group of more than 200 Google and Alphabet workers announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union. With the help of Communication Workers of America Union’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA), the union will be open to both employees and contractors.

Of the roughly 227 workers who had signed on to support the union as of earlier this week, they all committed to set aside 1% of their yearly compensation to go toward union dues. Those dues will be used to help compensate folks for lost wages in the event of a strike. The bulk of the workers who have signed on are mostly based in offices in the San Francisco Bay Area and one in Cambridge.

To be clear, though, the Alphabet Workers Union is a bit untraditional. The current union consists of just 227 workers out of Alphabet’s 132,121 people. For the Alphabet union, the intent is not necessarily to be able to bargain with Alphabet-owned companies but to be able to work collectively toward common goals.

Labor department issues filing ruling re: gig workers

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a final rule pertaining to gig workers. The rule, which goes into effect March 8, 2021, makes it easier for gig economy companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart to legally classify workers as independent contractors throughout the country. 

However, it remains to be seen if this rule will fully manifest under the new leadership of President-Elect Joe Biden, who is set to be inaugurated on Jan 20, 2021. According to the Wall Street Journal, Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki previously pointed to the labor rule as an example of regulation Biden could stop or delay on his inauguration day. 

Independent Drivers Guild Chicago forms

Rideshare drivers in Chicago recently teamed up with Independent Drivers Guild to launch a local branch of the drivers’ rights organization. IDG, which is affiliated with the Machinists Union, has historically advocated for the rights of rideshare drivers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“IDG beat the odds to win higher pay and benefits for drivers in New York City and working together, we know we can do the same here in Chicago,” Steven Everett, a Chicago rideshare driver-organizer, said in a statement.

What’s next for Dr. Timnit Gebru

Many of you are likely familiar with Dr. Timnit Gebru, but the TL;DR is that she recently left Google after speaking out about diversity issues in artificial intelligence. Google says Gebru resigned and it merely accepted her resignation, while Gebru says Google fired her. 

I caught up with Dr. Gebru on Wednesday to chat about what’s next for her, as well as some recent developments in tech’s labor struggles.

On the Alphabet Workers Union:

This is a combination of a lot of peoples work and frustration. And i think this is the only way because this is a way to give workers power, and so that they can be at the negotiating table, because right now, they don’t have power.

[…] One thing I really appreciate about this union is that it’s all workers. It’s not just, you know, full time workers, it’s temp workers and full-time workers, which is extremely important because the tech industry is right now running on the backs of these contract workers who have zero security.”

[…] What I worry about though, is that [Google has] been extremely aggressive with trying to union  bust and trying to stop these kinds of organizing — any type of organizing and now that it’s become something real, I think  they’re going to intensify their efforts, like a lot more in trying to stop this organizing from happening. And there are many well-known tactics to do this, right. This kind of like propaganda and kind of dividing and conquering and all that. So that’s my worry. And I think everybody needs to stay vigilant to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

On fighting for severance:

“I don’t know if I’m going to, you know, explain to you exactly what I’m thinking right now about that,” she said, adding that “I definitely have lawyers.”

Obviously, what they did to me was wrong and I definitely want to, you know, take some sort of action but what that is is not necessarily crystal clear.

On working at a tech company again

Prior to joining Google, Dr. Gebru held roles at Apple and Microsoft. While, she still plans to work in the field of artificial intelligence ethics and work with Black in AI, Dr. Gebru said “it’s very hard for me to imagine joining a corporation right now.”

I’m just sick of these institutions because you spend so much of your energy, fighting for simple things, just simple things that people don’t have any incentive to change.

[…] I want to spend more time thinking about how we can have our own institutions rather than just you know, fighting these people over and over again. That’s my current thinking.

Envisioning a firm or a non-profit that does what the ethical AI team at Google was doing under her leadership, but that’s not affiliated with any corporation.

“We want to create technology that would also work for us, rather than just playing catch up,” she said. “So I think that’s the idea of Black in AI.”


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CMU’s MoonRanger robot rover will be the first to search for water ice on the Moon in 2022


Carnegie Mellon University and spinoff space startup Astrobotic are developing a robotic rover to look for water on the Moon, and the little bot just passed the crucial preliminary design review phase, putting it one step closer to its inaugural mission planned for 2022. MoonRanger is aiming to be the first robotic detective to investigate whether buried ice is present in sufficient quantities to be useful to future lunar explorers.

MoonRanger could well be the first, provided it sticks to its schedule, but it’ll have competition from NASA’s own water ice-hunting rover – a golf-cart-sized robotic explorer called VIPER which is aiming to touchdown on the Moon in December, 2022. The goal of VIPER is to help look for the presence of water ice near the Moon’s surface in order to help prepare the way for the planned human landing in 2024, which kicks off efforts on the part of NASA and its partners in the international space community to establish a permanent human science and research presence on our large natural satellite.

Like VIPER, MoonRanger is destined for the South Pole of the Moon, and will be a kind of advance scout for NASA’s mission. Ideally, MoonRanger, delivered by Masten Space Systems’ XL-1 lunar lander under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, will confirm the presence of water ice in decent amounts, and then VIPER will arrive a bit later with the ability to drill deeper, and to perform more rigorous on-site analysis.

MoonRanger will be much smaller than VIPER, at roughly the size of a suitcase, but it will have the ability to travel at speeds previously unheard-of for extraterrestrial exploratory robots. The CMU bot will be able to cover up to 1,000 meters (almost two-thirds of a mile) over the course of a single day. That small size means it’ll rely on a relay to send any communications back to Earth – a process which will involve transmitting to the Masten lander, which will relay that back to scientists here at home using its much higher-powered communications array.


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Chinese propaganda network on Facebook used AI-generated faces


Facebook removed two networks of fake accounts spreading government propaganda on the platform Tuesday, one originating in China and one in the Philippines.

In its latest report on this kind of coordinated campaign, the company says it took down 155 Facebook accounts, 11 pages, 9 groups and 7 Instagram accounts connected to the Chinese activity and 57 accounts, 31 Pages and 20 Instagram accounts for the activity in the Philippines. Both operations broke Facebook’s rules against “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.”

The company released the report Thursday in coordination with Graphika, a social analytics company that specialized in disinformation. Graphika regularly analyzes this kind of activity in coordination with Facebook and its reports dive into more depth about techniques.

In a sign of the times, Graphika found that the Chinese network of fake accounts employed faces created through an AI technique known as GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks). Those fake faces are employed to elude detection, but because their visual signature often ends up with subtle quirks and anomalies, GANs can sometimes be easily detected. “This form of AI is readily available online, and its use (or abuse) by covert operations has exploded in the last year,” according to Graphika’s report, which identified a dozen GAN-generated images from the Chinese information operation.

“A year ago, this was a novelty,” Graphika’s Ben Nimmo wrote on Twitter. “Now it feels like every operation we analyse tries this at least once.”

GANs examples

GANs examples via Graphika

The Chinese campaign, which Facebook traced to China’s Fujian province, included a “small volume” of activity directed at the U.S. election. Those efforts, which began in April 2019 with a Facebook group called Go for Pete Buttigieg 2020, did not gain much traction. That account never added members beyond two accounts affiliated with the propaganda network. In 2020, the network of fake accounts created three U.S.-focused groups, one pro-Trump, one pro-Biden-Harris and one called “Quack Quack” that made anti-Trump posts. The Biden-Harris group found the most success, attracting 1,400 members.

Most of the newly identified Chinese propaganda pushed China’s interests in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Unlike some campaigns, the people involved in this activity took steps to hide their identities using VPNs and other tactics. According to Graphika, the network of fake accounts “showed a particular interest in maritime security, especially in the South China Sea.” This is the second set of Facebook takedowns for Chinese information operations, following a previous report in August 2019.

“In Southeast Asia where this network focused most of its activity, they posted in Chinese, Filipino and English about global news and current events including China’s interests in the South China Sea; Hong Kong; content supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte and Sarah Duterte’s potential run in the 2022 Presidential election; criticism of Rappler, an independent news organization in the Philippines; issues relevant to the overseas Filipino workers; and praise and some criticism of China,” Facebook wrote in a blog post on the takedowns.

The other propaganda campaign originated in the Philippines, and an investigation identified ties to country’s national military and police. Two pages in the campaign boasted more than 40,000 followers but others had none or few. Those accounts shared content in Filipino and English about “local news and events including domestic politics, military activities against terrorism, [a] pending anti-terrorism bill, criticism of communism, youth activists and opposition, the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines,” according to Facebook.


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Pinterest breaks daily download record due to user interest in iOS 14 design ideas


The excitement around the ability to customize your iPhone homescreen following the release of iOS 14 has been paying off for Pinterest. According to new third-party estimates, Pinterest’s app has seen record global daily downloads and a swift climb up the App Store’s Top Charts as users sought out iPhone design inspiration — like photos to use for custom icons or wallpapers to match their new widgets, for example.

App store intelligence firm Apptopia was the first to note the impact of the iOS 14 customization trend on Pinterest’s downloads. According to its data, Pinterest saw a record high number of daily downloads on September 21 when it recorded approximately 616,000 new installs worldwide.

Another third-party estimate, however, found Pinterest’s daily download record was actually broken the day before.

Image Credits: screenshot via TechCrunch

App store market intelligence firm Sensor Tower nears Apptopia’s estimate for September 21, as it recorded approximately 680,000 global installs across both iOS and Android, instead of 616,000.

But Sensor Tower data shows that Pinterest actually broke the record for the most daily downloads ever on September 20. (Or, at least, this was the most since January 2014, which is when Sensor Tower began tracking app download data).

On September 20, the firm estimates that Pinterest’s app generated around 800,000 installs across iOS and Android on a global basis. That represents 32% week-over-week growth from the 607,000 installs it saw on September 13 — a few days before the worldwide release of Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 14.

In addition, Pinterest swiftly climbed up from No. 47 on the top free iPhone charts in the U.S. on Friday, September 18 to No. 7 on Sunday, September 20. It then climbed up even further to No. 6 on Monday, September 21 — a figure that agrees with Apptopia’s data. The app may have briefly hit the No. 1 position, as well, but not long enough to be recorded as the No. 1 app for the day.

Pinterest is also now No. 1 in the Lifestyle category on the iPhone, though it has regularly taken either a No. 1 or No. 2 position in this category as of February 4, 2020, Sensor Tower also noted.

The Pinterest homepage today showcases iPhone design trends as one of its “Daily Inspirations,” where the collection “Trending wallpapers and aesthetic home screen ideas” is currently sitting at the top of the page. Here, users are finding iPhone backgrounds and sharing other custom designs and icon sets for people to use in their own creations.

The iOS 14 update has had a large impact on the app ecosystem, as it finally delivered a feature Android users have had for years: homescreen widgets.

In combination with the new iOS App Library that lets you hide away less frequently-used apps, the iOS update has managed to tap into what was clearly pent-up consumer demand for being able to personalize the iPhone interface to their own tastes and interests. iPhone users are also now taking advantage of Apple’s Shortcuts app to create custom icons — although this is more of a hack, as the process isn’t really replacing the icon itself, but rather creating a shortcut to launch the app instead.

This redesign trend hasn’t only impacted Pinterest.

User demand for new widgets and creative tools is now playing out across the iPhone App Store and its Top Charts.

Currently, for example, the top three positions on the U.S. App Store’s Top Free Charts are held by widget-making applications: Widgetsmith, Color Widgets and Photo Widget, respectively. Pinterest has moved up to No. 5 as of the time of writing, and is followed by Motivation – Daily Quotes, another app gaining downloads for its widgets. Meanwhile, an app called Tune Track, an early adopter of widgets, has now found itself in the No. 8 position, as well. Even the Top Paid Charts are feeling the influence, as a Photo Widget is No. 1 and the creative design tool Procreate Pocket is No. 2.

Whether design tools will continue to reign remains to be seen. Some people are frustrated by the way Shortcuts are launched — it first redirects to the Shortcuts app, then launches the app in question. If Apple were to endorse the redesign trend, it would do away with this intermediary step to make custom shortcuts more useful.

Pinterest could not comment on the app download figures, but it confirmed the download spike isn’t attributable to a paid user acquisition campaign at this time. Intead, the company says it’s seeing organic increases in both downloads and iOS 14-related searches.

“There has been an increase in searches for iOS 14 wallpapers and homescreen design this week by Gen Z users, a demographic group that grew 50% year-over-year in June 2020,” a Pinterest spokesperson told TechCrunch. “These Pinners often use Pinterest as a resource for aesthetic inspiration and decorating offline spaces like bedrooms, so it’s interesting to see them seek inspiration for their online spaces, too,” they added.




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Explore the global markets of micromobility at TC Sessions: Mobility


While electric scooters first launched at scale in the U.S., they quickly made their way overseas. Now, there’s a bustling electric scooter market in Europe, China, Latin America and one that’s growing in parts of Africa.

At TC Sessions: Mobility on October 6 & 7, we’ll explore the journey of electric scooters and bikes from the U.S. to a number of countries across Europe all the way to Rwanda in Africa with Spin co-founder Euwyn Poon, Gura Ride founder Tony Adesina and Voi co-founder Fredrik Hjelm.

Euwyn Poon, Co-founder and President at Spin

Spin, which got its start as a bike-share operator in San Francisco, shifted entirely to electric scooters in 2018. Now, it’s owned by Ford and recently launched its electric scooter operations in Germany. The plan is to later expand beyond Germany and into France, as well as the U.K.

Spin President and Co-founder Euwyn Poon will talk about what it’s been like expanding abroad and its plans for further growth.

Tony Adesina, Founder and CEO at Gura Ride

While there is much adoption throughout other parts of the world, there are only a handful of operators in Africa, such as Medina Bike in Marrakech, Morocco, Awa Bike in Lagos, Nigeria and Gura Ride in Kigali, Rwanda. Many of the larger micromobility operators, like Bird, Lime, Yellow, VOI, Tier and others have yet to make their way into Africa.

Gura Ride, founded by Tony Adesina, is currently live in six cities throughout Rwanda, offering electric bikes and electric scooters to riders. We’ll chat with Adesina about the state of micromobility in Africa and why he thinks adoption has been slower on the continent.

Fredrik Hjelm, Co-founder and CEO at Voi

With $136 million in venture funding, Voi has become a behemoth that operates in 38 cities across 10 European countries. Voi, like other electric scooter companies, paused some operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But Hjelm ultimately saw the pandemic as an opportunity to change the way people travel around cities, he said in late May after bringing on board Bird’s former UK chief. Meanwhile, Voi partnered with BlaBlaCar that same month to offer shared electric scooter rides via BlaBlaCar’s apps. We’ll discuss with Hjelm Voi’s roadmap and how it’s navigated COVID-19.

Get your tickets for TC Sessions: Mobility to hear from these thought-leaders along with several other fantastic speakers from Waymo, Lyft, Nuro and more. Tickets are just $145 until September 12 at 11:59 p.m. PDT, with discounts for groups, students and exhibiting startups. And we’ve introduced a $25 Expo Ticket for those who want to peruse our early stage startups and check out the breakout sessions! We hope to see you there!

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WellSaid Labs research takes synthetic speech from seconds-long clips to hours


Millions of homes have voice-enabled devices, but when was the last time you heard a piece of synthesized speech longer than a handful of seconds? WellSaid Labs has pushed the field ahead with a voice engine that can easily and quickly generate hours of voice content that sounds just as good or better than the snippets we hear every day from Siri and Alexa.

The company has been working since its public debut last year to advance its tech from impressive demo to commercial product, and in the process found a lucrative niche that it can build from.

CTO Michael Petrochuk explained that early on, the company had essentially based its technology on prior research — Google’s Tacotron project, which established a new standard for realism in artificial speech.

“Despite being released two years ago, Tacotron 2 is still state of the art. But it has a couple issues,” explained Petrochuk. “One, it’s not fast — it takes 3 minutes to produce 1 second of audio. And it’s built to model 15 seconds of audio. Imagine that in a workflow where you’re generating 10 minutes of content — it’s orders of magnitude off where we want to be.”

WellSaid completely rebuilt their model with a focus on speed, quality, and length, which sounds like “focusing” on everything at once, but there are always plenty more parameters to optimize for. The result is a model that can generate extremely high quality speech with any of 15 voices (and several languages) at about half real time — so a minute-long clip would take about 36 seconds to generate instead of a couple hours.

This seemingly basic capability has plenty of benefits. Not only is it faster, but it makes working with the results simpler and easier. As a producer of audio content, you can just drop in a script hundreds of words long, listen to what it puts out, then tweak its pronunciation or cadence with a few keystrokes. Tacotron changed the synthetic speech space, but it has never really been a product. WellSaid builds on its advances with its own to create both a usable piece of software, and arguably a better speech system overall.

As evidence, clips generated by the model — 15-second ones, so they can compete with Tacotron and others — reached a milestone of being equally well rated as human voices in tests organized by WellSaid. There’s no objective measure for this kind of thing, but asking lots of humans to weigh in on how human something sounds is a good place to start.

As part of the team’s work to achieve “human parity” under these conditions, they also released a number of audio clips demonstrating how the model can produce much more demanding content.

It generated plausible-sounding speech in Spanish, French, and German (I’m not a native speaker of any of them, so can’t say more than that), showed off its facility with complex and linguistically difficult words (like stoichiometry and halogenation), words that differ depending on context (buffet, desert), and so on. The crowning achievement must be a continuous 8-hour reading of the entirety of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

But audiobooks aren’t the industry that WellSaid is using as a stepladder to further advances. Instead, they’re making a bundle working in the tremendously boring but necessary field of corporate training. You know, the sorts of videos that explain policies, document the use of internal tools, and explain best practices for sales, management, development tools, and so on.

Corporate learning stuff is generally unique or at least tailored to each company, and can involve hours of audio — an alternative to saying “here, read this packet” or gathering everyone in a room to watch a decades-old DVD on office conduct. Not the most exciting place to put such a powerful technology to work, but the truth is with startups that no matter how transformative you think your tech is, if you don’t make any money, you’re sunk.

A screenshot of WellSaid Labs' synthetic speech interface.

Image Credits: WellSaid Labs

“We found a sweet spot in the corporate training field, but for product development it has helped us build these foundational elements for a bigger and greater space,” explained head of growth Martin Ramirez. “Voice is everywhere, but we have to be pragmatic about who we build for today. Eventually we’ll deliver the infrastructure where any voice can be created and distributed.”

At first that may look like expanding the corporate offerings slowly, in directions like other languages — WellSaid’s system doesn’t have English “baked in,” and given training data in other languages should perform equally well in them. So that’s an easy way forward. But other industries could use improved voice capability as well: podcasting, games, radio shows, advertising, governance.

One significant limitation to the company’s approach is that the system is meant to be operated by a person and used for, essentially, recording a virtual voice actor. This means it’s not useful to the groups for whom an improved synthetic voice is desirable — many people with disabilities that affect their own voice, blind people who use voice-based interfaces all day long, or even people traveling in a foreign country and using real-time translation tools.

“I see WellSaid servicing that use case in the near future,” said Ramirez, though he and the others were careful not to make any promises. “But today, the way it’s built, we truly believe a human producer should be interacting with the engine, to render it at a natural, a human parity level. The dynamic rendering scenario is approaching quite fast, and we want to be prepared for it, but we’re not ready to do it today.”

The company has “plenty of runway and customers” and is growing fast — so no need for funding just now, thank you, venture capital firms.


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