Weekend Roundup: Apple AirPods Pro, StarCraft A.I., and Twitter Takes a Stand

If you’re a fan of Apple earbuds, social-media controversy, and the possibility that A.I. will rise up and enslave humanity sooner rather than later, we have good news for you: this week in tech covered all of those things. Let’s dive in!

DeepMind: Getting Really Good at (StarCraft) Combat

DeepMind, Google’s A.I.-focused subsidiary, has done a great job over the past few years at training A.I. to play video games with a high degree of skill. Along the way, it’s hit a number of milestones: In June 2019, for example, DeepMind announced the creation of an “AI agent” that could collaborate with humans to win a game (in this case, “Quake III,” one of the great all-time shooters).

Now, DeepMind has accomplished something even niftier (or terrifying, depending on your point of view): Its “AlphaStar” platform is reportedly capable of beating 99.8 percent of all human players at “StarCraft II,” a strategy game often used to test the competitive capabilities of A.I. “Ever since computers cracked Go, chess and poker, StarCraft has emerged by consensus as the next grand challenge,” David Silver, a DeepMind research scientist on the AlphaStar team, wrote in a statement reproduced by The Verge. “The game’s complexity is much greater than chess, because players control hundreds of units; more complex than Go, because there are 10^26 possible choices for every move; and players have less information about their opponents than in poker.”

And if DeepMind’s past work is any indication, AlphaStar will only grow more sophisticated in coming years, which means that remaining 0.02 percent of superior human players better watch their backs. Thankfully there’s no way that DeepMind’s A.I. could end up controlling actual military hardware, potentially leading to the Skynet-style apocalypse predicted by the “Terminator” movies, right? I mean, it’s not like Google, with its “Don’t Be Evil” ethos, is even remotely interested in securing military contracts… actually, hold on a sec…

[Googles “Google military contracts,” finds articles like this.]

Oh man, we’re doomed.

Apple Launches AirPods Pro

Given how Apple’s original AirPods were a massive hit, a version 2.0 was inevitable. The AirPods Pro (because Apple apparently wants to slap the term “Pro” onto all its products, making the term increasingly meaningless), feature a number of things that AirPods users wanted in the next version, including active noise cancellation and ear tips that conform to the wearer’s ear canal.

In addition, there are some other gee-whiz features, most notably “Transparency mode,” which allows wearers to hear noises from their environment along with their music. That’s a great addition for all those folks who insist on listening to music while doing things that require them to pay attention to their surroundings, like riding a bike through heavy traffic.

Although Apple is typically tight-lipped about its actual unit sales, analysts believe that iPhone shipments are either level or dropping slightly. That’s a problem, because the iPhone is Apple’s flagship product. But there’s every possibility that AirPods, as well as the much-rumored AR headset, could help offset some of that leveling-off. Perhaps wearables really are the future.   

Social Media: Turmoil… as Usual

Twitter announced that it would stop running political ads on its platform, which was a hilarious backhand to Facebook, which is refusing to fact-check ads from political groups and candidates. “While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wrote in a statement on… well, Twitter.

As we head into 2020 and what will surely be a berserk political season in the U.S., it’ll be worth paying attention to how these competing ad strategies work out. Banning political ads won’t suddenly give Twitter primacy of the social-networking ecosystem, but it could make the company look a lot better vis-à-vis Facebook, especially in the wake of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s fumbling performance before Congress the other week

Have a great weekend, all!