With gun violence surging in Pasadena, the city has sought help in a controversial technology that some residents fear will infringe on their privacy.
Pasadena saw an 85% increase in gun violence in 2020 over the year prior, according to data released by the Pasadena Police Department. Police officers also reported 288 gun seizures in 2020 — 62 more than in 2019.
In response, the city has signed a $640,000, three-year contract for ShotSpotter, a sound recognition system that detects gunfire in the community.
ShotSpotter's technology's acoustic sensors detect a gunshot as soon as it's fired. It uses artificial intelligence and triangulation to determine the location of the gunshot and alerts police by phone message. ShotSpotter claims the entire process takes 60 seconds.
"Based on the information that we provide them, ShotSpotter technicians come in and they install various sensors throughout the proposed area," said Pasadena Police Lt. Lieutenant Bill Grisafe.
But given broad fears around overpolicing, many worry the technology gives law enforcement yet another surveillance tool — one they worried wouldn't prove that effective, as residents in other cities that use the tech have claimed.
Those tensions were on display Monday evening, when City Council members convened to deliberate the contract with ShotSpotter.
"No one else in L.A. County is using this technology," one resident said during the public comment portion of the meeting. "If that's not a red flag I'm not really sure what is."
ShotSpotter displays an approximate triangulation where a gunshot is detected.
Grisafe, for his part, maintains that the Pasadena police won't be using Shotspotter in any intrusive way. "This is a system that has not been tested here, or used in Pasadena before, and I understand that there are some concerns," he told dot.LA on Tuesday. "But I think it is important to understand that this is not any type of surveillance equipment."
Some local elected officials aren't so sure. The City Council voted in favor of ShotSpotter, 7 to 1. They also agreed to revisit this technology after a one-year period to see whether it has had any impact.
"Given everything that's going on in my district last year and going out and talking to residents. We hear repeatedly calls to try new things, try new technologies. So while I am wary, it's worth a try," said Jessica Rivas, Council Member of District 5.
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Social media has made it easier for musicians and producers to get discovered, but they still have to impress the industry's gatekeepers to make it big -- and those executives are typically white men swayed by their own biases, whether they intend it or not.
A June report from USC's Annenberg Institute found 86% of the music industry's top executives are white and male, and under 20% of executives at the level of vice president or higher are from minority groups.
Little surprise, then, that Snafu Records founder Ankit Desai believes the music industry is overdue for a change in how it discovers, promotes and scales artists' careers — and he's using artificial intelligence to do just that.
Snafu, which launched in 2018, raised a $6 million funding round on Sept. 21 to fine-tune its AI discovery platform. With offices in Los Angeles and Sweden, Snafu will soon launch two new products -- Blurry, a platform for songwriters to find collaborators, and Fine.Art, a system that lets Snafu and its artists co-invest in funding a breakout artist's career.
Desai said the company's revenue mainly comes from taking a cut of the rights to an artist's work after they sign. Snafu has a roster of 45 artists.
Snafu uses AI to scan a million new songs per week and analyze factors that could determine the artist's success -- including song structure, overall popularity and how listeners are talking about them on social media. Right now the platform focuses on Spotify, YouTube and TikTok, but Desai said Snafu's looking to include other audio streaming platforms like SoundCloud and Bandcamp soon.
The company brought in a number of high-profile investors in the round, including Agnetha Fältskog, lead singer of Swedish superband ABBA; Hampus Monthan Nordenskjöld, who was one of the first investors in Snafu; and Academy Award-winning songwriter Savan Kotecha.
"I'm proud to be part of what [Desai] is creating, which is not just an algorithm trying to find hits, but it's actually quite a lot bigger than that," Nordenskjöld said. "We're trying to change music from the ground up, and I think we're gonna make a solid attempt."
When it launches, Blurry will use AI to match producers and artists looking to collaborate. Desai described it like a "Tinder for musicians," where people match based on short music samples and then their identities are revealed to one another after they agree to collaborate.
The Fine.Art service will help up-and-coming artists identified by Snafu's algorithm as potential stars get advanced funding to start their projects. Desai said the AI will pinpoint potential hits and then Snafu will offer existing artists the chance to invest in an emerging artist's success.
"The good thing about streaming is that once a song has peaked, you can be relatively comfortable in predicting how much money that song is going to make in the next 18 to 24 months," Desai said, adding this is how the company will decide which artists to fund.
Shrikanth Narayanan, an AI researcher and university professor of computer and electrical engineering at USC, said AI has the potential to democratize and make the music industry more equitable.
"Personalized experiences are something that AI strives to do in a way that could be very inclusive and equitable," Narayanan said. He added that AI has "a promising potential to empower the music industry" and could "actually enhance and make it even better."
There is a potential the AI could be wrong -- something Desai and investors say they expect. It's possible Snafu could give an artist an advance and never see a return, one or two big hits could make up for it.
Narayanan said that Snafu's AI could have its work cut out for it in calibrating its selection process.
"Naturally there's going to be a lot of variability across people, and so that while we can understand that and study it, this may certainly be a challenge that AI tools will face," Narayanan said. "They have to see enough patterns to understand the range of emotions or things a particular piece of music is conveying (to) or connecting with listeners."
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Venture capitalists last month sunk nearly half a billion dollars into a Southern California defense technology startup whose surveillance towers track migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Anduril Industries, the Irvine-based maker of autonomous drones, towers and small ground sensors, will use the $450 million for acquisitions and build out its AI-powered tech designed for military and border enforcement agencies.
But activists and experts are raising flags about the technology, pointing to privacy violations and civil liberties infringements.
They also question the government's steep investment in the private defense contractors behind it.
"The fact that we're spending money on the border wall also means that we're not investing in the things we all actually need here in the valley," said Norma Herrera, an organizer with the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network.
She pushes back against what President Biden called an "effective and modern border security" system—a bureaucratic apparatus that allocates $1.2 billion for border infrastructure next year (still a drop in the bucket, given the Department of Homeland Security's $52 billion 2022 budget).
Before the pandemic, Herrera knocked on doors in Texas' Starr County to tell residents about the amount of money elected officials were pouring into Trump's border wall. Now, she's learning how to explain the virtual wall, one that's often harder to notice.
Anduril declined to make executives at the company available for interviews.
Surveillance on the Border
Over the last decade, the border security and immigration detention industry has ballooned as Democrats and Republicans both funnel more government money into private companies. Between the fiscal years 2017 and 2020, Customs and Border Protection received about $743 million from Congress for tech and surveillance, according to the legal organization Just Futures Law. And in the 2021 fiscal year alone, the Department of Homeland Security received over $780 million for the same purpose.
Anduril's recent project with CBP revolves around a $250 million contract signed under the Trump administration in July of 2020 to set up 200 solar-powered watch towers along the southern border. Of the towers, 60 are up and running as of July 2.
Under Biden's leadership, funding for border technology has become an even bigger priority, said Dinesh McCoy, a legal fellow at Just Futures Law.
"It's in large part a response to coinciding pressures of distinguishing themselves from the Trump years," he said.
Many Democrats back Biden's vision, considering a virtual barrier a far better alternative to the physical border wall Republicans prefer.
"When it comes to proposals for a virtual wall, we're talking about heavy, heavy investments," said Saira Hussain, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in racial and immigrant justice, surveillance and technology.
Government agencies are tapping a number of private companies to install the technology. In 2019, CBP awarded the Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems $26 million to install surveillance towers along the border.
Then came the administration's 2020 deal with Anduril. Its AI-powered operating system, called Lattice, is designed to distinguish humans from animals along the border and send information to an agent's cell phone. The company has to date received $691 million in venture capital, including $450 million that had backers including Andreessen Horowitz last month. Anduril is now valued at $4.6 billion.
"As with all of our investments, this is a bet not just on the technology (breathtaking) and the market (enormous) but also the people (outstanding)," Andreessen Horowitz co-founder and general partner Marc Andreessen said in a prepared statement.
Marc Andreessen is a longtime investor in Palmer Luckey, Anduril's 28-year-old founder. He backed Luckey's first company — virtual reality startup Oculus — before Facebook bought it for $2 billion in 2014. A few years later, Luckey left following reports that he was funding a far-right political group.
In 2017, Luckey opened Anduril with a band of former employees from Oculus VR and Palantir, the software giant with major contracts with several government agencies.
Anduril Border Tower
Along the border, Anduril's 33-foot towers are continuously scanning plots of land about three miles in diameter. They're built to ignore animals — what CBP calls a "false positive" — and light up after detecting movement from people or cars.
The towers are watching "illegal border crossings, human trafficking and drug smuggling," a spokesperson for Anduril said by email.
If a person or group falls out of the camera's vision, AI tells the next tower to pick it back up. Border patrol agents then receive an alert to their cell phones or computers.
The goal is to mimic an agent's pair of eyes, especially in remote and rural spots. As one agent put it, "they see what we can't see on the ground."
They also run on solar power, a feature CBP said avoids the need for new infrastructure that can "complicate the Border Patrol's agreements with many of the private ranchland owners, national parks, and Native Americans' tribal lands where the Border Patrol must work."
Video surveillance drones and towers are puncturing nearly every industry, from homeland security to fast food delivery to monitoring traffic and parking violations along busy streets.
The tech is also raising a flood of questions from academics and legal groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Just Futures Law, all of them worried about the implications of surveillance not only for migrants, but for U.S. residents. In May of 2020, for example, agencies CBP flew a drone over Minneapolis to record protestors following the police murder of George Floyd.
"We know that what's often deployed at the border and what's normalized at the border in terms of surveillance eventually makes its way into the interior of the United States," said Hussain, the attorney from EFF.
The company says it does not use facial recognition or collect identifiable information.
But critics like the ACLU of Texas and other civil liberties groups said it's unclear what data is being collected by private defense contracts like Anduril and how it could be used and shared.
"The border is a testing ground for surveillance elsewhere," said McCoy, the legal fellow at Just Futures Law. "Unfortunately, it's been primarily used to surveill Black and brown folks in the U.S. and abroad."
As the U.S. begins reducing its military footprint in the Middle East, McCoy suspects other military contractors will turn to border surveillance as a new form of profit.
"These tools that were once confined to military contexts have found themselves more and more in local communities," he said.
Anduril, for its part, insists it is providing the government with a crucial security mechanism. "Anduril identifies a security problem," reads a prepared statement forwarded to dot.LA by a company spokesperson, "builds a potential solution, then takes it to the government for potential consideration."
Lead art by Ian Hurley
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Andreessen Horowitz was involved in Anduril 's$450 million raise round, but was not the sole funder. Additionally, mentions of Anduril's $250 million contract with CBP have been updated to clarify that they were not negotiated with President Trump himself, but rather with members of his administration.
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