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This Tiny Website Is Google’s First Line of Defense in the Patent Wars

This Tiny Website Is Google’s First Line of Defense in the Patent Wars

A trio of Google engineers recently came up with a futuristic way to help anyone who stumbles through presentations on video calls. They propose that when algorithms detect a speaker’s pulse racing or “umms” lengthening, a generative AI bot that mimics their voice could simply take over.

That cutting-edge idea wasn’t revealed at a big company event or in an academic journal. Instead, it appeared in a 1,500-word post on a little-known, free website called TDCommons.org that Google has quietly owned and funded for nine years. Until WIRED received a link to an idea on TDCommons last year and got curious, Google had never spoken with the media about its website.

Scrolling through TDCommons, you can read Google’s latest ideas for coordinating smart home gadgets for better sleep, preserving privacy in mobile search results, and using AI to summarize a person’s activities from their photo archives. And the submissions aren’t exclusive to Google; about 150 organizations, including HP, Cisco, and Visa, also have posted inventions to the website.

The website is a home for ideas that seem potentially valuable but not worth spending tens of thousands of dollars seeking a patent for. By publishing the technical details and establishing “prior art,” Google and other companies can head off future disputes by blocking others from filing patents for similar concepts. Google gives employees a $1,000 bonus for each invention they post to TDCommons—a tenth of what it awards its patent seekers—but they also get an immediately shareable link to gloat about otherwise secretive work.

TDCommons adds to Google’s long-standing, and far more vocal, efforts to carve out greater space for freewheeling innovation in an industry where patents can be used to hobble or extract cash from competitors. The site may be dowdy and obscure, but it does the trick. “The beauty of defensive publications is that this website can be pretty simple,” says Laura Sheridan, Google’s head of patent policy. “It needs to establish a date. And it needs to have documents be accessible. There’s not much more we need to do.”

In reality, the experiment has struggled to cut through government bureaucracy and overcome competition from more robust archives. Sheridan acknowledges it’s a work in progress. TDCommons needs a bigger flow of uploads to become less peculiar and more vital. It offers a unique hope of expanding public access to the technical creativity happening inside corporate walls—and shifting more resources toward that work.

Playing Defense

The strategy underpinning TDCommons dates back decades to the 1950s, when invention powerhouses IBM and later Xerox began publishing journals filled with what they called technical disclosures. They’d then ship the journals to patent offices, in part to serve as prior art, staking a claim on the ideas contained within. About 84 percent of patent applications denied by the US Patent and Trademark Office in the 12 months ending September 2023 were scuppered at least in part by prior art, according to the agency.

During the early-2000s internet boom, entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to bring these defensive publications, or dpubs, to databases online. IP.com is widely considered the leader, with 215,000 inventions uploaded so far and searchable access to millions of additional documents from outlets including open-access research library arXiv.org. Unlike TDCommons, posting to or accessing IP.com isn’t free. Uploading a dpub costs $395 for up to 25 pages, while viewers pay $40 for individual downloads or $49 monthly for unlimited access. The USPTO is one of IP.com’s largest customers, according to the company, with subscriptions for most of the agency’s 9,200 examiners and supervisors.

Joe Biden Wants US Government Algorithms Tested for Potential Harm Against Citizens

Joe Biden Wants US Government Algorithms Tested for Potential Harm Against Citizens

“The framework enables a set of binding requirements for federal agencies to put in place safeguards for the use of AI so that we can harness the benefits and enable the public to trust the services the federal government provides,” says Jason Miller, OMB’s deputy director for management.

The draft memo highlights certain uses of AI where the technology can harm rights or safety, including health care, housing, and law enforcement—all situations where algorithms have in the past resulted in discrimination or denial of services.

Examples of potential safety risks mentioned in the OMB draft include automation for critical infrastructure like dams and self-driving vehicles like the Cruise robotaxis that were shut down last week in California and are under investigation by federal and state regulators after a pedestrian struck by a vehicle was dragged 20 feet. Examples of how AI could violate citizens rights in the draft memo include predictive policing, AI that can block protected speech, plagiarism- or emotion-detection software, tenant-screening algorithms, and systems that can impact immigration or child custody.

According to OMB, federal agencies currently use more than 700 algorithms, though inventories provided by federal agencies are incomplete. Miller says the draft memo requires federal agencies to share more about the algorithms they use. “Our expectation is that in the weeks and months ahead, we’re going to improve agencies’ abilities to identify and report on their use cases,” he says.

Vice President Kamala Harris mentioned the OMB memo alongside other responsible AI initiatives in remarks today at the US Embassy in London, a trip made for the UK’s AI Safety Summit this week. She said that while some voices in AI policymaking focus on catastrophic risks like the role AI can some day play in cyberattacks or the creation of biological weapons, bias and misinformation are already being amplified by AI and affecting individuals and communities daily.

Merve Hickok, author of a forthcoming book about AI procurement policy and a researcher at the University of Michigan, welcomes how the OMB memo would require agencies to justify their use of AI and assign specific people responsibility for the technology. That’s a potentially effective way to ensure AI doesn’t get hammered into every government program, she says.

But the provision of waivers could undermine those mechanisms, she fears. “I would be worried if we start seeing agencies use that waiver extensively, especially law enforcement, homeland security, and surveillance,” she says. “Once they get the waiver it can be indefinite.”

Wild Donkeys Are on the Vanguard of Ukraine’s Ecological Recovery

Wild Donkeys Are on the Vanguard of Ukraine’s Ecological Recovery

The war, unsurprisingly, has made conservation a lot harder. Oleg Dyakov, a rewilding officer from Rewilding Ukraine’s head office in Odesa and one of the organization’s cofounders, recounts the hazards his teams have faced with a casual frustration. Marine mines drifting in from the Black Sea stalled the release of fallow deer, and monitoring activities of Dalmatian Pelicans were limited to binoculars and telescopes because parts of the Delta were restricted by the Ukrainian government. (In peacetime, they’d have been able to carry out more accurate counts through the assistance of drones.)

The Askania Nova reserve—Ukraine’s oldest and largest biosphere, located on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River—has been under Russian occupation since last spring. Employees at the park kept up their conservation work for almost a year. “The people doing their work there, they are heroes,” Dyakov says. “There is no doubt about this.” But in March 2023, a final message on the reserve’s website said that a new Russian directorate had been installed.

The nature reserve is home to a wide collection of rewilded and domestic breeds of ungulates, including kulans. Before the war, Rewilding Ukraine relied on the nature reserve for supplying herds to the Tarutino Steppe; two successful iterations of readapted donkeys originally came from Askania Nova.

“Now there is only one chance, to bring animals from Western Europe,” explains Dyakov. But this, he notes, is both very expensive and bureaucratically cumbersome—“especially in war conditions.” The birth of the rewilded kulans on the Tarutino Steppe, Dyakov says, is now important not only because it shows the success of their project, but also because it might be the only way the herds can grow.

Money to keep the projects going has at times dried up, and rangers have had to dip into their own pockets to keep the operations going. “We couldn’t wait. The animals can’t wait,” Muntianu says.

In a war for Ukraine’s survival and identity, conservation has inevitably taken on a patriotic dimension, Dyakov says. The Russian invasion has torn apart millions of hectares of land that he and so many others have spent decades protecting. Some in the rewilding and broader conservation movements have tried to make the case that recovering the landscape can be seen as an element of its defense.

“A tank cannot go through the wetlands,” says Bohdan Prots, an ecologist and CEO of the Danube-Carpathian Programme, an NGO based in Lviv that carries out conservation activities and lobbies to support stronger environmental legislation. On Ukraine’s northwest border, waterlogged fields and swamps have kept Russian troops from launching attacks via Belarus, Prots says. “Rewilding,” he believes, “is an instrument to defend the country.”

Ukraine’s land and ecosystems have been used as weapons during the conflict. In February 2022, Ukrainian forces reflooded the Kyiv-Irpin wetlands by breaching a Soviet-era dam, making it harder for Russian troops to maneuver—a move that is at least partially credited with repelling the invading troops and saving the capital from capture. In June, the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine was destroyed—most likely by Russia—causing devastation over a wide area, and leading to calls to add environmental war crimes to an already growing list of offenses by the Kremlin.

The Remarkable Resilience of Ukraine’s Tech Sector

The Remarkable Resilience of Ukraine’s Tech Sector

In February 2022, Ukraine’s tech sector was booming. Between 2016 and 2021, the country’s IT exports tripled to nearly $7 billion a year, according to the IT Association of Ukraine. Its universities have long been a formidable production line for STEM talent, and thousands of these young graduates helped Ukraine first become Europe’s back office, stocked with developers and designers working for international clients, and then an innovation center in its own right, with a flow of cutting-edge startups: From deep-tech and robotics to translation and AI.

The war should have ended that. Russia’s full-scale invasion has killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers, many of them pulled from ordinary lives onto the front lines. Millions have been displaced from their homes and are now scattered across Europe and beyond. Russia has targeted infrastructure, knocking out power and telecoms and threatening to cut Ukrainian businesses off from their customers and backers overseas.

And yet, the tech sector has not just survived but thrived: By the end of 2022, Ukraine’s IT exports had grown nearly 7 per cent, even as the economy shrunk by almost a third. These are the stories of how four startups have survived, but they’re just a sample of the thousands of acts of extraordinary resilience, defiance, courage, and cooperation in Ukraine’s tech sector.

“Music is a very powerful instrument.”

As a PhD student in quantum physics in the dying days of the Soviet Union, Andriy Dakhovskyy would hide bootlegged vinyl of western rock music in his room. “I was lucky not to be caught by the KGB,” he says. “When the Soviet Union fell and you could easily go to a record store and buy Led Zeppelin, something important was missing for me. The feeling of exclusivity, of being underground.”

Dakhovskyy spun his forbidden love of rock into a career, ending up establishing Universal Music’s first office in Kyiv, and becoming a central figure in the development of Ukraine’s music industry in its anarchic post-Soviet revival. He got Elton John onto Ukrainian TV and produced Kyiv’s first rock opera. As we drive through central Kyiv, he points out the nightclub he ended up running, kind of by accident, after being convinced to invest in it by a friend in need of a loan. It’s now closed, battered first by Covid, then by the war.

In 2020, Dakhovskyy launched Djooky with business partners in Ukraine and the US, based on a belief that less well known recording artists—particularly those from outside America—get a raw deal on platforms like Spotify, where only a small number of high-profile musicians make good money. “The music industry is heavily, heavily monopolized and centralized,” he says. “I know the system … and I couldn’t change the system from within.”

Djooky is a marketplace where fans can essentially buy shares in artists, helping them to build a profile, with the potential to profit from their success. When the Eurovision Song Contest was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020, the company launched its own Djooky Music Awards, letting fans vote for their favorite song in a huge multinational competition that attracted artists and listeners from all over the world. The platform has 200,000 registered users, submissions from artists from more than 140 countries, and has held 15 successful auctions.

Doctors on Bikes Prevented a Humanitarian Catastrophe in Ukraine

Doctors on Bikes Prevented a Humanitarian Catastrophe in Ukraine

As the war rolled on, organizations responding to the crisis came to realize that they had to be flexible and think beyond fixed, brick-and-mortar health care infrastructure. They needed to get ART to people—interrupted treatment can contribute to drug resistance—and they needed to continue, and scale up, harm reduction programs.

Andriy Klepikov, the executive director of the Alliance for Public Health, a nonprofit organization that focuses on HIV and tuberculosis, says his teams deployed 37 mobile clinics from Lviv in the west to Kharkiv in the northeast, providing more than 109,000 consultations, testing more than 90,000 people for the communicable diseases, delivering close to 2,000 metric tons of humanitarian aid and medical gear to 200 health care facilities, and connecting with small villages that would otherwise have been abandoned to their fate.

Equipped with bulletproof vests, helmets, and metal detection gear, the Alliance’s staff headed into recently liberated cities and villages, some only a few kilometers from the front line. “We work where nobody else works, where there are no hospitals, no pharmacists, no doctors,” Klepikov says.

When fuel became hard to find last summer, they switched their vans for bicycles. In his office in Kyiv, Klepikov proudly showed me a photo of one of the Alliance’s doctors hand-delivering care in a shelled-out city while riding one of the bikes his organization had provided.

Preliminary data shows that disaster has—for now at least—been averted. At the end of 2021, just two months before the war began, about 132,000 Ukrainians living with HIV were on ART. Since then, the latest available figures show that this number has only slightly dipped to 120,000. Since the onset of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s public health sector has connected 12,000 new people to ART. That latest available data from February 2023 also shows that during 2022, more people began taking PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) than in the previous four years.

These successes have come at great personal cost. Rachinska, who has herself been living with HIV for more than 15 years, kept working in Kyiv as air raid sirens echoed through the capital. Her mother took Rachinska’s youngest son and fled to Italy. She’s visited him only a couple times since then but hopes she’ll make it back to Naples this October, ahead of his 11th birthday.

Rachinska could have joined them but says her work—“her people,” as she calls them—takes priority. Her son doesn’t hold it against her, she says. “I’m just like, ‘sweetie, mommy’s doing something good for people. So just forgive me,’” she says, tearing up. Her son often replies, “OK, do your job.”

In Kryvyi Rih, Lee, 47, says he created his makeshift sanctuary after realizing early in the war that at-risk populations, such as drug users, HIV-positive people, sex workers, LGBTQ+ people, and the recently incarcerated were more likely to be turned away from other spaces offering refuge. He secured funding from UNAIDS and logistical support from the Public Health Charity Foundation and set out to rescue people on his own.