Genies Builds Engineering Team With Ex-Snapchat Employees
Virtual avatar company Genies wants to be the go-to option for online personas and it's targeting the wealth of talent and seasoned executives from the area's biggest tech firm, Snap Inc., to help make that goal a reality.
Genies' latest hire from the Venice-based social camera company is George "YJ" Tu, a former senior engineer who worked on its Snapchat app and Spectacles camera glasses. Prior to working at Snap, Tu worked for three and a half years as a senior engineer at Facebook and specialized in developing the company's mobile infrastructure.
Tu joins Genies as its director of engineering. Genies CEO and founder Akash Nigam told dot.LA Tu's main mandate is hiring engineers to continue developing its avatar creation platform and digital marketplace, where users can buy and sell digital collectibles and wearable items for their virtual selves.
Tu is the first engineering executive the company's hired since its launch in 2017, but it plans to devote a big chunk of its recent $65 million Series B raise to attracting new talent.
"I think we've landed quite a few Snap employees for a few reasons," Nigam said. "Genies and Snap are probably the two biggest social companies on the Westside in LA, so I think that's an attraction for people that are already local."
The company already has some big celebrity names using its tech to make and share avatars -- including Justin Bieber, Rihanna and hip-hop tycoons Migos -- and the next step is to bring in more users.
George "YJ" Tu is Genies' new director of engineering.
Nigam said the company's hired close to 30 new employees in the last three months, with about 80% of those hires being engineers. He added that roughly 90 people work at Genies, and estimated that 10% of them are ex-Snap employees.
"I think from a product perspective, we share a lot of philosophies and we're very similar in the way that we scheme and we game plan. Snap always is kind of shooting a few years in advance specifically within the social category."
Matt Sibka, Genies' vice president of recruiting, spent three and a half years at Snap creating a team for its CEO Evan Spiegel and was hired to do the same at Genies earlier this year. Genies competes with Snap's Bitmoji avatars, which got a 3D upgrade this July.
"Eighty percent of new spend after our fundraise, and anything moving forward for the next two years, is all going to be on engineering to become an engineering powerhouse," Nigam said. Genies has raised $110 million to date and Nigam previously told dot.LA the company wants to make "Ninety nine point nine percent of its revenue from selling digital goods.
Nigam said that the synergy between Genies and Snap wasn't a conscious choice, but noted that both companies have a similar vision – to advance augmented reality and encourage people to adopt virtual avatars that they can increasingly use as an extension of how they express themselves online.
Nigam's plan is to integrate Genies avatars into as many applications as possible. Currently the company has a deal with Facebook's Giphy that will let users bring their avatar with them to platforms where Giphy is integrated, like Facebook, TikTok or Snapchat – but Nigam said it wants to bring its avatars to popular games like "Roblox" too.
"That's the first API partnership, but we want to have hundreds of those," Nigam said. "So all of a sudden if you get ported into 'Roblox,' you can get any avatar."
Genies' next big goal is getting Generation Z to buy into the NFT hype by creating unique items for their avatars and then trading them. Genies is working with Dapper Labs, which operates NBA Top Shot and CryptoKitties, two of the most popular NFT exchanges, to create its own blockchain-based system for creating, verifying and selling digital goods.
Genies plans to make the marketplace available by the end of this year. Right now it's only accessible to celebrities, but Nigam said it'll open a beta version to customers by year's end.
"It almost becomes like a login authentication button, where you can port your Genie and your digital goods associated with it from one environment to the next, and in that case, we're kind of creating a new digital identity layer," Nigam said.
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Santa Monica-based app developer Snap calls itself a camera company, but it’s really in the business of social media – and more specifically, advertising.
What Data Does Snapchat Collect?
Snapchat, their primary application, collects a myriad of data on its roughly 363 million daily active users, from basics like device information to detailed location tracking. "From day one, we’ve embraced data minimization, and believed that the best way to protect user privacy is to not store data at all, and if we do have to store it, to do so for a short and fixed period of time," Snap spokesman Pete Boogaard told dot.LA.
As such, like most tech companies’ privacy policies and terms of service, the verbiage is intentionally vague or full of legalese designed to make the user gloss over and click “agree.” But Snapchat does have to provide its users some details of how it collects, stores, and uses the data it gains from interacting with the app.
Bill Budington, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told dot.LA that the common phrase, “necessary to provide service,” is particularly concerning.
“These are very vague ways to basically give a green light to very permissive practices in terms of your data,” Budington explained. He pointed out the ambiguous nature of the word “necessary,” adding, “[tech companies] can deem all sorts of things necessary, [including] using your location at every moment to better tailor their services to your life.”
Why Does Snapchat Collect Your Location Data?
Snapchat is very invested in collecting users’ precise location data, if users allow it. Its Snap Maps feature launched in 2017 lets users opt-in to showing their Bitmoji avatar on a map corresponding to their location and also allows them to track other friends who have opted in. It’s not dissimilar to Apple’s FindMy app.
In the past, the feature has raised concerns for its ability to make it easier for bullies and stalkers to find targets. Snap Map location, however, isn’t public information. Snapchat says location on Snap Maps will disappear after 24 hours, or when a user deliberately goes into “ghost mode” to hide from friends – but that doesn’t mean the app still isn’t tracking their movements. The company noted that unless you opt-in to live location sharing, the Snap Map won’t update with your location when you’re not actively using it.
Boogaard told dot.LA that while many of Snapchat’s core features do require location tracking, “location-sharing is off by default for all users” and “Snapchatters have complete control over their location sharing.” Snapchat added that there is no option to share your location with any user you aren’t friends with and that users have to individually select friends to share their location with.
Snapchat clarified that it does use location data to provide its Geofilters – custom photo and video filters often themed around specific places or events – and show people what’s nearby (also useful for ad purposes).
“We don’t share personal data about the users of the Snapchat app with data analytics providers,” Boogaard said.
Snapchat employees can also allegedly access all this information, and more – in 2019 Motherboard reported on a tool called SnapLion that it claimed was abused by employees to “spy on users.” In response to the report, Boogaard told dot.LA, “Any perception that employees might be spying on our community is highly troubling, and wholly inaccurate." Boogaard added, "Protecting privacy is paramount at Snap. We keep very little user data, and we have robust policies and controls to limit internal access to the data we do have, including data within tools designed to support law enforcement. Unauthorized access of any kind is a clear violation of the company's standards of business conduct and, if detected, results in immediate termination."
How Does Snapchat Use Your Content?
Snapchat can see the snaps you send, who is receiving them, and how often you’re online, as well as the metadata in each image.
Snapchat’s Streak feature (which tracks how long you and friends have regularly been sending and opening each other’s content) is one reason why the app also collects data on how often you and your friends open messages or capture screenshots.
Snap’s policy also dictates that any public content a user generates on Snapchat is also fair game for the company to share though it doesn’t say how it will share this content.
What Data Does Snapchat Collect From Accessing Your Camera?
Besides the typical use for taking pictures, Snapchat can also access information from Apple’s TrueDepth camera – the front-facing, high-powered cameras that Apple’s iPhone X uses to record Face ID and Memoji data.
Snapchat says it uses this data “to improve the quality of Lenses”—its filter and augmented reality feature. But it also said it doesn’t collect biometric information, much less store the data on its servers or give it to any third parties.
Still, that’s a practice that’s come under scrutiny recently. In August, Snap was sued, accused of violating Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act by collecting and storing users’ biometric data without their consent. That $35 million case is expected to head to settlement next week, after a judge couldn’t rule in favor of either party. "Snap continues to vehemently deny that Lenses violate BIPA, which was designed to require notice and consent before collecting biometric information used to identify people," Boogaard told dot.LA.
How Does Snapchat Use Your Data?
Now that we know all the information Snapchat collects, what is the company doing with it?
The main use case is advertising. Snapchat has a myriad of advertisers on its platform and they are all eager to turn users into sales by showing them the most relevant ads. Ad pricing starts at a modest $5 per day, so theoretically anyone with a marketing budget and the right connections could use Snap’s tools to market to its growing audience of Gen Z and Millennials.
Snapchat promises advertisers “advanced targeting capabilities,” and the benefit of finding a target audience using its location, demographics, interest and device data.
But who’s getting this information? That’s where things get vague. Snapchat doesn’t have to tell users specifically which companies are getting access to their data. The company notes it may share information with service providers that it contracts for services like ad analytics or payments. The company also says it might share user information with “business partners that provide services and functionality” for Snapchat, but again, doesn’t elaborate any further.
Snapchat also says it will share information about users if it could help “detect and resolve any fraud or security concerns, comply with any investigations, legal processes or regulations and to investigate potential terms of service violations.”
Snapchat doesn’t have to tell users when it turns over this data, though. In fact, most apps don’t.
How Does Snapchat Store Your Data?
Snap’s Support site notes Snapchat servers are designed to delete all Snaps automatically after they’ve been viewed by every recipient; the app’s trademark fleeting quality. The servers will delete unopened Snaps between two people after 31 days, and unopened Snaps sent to a group chat after 7 days. Snaps sent to your story are wiped from the servers 24 hours after posting.
Snapchat also says that when you delete a Snap in chat, it deletes it from its servers and will “make our best attempt” to wipe it from your friends’ devices.
If you post a Snap to Memories, though, Snapchat’s servers will back them up forever – unless you delete them, in which case they’ll be erased ASAP.
So what’s the safest way to protect your personal information on Snapchat? Well, Budington recommends an easy fix: simply don’t use it. But for people who are determined to keep their account but want to access what Snapchat collects, there are ways to download your Snapchat data.You can also opt-out of audience and activity-based ads and third-party ad networks. This will mean the ads on your Snapchat will be less relevant, but the trade-off is that the app will use less of your personal data for marketing purposes.
Snap is an investor in dot.LA.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Snap Map's location tracking feature. The feature needs to be enabled first, and Snapchat offers the ability to turn off the feature in Map settings.
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Generative AI is tech’s latest buzz word, with developers creating programs that can do anything from writing an academic essay about guitars and elevators to creating photorealistic paintings of majestic cats.
ChatGPT, a platform built by DALL-E 2 and GPT-3 founder OpenAI, is the latest one of these tools to go viral. But this tool can go far beyond writing a version of the Declaration of Independence in the style of Jar Jar Binks. It has the capability to write full essays on almost any subject a college kid could desire — creating another layer of complex technology that humanities professors now have to consider when they teach and dole out assignments.
While ChatGPT does have some limitations (It can only write up to 650 words per prompt), some students have taken to Reddit to talk about the potential uses and workarounds of the word limit to help them pass their classes. Ironically, another student even used the AI to write an apology email to his professor for using AI to write his emails.
One student wrote, “As finals are hitting, I’ve written 6 papers for people and made a great chunk of change. Same day turnaround, any size paper with perfect grammar and in depth writing plagiarism free is a pretty lucrative way to advertise oneself to a bunch of cracked out stressed college students.”
But despite the tool’s internet virality among desperate college students, UCLA professors told dot.LA that they aren’t worried about ChatGPT’s capabilities. Rather than viewing the technology as something they have to shield students from using, they see it as another potential tool in their arsenal and something they can implement in their classrooms.
\u201cI asked ChatGPT to write an essay on mental health. Returned essay immediately. College professors don\u2019t need to worry; the essay contained mostly weak verbs and no advanced grammar.\u201d— Heather Holleman (@Heather Holleman) 1670419435
“My sense of ChatGPT is that it's actually a really exciting opportunity to reconsider what it is that we do when we write things like essays,” said Danny Snelson, assistant professor of English at UCLA. “Rather than raising questions of academic integrity, this should have us asking questions about what kinds of assignments we give our students.”
Snelson tried ChatGPT out for himself, prompting the platform to write an essay about “the literary merit of video games that cites three key scholars in the field.” As it does, ChatGPT instantaneously churned out an essay which answered the prompt accurately and synthesized the arguments of three scholars in a compelling way. But Snelson could spot flaws in its work. The writing style was repetitive and the scholars the AI chose were not diverse.
“I probably will give my students the assignment on the first day of class to write a ChatGPT essay about a topic they know nothing about,” Snelson says. “Then have them discuss the essays that ChatGPT has written for them and what the limits of their arguments are.”
Christine Holten, director of Writing Programs and the UCLA Undergraduate Writing Center, said that she and other instructors are currently having similar talks about how to integrate these tools in a responsible way.
“One way is to allow students to use them,” she said. “Build them into the course, and allow reflection about the bounds of their use, what their limitations are, what are their advantages? How does it change their composing?”
Along with dissecting the platform’s limitations, Snelson also sees using ChatGPT as a tool to propel students’ writing even further. For example, one of the hardest parts about writing an essay is the first line. Having an AI write it for you can be a great starting point to push past the “blank page dilemma,” he said.
And while ChatGPT can write a passable essay on almost any subject, Snelson said students still need to have an understanding of the subjects they’re writing about. “Having a live conversation about Chaucer in the classroom, a student is not going to be helped by an AI,” he said.
“In the real world, you have access to information, you have access to writing tools,” Snelson added. “Why should (academics) disavow or disallow those kinds of tools?”
To that end, Holten said she recognizes that ChatGPT “raises the stakes” by circumventing tools that academics have relied on to detect plagiarism. But students turning in papers that aren’t their own isn’t new: Essay mills have existed for a long time, and Instagram is filled with pages that will sell students an academic paper.
“We have to do our part by trying to craft assignments carefully and making sure that we're not assigning these open-ended prompts of the sort that could be bought from paper mills,” she said.
It helps, too, that ChatGPT may already be working on a solution. Scott Aaronson, who works on the theoretical foundations of AI safety at OpenAI, said in a blog post that he’s working on a tool for “statistically watermarking the outputs of a text model like GPT” that adds in an “otherwise unnoticeable secret signal in its choices of words” to prevent things like academic plagiarism, mass generation of propaganda or impersonating someone’s writing style to incriminate them, though it's unclear how far away this development is.
“We want it to be much harder to take a GPT output and pass it off as if it came from a human,” Aaronson wrote.All of which explains why even despite claims that high-school English and the student essay are nearing their death knell, Holten thinks, ultimately, “The availability of ChatGPT is not likely to change very much.”
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