Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat lung disease reaches human clinical trials and more


In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners' phone calls.

In a sales pitch, LEO's CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"(The) sheriff believes (the calls) will help him fend off pending liability via civil action from inmates and activists," Sexton said. Verus transcribes phone calls and finds certain keywords discussing issues like COVID-19 outbreaks or other complaints about jail conditions.

Prisoners, however, said the tool was used to catch crime. In one case, it allegedly found one inmate illegally collecting unemployment benefits. But privacy advocates aren't impressed. "T​​he ability to surveil and listen at scale in this rapid way – it is incredibly scary and chilling," said Julie Mao, deputy director at Just Futures Law, an immigration legal group.

AI-designed drug to treat lung disease starts clinical trials

Codenamed ISM001-055, the drug was first formulated by Pharma.AI, a software platform described as "drug discovery engine" developed by startup Insilico Medicine, earlier this year in February.

The molecule was designed to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a lung disease that causes scar tissue to build inside the organ making it difficult for people to breathe properly. After initial tests, ISM001-055 seemed so promising that Insilico Medicine decided to launch clinical trials.

Healthy volunteers were selected for the trial to test for any side effects. "We are very pleased to see Insilico Medicine's first antifibrotic drug candidate entering into the clinic," said Feng Ren, chief scientific officer of Insilico Medicine. "We believe this is a significant milestone in the history of AI-powered drug discovery because to our knowledge the drug candidate is the first ever AI-discovered novel molecule based on an AI-discovered novel target."

There is no current cure for the IPF. If the AI-designed drug is capable of treating the disease it'll show that the technology is capable of developing new drugs at lower costs than traditional methods.

Ex-Googler Ethical AI lead launches her own AI research lab

Timnit Gebru, who was controversially fired from her position as co-lead Google's Ethical AI research team a year ago, has set up her own independent lab.

The Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR) is focused on studying social harms of AI, and how they can be best mitigated. It has received a total of $3.7m in funding from philanthropic groups and non-profit orgs such as the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Kapor Center, Open Society Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, according to the Washington Post.

Gebru said she wanted to remain independent, and has chosen to stay away from big name investors to avoid being influenced by large tech firms. "Let's say I antagonize a funder — not these, but others," she said. "There's all of these Big Tech billionaires who also are in big philanthropy now." DAIR's research will scrutinize and critique these big firms.

Some early projects with the institute's first research fellow Raesetja Sefala will study analyze satellite images to study the effects of segregation in South Africa. ®


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