New Eyewitness Accounts: Feds Didn’t Identify Themselves Before Opening Fire on Portland Antifa Suspect

This story was co-published with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

LACEY, WA — Late summer sunshine bathed a working-class neighborhood in suburban Olympia, Washington, on the first Thursday afternoon in September as Michael Forest Reinoehl left the Tanglewilde Terrace Townhomes, climbed behind the wheel of his silver Volkswagen station wagon and tossed a couple of travel bags onto the passenger seat.

It was Reinoehl’s fifth day on the run. Hours earlier, prosecutors in Portland, Oregon, had charged the self-described antifascism activist with second-degree murder in the Aug. 29 shooting death of Patriot Prayer supporter Aaron “Jay” Danielson, and a team of federal fugitive hunters armed with an arrest warrant gathered to plan a takedown at the nearby Lacey Police Department.

At about 6:40 p.m., two silver SUVs gunned toward Reinoehl, tires squealing as they skidded to a stop in front of his VW, pinning his car in. Deputized U.S. marshals burst from the vehicles aiming military rifles at him. The official line is that Reinoehl jumped out of his car, his hand on the .380-caliber pistol in his pocket, defying a shouted command: “Stop! Police!”

What happened next remains unclear, even among law enforcement officials who participated.

One deputy U.S. marshal told investigators with the Thurston County sheriff’s office that Reinoehl pointed a gun at him. Another deputy marshal told detectives that Reinoehl had his hand on his pistol and was in the process of pulling the gun out of his pocket when officers fired. The gun was in Reinoehl’s right front pants pocket when detectives recovered it.

Civilian eyewitnesses interviewed by Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica and other public statements offer similarly inconsistent and sometimes conflicting recollections. They agree that they heard no warning from federal agents, and saw no flashing lights that indicated the arrival of law enforcement, just a fusillade that one neighbor likened to a scene out of the video game Call of Duty.

Reinoehl, 48, died in the street from gunshot wounds to his head and torso. The shots were fired by two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies, a Lakeview police officer and a Washington State Department of Corrections employee — all deputized by the U.S. Marshals Service and serving on a Tacoma-based fugitive task force, a common and standard procedure among local-federal partnerships. A U.S. marshal was also part of the team but did not fire.

Investigators haven’t said how many shots the officers aimed at Reinoehl, but there were so many that the little yellow evidence markers used to identify and protect spent shell casings resembled a miniature tent village.

Evidence markers were examined by the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab.
Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

It might never be possible to determine exactly what happened in the estimated 15 seconds of gunfire that left Reinoehl dead, because the men who shot him were not wearing body cameras, the surrounding buildings lacked security cameras, and three people who witnessed critical segments of the shooting have not been interviewed by police.

That uncertainty matters.

The factors that lead to fatal police shootings are often second-guessed, especially in cases where there’s no clear-cut documented reason for lethal force, and questions about police accountability drove this summer of racial justice protests across the United States — including the dueling political rallies at which Danielson was killed.

Reinoehl’s ensuing death — justified or not — also raises questions about President Donald Trump’s tendency to talk about law enforcement as a political tool and to portray police as responding to his agenda rather than doing their jobs independent of politics.

An hour before Reinoehl died, the president called on Portland police to arrest the “cold blooded killer” of Jay Danielson. “Do your job, and do it fast,” he tweeted.

More than a week later, the president described Reinoehl’s killing as “retribution.” At the end of September, in his first debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump claimed, erroneously, “I sent in the U.S. Marshals, they took care of business.”

A spokesman for the Marshals Service noted that the president had done nothing of the kind, and a statement issued by the service said that the fugitive task force had attempted to “peacefully arrest” Reinoehl.

A Summer of Protest Punctuated by Gunfire

Portland’s protests have frequently ended in violence and property destruction in the weeks since May 25, when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, and they now serve as a barometer for America’s political divide.

Thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters have taken to the streets almost nightly since then, chanting for more police accountability and leaving parts of downtown Portland covered in graffiti and marked by boarded-up doors and windows.

Right-wing counterprotesters, angered by the vandalism and strongly supportive of police, have often clashed with the most extreme activists on the left. Those street brawls date back to Trump’s 2016 election; small but vocal groups on both sides have come to the protests to mix it up with their opponents, often bringing weapons.

For weeks this summer, tensions grew, first when federal law enforcement officers arrived to protect the downtown federal courthouse and used more force, and more quickly, than city police officers had. Then, on Aug. 29, a collection of flag-waving Trump supporters decided to convoy through the heart of the famously liberal city.

Reinoehl shot Danielson near the end of that Saturday of street skirmishes between antifascists and right-wingers. Danielson, a white man, was a Portland businessman and stalwart of the far-right political group Patriot Prayer, which has engaged in violence and has sometimes attracted white supremacists. Reinoehl, another white man, described himself as “100 percent antifascist,” and had shown up to many rallies over the summer to, as he put it, provide security to Black Lives Matter demonstrators. He believed fringe combatants in America’s left-right divide were headed for civil war.

“He was really on edge,” Deaven Reinoehl, the dead man’s high school-age son, told OPB and ProPublica.

Michael Reinoehl said he acted to defend another person when he shot and killed Aaron “Jay” Danielson at a pro-Trump rally in Portland.
Screenshot obtained by OPB/ProPublica

Still, it remains unclear why Reinoehl shot Danielson. In an interview aired on VICE the day he died, Reinoehl said he had acted to protect “a friend of mine of color” who Reinoehl claimed would have been killed had he not fired. That purported friend, according to investigators, denied knowing Reinoehl, and said he did not witness the shooting and had no idea it would happen.

Prosecutors in Portland declined to indict the man for aiding or abetting the killing of Danielson, according to court records obtained through a public records request.

A security camera on a downtown Portland building captured video of Reinoehl entering a nearby parking garage as Danielson and a friend walked by. That camera, and videographers ubiquitous at the protests, captured the moment in which Reinoehl followed them into the street and fired two rounds from his pistol; one drilled through Danielson’s chest.

Danielson stumbled a few steps and collapsed.

On the Run, Scared for His Life

Deaven Reinoehl recalls that his father went on the run after the downtown shooting, determined to evade the authorities.

“He didn’t plan on turning himself in at all,” he said.

Early on Aug. 30, about five hours after Danielson’s killing, several trucks drove past the Portland rental home that Reinoehl shared with his son and middle school-age daughter and opened fire, Deaven said.

“I heard the gunshots,” he said.

The teenager said he heard three rounds fired at the dwelling but did not phone 911. Instead he called his dad to report what happened. Michael Reinoehl arrived and removed his daughter from the home, Deaven said. Reporters who interviewed the teen at his doorstep saw what appeared to be bullet holes in the siding above his head. It remains unclear who fired the shots, whether the incident was connected to the shooting of Danielson — or whether the teen simply mistook what he heard.

Deaven Reinoehl said he spoke frequently with his dad in the days that followed. “He was just planning on trying to be on the run,” the younger Reinoehl said. “He didn’t know where he was going. He had people helping him find these safe houses or whatever. That’s why he was in Lacey, but I don’t know anything about, like, those people or anything.”

A Safe House, but Not for Long

Reinoehl ended up 119 miles north of his Portland home.

Investigators are still piecing together precisely how he got there. Multiple former and current law enforcement sources not authorized to speak on the record said that during the time between the killings, a source in contact with Reinoehl passed information to law enforcement about his whereabouts. That eventually led them to the Tanglewilde Terrace Townhomes.

One resident of the apartment complex, Nathaniel Dinguss, has been of particular interest to law enforcement. After the shooting, he consulted with lawyers who issued a news release describing the shooting of Reinoehl. The release noted that Dinguss, who has so far declined to speak with investigators, claims that deputized U.S. marshals did not attempt to apprehend Reinoehl — or issue any commands — before shooting him. Further, the lawyers wrote, Dinguss did not see a gun on Reinoehl or see him make a move to reach for one. Dinguss, through his attorneys, declined multiple requests for an interview for this story.

What Dinguss’ lawyers and his press release fail to mention is that Reinoehl had been staying with Dinguss prior to the shooting, although authorities don’t know for how long.

“I don’t know whether they’re friends,” said Lt. Ray Brady, who is overseeing the shooting investigation for the Thurston County sheriff’s office and still hopes his team will get a chance to interview Dinguss. “That was the apartment where Mr. Reinohel was staying.”

Brady noted that Dinguss’s home was under surveillance by the fugitive task force. He said sheriff’s deputies searched the townhome after Reinoehl’s death. Officers were looking for anything related to the shooting in Portland, Brady said, and recovered a shotgun bag.

On the day that he was confronted by the marshals, Reinoehl packed his bags and, according to Dinguss’ account, was chewing a gummy worm as he made his way to his newly purchased VW. He stood 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, with a weeks-old tattoo of a clenched fist on his neck, the emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement.

It was a glorious bright day, and Garrett Louis’ 8-year-old son was pedaling his green BMX bike near the townhome complex’s carport. Two men tinkered with cars nearby. Louis’ 7-year-old played with a friend on a patch of grass across the street.

Within minutes, Reinoehl was dead.

Brady said that in the frantic seconds after deputy marshals opened fire, Reinoehl ran from his car and tried to take refuge behind a truck parked by his VW. As he lay dying on the ground, deputy marshals removed his hand from the pistol in his pocket, cuffed his wrists, and began CPR.

Investigators recovered an AR-15-style .22-caliber rifle from his car, along with a .380-caliber shell casing in the back seat. Deputies don’t know, and may never know, if Reinoehl fired at officers during their failed arrest operation.

Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Eric W. Wahlstrom, in Portland, said the agency would neither comment on the shooting nor make available for interviews members of the fugitive task force who took part in the incident. Deputized members of the task force, through their departments, similarly declined requests for interviews.

Once the sheriff’s office completes its investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service is expected to conduct a probe of its own through its national Shooting Review Board. The intention of that investigation is to ensure policies were followed and determine if there were lessons to be learned from the incident.

Investigators removing Reinoehl’s body. Accounts differ on whether the marshals gave any warning before opening fire.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Soon after Reinoehl’s death, eyewitnesses gave vivid yet wildly varying accounts of the shooting.

Garrett Louis witnessed part of the shooting from outside his home and across the street from Dinguss, and he has his own concerns about how officers behaved.

“There was no ‘drop your weapon’ or ‘freeze’ or ‘police’ — no warning at all,” he recalled.

Louis first thought the gunplay — a brief volley, a few seconds of silence, then a sustained barrage — was the work of rival drug dealers. “They just seemed like trouble,” he said. Confused by the shooting, Louis plucked his 7-year-old and a playmate off a nearby lawn and secured them in his home before dashing across the street to yank his 8-year-old off his bike and run him to safety.

In the hours after the shooting, he wrote a two-page account of what he saw. But he has not yet spoken to Thurston County detectives. Investigators did interview his 8-year-old one day when they came to talk to Louis, who wasn’t home at the time.

Another eyewitness offered a plausible explanation for why Reinoehl might have pointed a handgun at the deputy marshals who had come to arrest him. The witness, unnamed in this story because she said she fears reprisals, was pedaling her exercise bike in her apartment when she heard the first shots. She unstrapped her feet and hurried to her picture window.

She thought the shooters — buff white men dressed in khakis and ballistic vests and armed with rifles — looked less like law enforcement officers than members of a right-wing militia. Perhaps, she said, Reinoehl might have mistaken the lawmen for the far-right vigilantes he feared were hunting for him.

A moment after the shooting, Louis, the father of two, stared across the street, still bathed in late summer sunshine, and spotted Reinoehl sprawled on the pavement near a cluster of mailboxes. He walked over to a police officer and introduced himself as an EMT, having served in that capacity in the Army, he said.

“I was going to see if there was any sort of aid that I could offer,” he recalled. “He just told me to shut the fuck up and go inside, and that it was a crime scene.”

A livestream Facebook video posted at 6:59 p.m., well after the law officer rebuffed Louis’s offer to render medical help, shows a police officer in latex gloves performing chest compressions on Reinoehl.

President Trump celebrated Reinoehl’s death: “This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him,” he said. “And I will tell you something: That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have a crime like this.”

But those sentiments rang sour with at least some of those closest to the shooting. Jay Danielson’s friends, many of them Trump supporters, seethed when they learned that deputy marshals had killed Reinoehl. They weren’t looking for revenge, said Chandler Pappas, who was standing just behind his friend Danielson when Reinoehl shot him.

“We wanted to see him face a jury, we wanted to see him suffer in prison,” Pappas said. “I wanted to see him answer for what he had done in a courtroom.”

Sergio Olmos contributed reporting.

Four Types of Scandals Utility Companies Get Into With Money From Your Electric Bills

Across the country, electric utilities have worked the levers of power to win favorable treatment from state policymakers.

This week, a Richmond Times-Dispatch and ProPublica investigation found that Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest public utility, successfully lobbied to reshape a major climate bill to cover its massive offshore wind project. The move shifted risk from the company’s shareholders to its ratepayers. As a result of the legislation, a typical residential customer’s bill is projected to increase by nearly $30 per month over the next decade.

Dominion says its wind project is necessary to meet the state’s new renewable energy goals. The utility’s lobbying success underscores its ability to work through the legislative process in Richmond, where special interests have taken on outsized roles in policymaking.

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Elsewhere, utilities have gone much further, crossing the line into potentially criminal behavior.

In Illinois, the largest electric utility acknowledged in July it gave jobs and money to associates of the state House speaker in return for favorable legislation, according to a deferred prosecution agreement with the company in federal court.

In Ohio, a power company allegedly funneled $60 million into a slush fund for a legislative leader in exchange for his backing of a bailout of two nuclear plants. The utility has not been charged, but the elected official now faces a racketeering charge in what prosecutors said was “likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated” in the state.

“The temptation for a utility to take its customers’ money and spend it on influencing politics and essentially buying off politicians in ways to help them make even more money — it’s a temptation that has proven to be pretty irresistible for many utilities,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog group that advocates renewable energy.

Below are four ways electric utilities have tried to influence decision-making within state and local governments.

Secret Political Spending

FirstEnergy is one of the nation’s largest electric companies and owns three regulated utilities in Ohio, where the FBI and federal prosecutors are seeking to unravel bribery allegations.

Authorities allege that FirstEnergy contributed $60 million to a group overseen by Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder in exchange for his help passing legislation that provided a billion-dollar bailout of two failing nuclear energy plants. That bill also reduced standards for renewable energy and the energy efficiency programs that save customers money.

Prosecutors have charged Householder with racketeering. He has pleaded not guilty in federal court, and his attorney did not return a request for comment. FirstEnergy has not been charged. A corporate spokeswoman said the company is cooperating fully with the investigation, and its CEO said in a recent earnings call that he firmly believes FirstEnergy acted properly.

According to the criminal complaint against Householder, the company helped the politician win the speaker’s office and put the payments into a nonprofit organization called Generation Now, which was supposed to be a social welfare organization. Householder, a Republican, and his allies are accused of instead using the payments from FirstEnergy to expand the speaker’s political power and enrich themselves. Three lobbyists — including the former state GOP chairman — and a longtime aide to Householder also were charged. All parties have denied the allegations. The state House stripped Householder of the speakership, but he remains in office.

Ohio’s attorney general in September filed a lawsuit against FirstEnergy, Householder, Generation Now and others, seeking to block payment of the nuclear bailout. FirstEnergy said the lawsuit was without merit. “The Attorney General’s lawsuit unjustly targets the company for lawfully engaging in the political process and supporting policy initiatives that matter to our customers, employees, communities and shareholders,” spokeswoman Jennifer Young said in an email.

Ohio State Rep. Larry Householder, the former House speaker, has been charged with racketeering in a federal investigation.
John Minchillo/AP Photo

In Arizona, the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into political spending by the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service. The company gave millions to “dark money” organizations — political nonprofits that spend money from undisclosed donors — in 2014 to help elect two state regulators. The money flowed to groups with names like Save Our Future Now. The candidates won and in 2017 voted for a utility-backed rate increase.

One of the candidates who received “dark money” funding denied knowledge of the utility’s involvement and the second said the idea they could be bought was insulting, the public radio station KJZZ reported.

Arizona Public Service refused for years to admit it was the source of the contributions, but it did so in 2019 at the request of state regulators, according to The Arizona Republic.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix declined to comment on the federal probe. Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service, said in a February filing that the company “understands the matter is closed.” Arizona Public Service’s CEO said in January that the company would no longer spend, directly or indirectly, on elections for the state regulators who oversee utilities. Company spokeswoman Jenna Rowell said that since 2016 the company has voluntarily published an annual list of its political donations, which are paid by shareholders.

Offering Jobs to Allies

The largest electric utility in Illinois agreed in July to pay a $200 million fine to resolve a federal investigation into bribery.

Commonwealth Edison admitted it arranged jobs, subcontracts and payments for associates of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, as a reward for legislative efforts to help the utility, according to a deferred prosecution agreement with the company in federal court.

Indirect payments through third parties and a consulting company to associates of the speaker from 2011 to 2019 totaled more than $1.3 million. The recipients “performed little or no work for ComEd,” according to the documents.

During that time, the utility sought Madigan’s support for legislation that kept favorable utility rates for the company. It became law, and the estimated benefit to Commonwealth Edison was more than $150 million.

Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing. If Commonwealth Edison or its parent company “even harbored the thought that they could bribe or influence me, they would have failed miserably,” Madigan wrote in a letter last month to a state legislative committee.

A former Commonwealth Edison executive was charged with bribery conspiracy in September and pleaded guilty on Sept. 29 in what was the first conviction in the investigation.

In the wake of the scandal, the company has “taken robust action to aggressively identify and address deficiencies, including enhancing our compliance governance and our lobbying policies to prevent this type of misconduct from ever happening again,” spokesman Paul Elsberg said. “We apologize for the past conduct that didn’t live up to our own values and are committed to earning back the trust of our communities and partners.”

Creating the Appearance of Public Support

Entergy, a utility regulated by the New Orleans City Council, wanted to build a natural gas plant. Critics and community advocates argued that the plant was unnecessary and posed an environmental threat to the area.

To create the appearance of support, a subcontractor for the utility in 2017 paid people to appear and speak at a City Council meeting posing as citizens favoring the plant, an independent investigation concluded. The council approved the gas plant but later fined Entergy $5 million after the investigation, done by a law firm hired by the council, found the company knew or should have known its subcontractors paid actors.

Entergy denied knowledge of the paid actors but said in 2018, “We should have been more diligent and ‘we should have known.’” It paid the $5 million fine.

The council allowed the plant to go forward. It began operating in May, a company spokesman said.

Undertaking Mega Projects That Don’t Pan Out

Mississippi Power’s Kemper project.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Mississippi Power, a unit of Atlanta-based Southern Company, announced plans for a “clean coal” plant in 2006. But the so-called Kemper project shot up in cost from $2.9 billion to $7.5 billion amid missed deadlines and allegations of mismanagement. The facility ended up using only natural gas to generate electricity.

A 2016 investigation by The New York Times found that plant owners understated costs and tried to conceal problems from state regulators.

In response, Southern Company issued a statement saying its project had “garnered enormous support from energy leaders across the U.S. and around the world” and saying the concerns of a former employee were “unsubstantiated.”

After media reports about the plant’s problems, the company’s stock dropped, and shareholders in January 2017 filed a class-action lawsuit alleging Southern Company made false statements and didn’t disclose adverse information about the plant’s progress. While denying wrongdoing, Southern Company agreed to an $87.5 million settlement last month.

For their part, Mississippi regulators required shareholders to cover $6.4 billion of the plant’s cost under terms of a 2018 regulatory settlement. Customers were on the hook for hundreds of millions, though.

“We’ve endeavored from the very beginning to find a way to take failures at the company and problems that they didn’t see coming down the line to make sure we find a way to protect ratepayers,” the chairman of the state’s public utility commission said at the time.

In South Carolina, federal authorities charged a utility executive with fraud over a failed nuclear proposal. Construction flaws plus cheap natural gas prices and lower-than-expected electricity demand threatened the project — and its ability to receive a federal tax credit. So, prosecutors alleged, the executive misled the public and state regulators about the delays, allowing SCANA Corp. to obtain rate increases.

The executive pleaded guilty in federal court in July to defrauding customers and making false statements to regulators and the public. He agreed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.

The plant was canceled in 2017, but electricity customers have paid $2 billion for the failed proposal, the newspaper The Post and Courier reported.

SCANA Corp. was later purchased by Dominion Energy.

The deal turned SCANA into Dominion Energy South Carolina and cut rates, but customers still owe $2.3 billion more for the project in the next two decades, The Post and Courier reported.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch and ProPublica are investigating the political influence of Dominion Energy in Virginia. We want to hear from you. Please get in touch with reporter Patrick Wilson if:

  • You have information about how Dominion Energy or its lobbyists have influenced the policies of Gov. Ralph Northam or decisions of government officials.
  • You have information about Dominion Energy’s political giving and charitable spending.

You can reach him at, 804-649-6061 or through Signal at 757-769-3351.

Patrick Wilson is a state politics reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He has worked for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, mostly in Virginia. Wilson has reported from the state capital since late 2014.

Tommy Lee Jones in Japan: Fifteen Years as “The Alien”

Oct 5, 2020

American actor Tommy Lee Jones has enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood. Alongside this, since 2006, he’s had a parallel career in the alternate universe of Japanese television commercials. He’s become one of the country’s most recognizable faces through his appearances as the “Alien Jones” observer of terrestrial life in a series of popular commercials for Suntory’s ubiquitous Boss brand of canned coffee. As the series enters its fifteenth year, we talked to Fukusato Shin’ichi, the man responsible for the series, on the idea behind Alien Jones and the reasons that have made the series such a long-running success.

Fukusato Shin’ichi

Born in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, in July 1968. Graduated from Hitotsubashi University and joined Dentsū in 1992. Since 2001 has worked as creative director at the One Sky agency. Has worked on more than 1,500 television commercials, including successful campaigns for Georgia Coffee, Toyota, and Eneos. His work has received numerous industry awards, including the prestigious Tokyo Copywriters Club Grand Prix.

The Alien and His Many Jobs

Alien Jones is on a mission from his home planet, sent to observe conditions on Earth. Each episode sees him working in a different job. At the end of each “episode,” he gulps thirstily from a can of coffee and intones a variation on his catchphrase, summarizing what he has learned from his latest job about “The inhabitants of this planet . . .” The commercial, which has become a favorite for the gentle humor with which it highlights the foibles of daily life on this “lousy but somehow also wonderful” planet, has now entered its fifteenth year as a fixture on Japanese TV screens.

Playing the part of the alien is Tommy Lee Jones, better known to American audiences as the Hollywood veteran with credits that include an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Fugitive (1993) and a string of appearances as Agent K in the Men in Black series. Jones plays the part of an extraterrestrial sent to gather intelligence on the inhabitants of Earth (read, Japan). Over the past 15 years, he has been depicted working in more than 70 different jobs that have taken him all over the country. He’s played a doctor on a remote island and an apartment building caretaker, as well as distinctively Japanese roles including a sumō referee, a traditional gardener, and a samurai. And he speaks only Japanese—not a word of English. The series was the brainchild of Fukusato Shin’ichi, a commercial campaign planner who has been with the One Sky agency after an earlier career with Dentsū. Now in his early fifties, Fukusato has been responsible for bringing more than 1,500 commercials to Japanese television screens.

An Outsider’s Perspective

Fukusato joined advertising giant Dentsū after graduating from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. Despite this elite background, Fukusato says he has never had an optimistic personality. “I’ve always had a feeling that just about anything I do is bound to go wrong,” he says. “I still have it now. A constant nagging feeling like: How could anything ever go right for a guy like me? And for the first ten years or so after I started work, things really didn’t go well at all. So I started to feel: What did I tell you, I knew it wouldn’t work out . . .”

Fukusato says he has always had an unconventional, outsider’s way of looking at the world. He remembers his interview at Dentsū. “They asked me why I had applied for the job, so I said, well, I don’t really have any friends, so I never know what people around me are thinking. So that’s the work I’d like to do at your company: research on what people are really thinking.”

In his book Denshin-bashira no kage kara miteru taipu no kikaku-jutsu, (Creative Planning from the Guy Lurking Behind the Telephone Pole), Fukusato looked back on his own childhood as a detached observer. “I would stand apart at the park, looking on from behind a utility pole, watching the other kids as they galloped in circles around a wistaria trellis or screamed with excitement on the swings. I didn’t dislike being an outsider; I never felt lonely. In fact, it was a contented and comfortable time in my life.”

Fukusato has won numerous awards for his work, including the TCC Grand Prix, the TCC Award (22 times), and the ACC Grand Prix (3 times).
Fukusato has won numerous awards for his work, including the TCC Grand Prix, the TCC Award (22 times), and the ACC Grand Prix (3 times).

In 2006, Fukusato was approached to come up with a new commercial for Boss canned coffee. The client wanted to keep a strong emphasis on the brand’s image as a drink that was “an ally on the side of working people”—an energizing glug of caffeinated sweetness ever-ready to refresh and encourage people working hard on the front lines in their various jobs. The client wanted a series that could run for at least five years—something that would take people’s minds off the constant stream of bad news and make them feel more optimistic about their lives.

Fukusato had an idea. “I asked myself a question. What’s the most depressing thing you see on television? The answer was obvious: the news. I mean, it’s just bad news everywhere you look, right? Politics is hopeless, the environment’s in a mess and getting worse, wars are breaking out. They collect all these bleak and depressing items from around the world and broadcast it as a package of bad news. And it’s not just once a day. It’s become more like a constant stream, all through the day. If you spend too much time following it, you’re bound to wind up feeling depressed. So I asked myself, what’s the opposite of that? What would make people feel better about their lives?

Fukusato came up with the idea of a series of commercials in which an extraterrestrial researcher was sent to Earth to study the lives of the inhabitants, reporting on his findings from a detached perspective. He starts off unimpressed and sardonic about what he sees, but as he spends more time here he realizes there is more to the planet than he initially thought. He starts to feel sympathy and a sense of admiration for earthlings and the way they can work to achieve great things when they put their minds to it. “I thought if we showed an alien coming to appreciate the good aspects about this planet, it would help people feel a bit better about themselves and their lives. And if we had him do a different job every time, we could keep the series going almost indefinitely.”

Fukusato felt that casting a foreign actor in the role would help to underline the “alien” element of the character as an outsider and detached observer. Tommy Lee Jones is a successful and thoughtful actor, who once roomed with former United States Vice President Al Gore at Harvard. But 15 years ago, he was not yet a universally recognizable figure in Japan. Jones impressed with his ability to present a straight face and a convincingly “alien” expression of bemusement. He was hired almost immediately, and soon his face was familiar to millions of people in Japan.

Once the basic idea was decided, Fukusato says, the details came quickly. “Alien Jones is an outsider who does not enter into the normal social circles of the [Japanese] earthlings. He watches detached and apart, with an eye that’s ironic but never malicious, sometimes amused by what he sees, at other times admiring. In fact, come to think of it, he’s just like me,” he says with a smile. Fukusato’s withdrawn, detached personality, which he had used to observe his peers from a distance as a child, came to life again in the character of Jones. Alien Jones, it turns out, has a lot of his creator in him.

In one episode, set in a “factory, the earthling workers are boisterously shouting otsukare-sama to one another, the everyday workplace greeting that, roughly translated, is an appreciation of the other’s efforts meaning “you must be very tired.” Alien Jones mutters his findings at the end of the episode: “The inhabitants of this planet take happiness in their tiredness.” In another episode, Jones plays the part of a courier delivery worker. “On this planet,” he reports, “there is a constant demand for speed. Why things have to be so urgent is not clear.” He hurries back to the delivery van, only to find he has received a ticket: “They are also really strict about parking infringements.” Like a well-drawn cartoon, each installment of the commercial humorously and memorably encapsulates in a few effective strokes an aspect of daily life in contemporary Japan.

 Tommy Lee Jones as an alien taxi driver.
Tommy Lee Jones as an alien taxi driver.

Over the years, as the series has become successful, it has incorporated numerous popular actors and “idol” groups, bringing its message of gentle humor from settings as diverse as outer space, remote islands of the Japanese archipelago, and the famous “scramble” crossing in Tokyo’s Shibuya.

Fukusato describes his personality as “herbivorous,” passive and yielding, and says he hates fights and arguments.
Fukusato describes his personality as “herbivorous,” passive and yielding, and says he hates fights and arguments.

A touch of the truth

The eighteenth episode in the series saw Jones working as a “construction worker building a tunnel. “When the inhabitants of this planet see a river, they build a bridge; when they see a mountain, they dig a tunnel. Where could they be in such a hurry to get to?”

Jones presses a detonator, blasting away the rock and successfully joining the two sides of the tunnel. “It must be admitted,” he says, “that the sense of accomplishment you get from work on this planet can be habit-forming.”

Alien Jones gets emotional as he joins fellow workers in a round of “banzai” cheers to celebrate the successful dynamiting of a new tunnel.
Alien Jones gets emotional as he joins fellow workers in a round of “banzai” cheers to celebrate the successful dynamiting of a new tunnel.

“That episode put into words what I was always feeling myself. Why are people always working so hard? Surely it would be all right to stop and just take it easy,” says Fukusato. “It’s not just for the money. People really throw themselves into their work, and they feel a sense of accomplishment when they complete something. That, surely, is at the heart of what work means to most people. That’s the thing about commercials—if you can include an element of the truth like that, and maybe spice it up with some humor, it can really resonate with audiences.”

A 2017 outing, “A breath of fresh air: where is everyone?” was set in the office of an IT company developing smartphone apps. It contained the following snatch of prescient dialogue.
Sakai Masato: “What’s going on? Has no one come in today?”

Sugisaki Hana: “The company president and team manager are working from the co-working space. Sugiyama-san and Kumi-chan are using up their paid leave allowance, and Tanaka-san is in a meeting on remote. So, yes: there’s no one actually in the office.”

Sakai (to Narita Ryō, via video teleconferencing screen): “Why didn’t you come into the office today?”

Narita (from his garden at home): “Why should I? What’s the need?”

Jones: “The inhabitants of this planet seem likely to have a decreasing need for the office in the years to come.”
Several years on, this dialogue seems to have accurately predicted the “workstyle reform” trend that has become a mantra in corporate Japan in recent years—and especially in recent months, spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic. Here again, Fukusato incorporated an “element of the truth” into his script: If you can do your work from anywhere, why go in to the office at all? Even the manager, played by Sakai, can’t argue with the logic of it: “Hmm, now you put it that way, maybe you’re right . . .”

“I think probably a series like this wouldn’t work in other countries,” Fukusato believes. “A lot of the time, I think, clients overseas want to emphasize how a product can offer solutions to problems. This series isn’t like that. The alien just describes some aspect of earthling behavior and then at the end gulps down a can of coffee. It’s the empathy and fellow-feeling he comes to feel for the people he is observing that gradually develops the image of the brand.”

In May this year—at the height of Japan’s state of emergency, amid stay-at-home requests and shuttered businesses around the country—a special digest edition of the commercial was released, featuring 90 seconds of “Advice from an Alien” culled from excerpts from previous episodes aired over the previous 14 years. “First of all, make sure to wash your hands really well,” the clip begins. Wear masks, maintain distance from others, stay at home, open windows to air out your rooms from time to time, the spot continues. And above all, “show appreciation for the efforts of people who are working to save lives and keep society running.” The success of this mini-masterpiece was made possible by the accumulated stock of clips showing “Alien Jones” in various settings alongside the hard-working people of Japan. The outer-space visitor’s words of encouragement offer solace for us all, wherever we may be living and working on this lousy but wonderful little planet.

“Advice from an Alien” (May 2020)

(Courtesy Suntory; © Jiji Press)

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: “Make sure to wash your hands really well,” says Tommy Lee Jones, as Alien Jones, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in May 2020. With thanks to One Sky. Photos of Fukusato Shin’ichi ©

Content retrieved from:

Hitachi’s Action on Climate Change to Achieve “Hitachi Environmental Innovation 2050”

Recent Developments Regarding Climate Change

A series of natural disasters occurred around the world during 2018 in which climate change is believed to play a part, including extreme rainfall events in Japan, wildfires in California, and drought in Europe. Climate change is starting to have an impact on human activity much faster than expected.

Internationally, a number of developments have taken place in relation to climate change. “Global Warming of 1.5°C,” a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in 2018, makes the point that most of the effects of climate change can be avoided if the temperature rise is limited to 1.5°C. The 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) held in December of that year adopted guidelines for implementing the Paris Accord that came into effect in 2016. Meanwhile, the European Commission of the European Union issued new reduction targets in November 2018 that set a target of net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases within its territory by 2050. In April 2019, the Japanese government issued a long-term strategy expressing its policy of achieving net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases as soon as possible.

Along with rapidly expanding ESG investment*, institutional investors such as pension funds and insurers who invest for the long term are also taking steps to pursue corporate action on climate change for financial reasons. In June 2017, at the request of the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) set up by Japan’s Financial Stability Board issued a statement calling for companies to disclose information for investors on climate-related risks and opportunities and the associated governance. The Japanese government also followed up on these developments, with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry formulating TCFD guidelines in 2018, establishing the Study Group on Implementing TCFD for mobilizing green finance through proactive corporate disclosure. Subsequently, a TCFD Consortium was launched in May 2019 with participation by TCFD member companies; the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry; the Financial Services Agency; and the Ministry of the Environment.

Given these developments, the expectation for companies is that they will take the lead in the decarbonization of society.

Hitachi’s Environmental Vision and Long-term Targets

Hitachi engages in environmental management with a long-term perspective based on its corporate mission of “contributing to society through the development of superior and original technology and products.”

Hitachi’s Environmental Vision lays out the future directions for Hitachi on environmental matters, expressing its long-term commitment to achieving a sustainable society together with improvements in people’s quality of life (QoL) by working through its Social Innovation Business to overcome societal challenges.

To achieve the low-carbon society, the resource-efficient society, and the society harmonized with nature that are component parts of the sustainable society envisaged by the Environmental Vision, Hitachi has formulated long-term environmental targets that look ahead to 2030 and 2050, publishing these as “Hitachi Environmental Innovation 2050.”

Based on an IPCC scenario for keeping temperature rise to less than 2°C, one of the measures adopted by Hitachi for achieving a low-carbon society is its target of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in its value chain in FY2050 by 80% relative to FY2010.

Hitachi formulates three-yearly environmental action plans and engages in activities aimed at achieving these long-term environmental targets. The environmental action plans are implemented across the Hitachi Group by way of environmental strategy officers appointed in each business unit and major group company.

Measures for Achieving a Low-carbon Society

In seeking to achieve a low-carbon society, it is important that Hitachi reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in its corporate activities, especially the emissions of CO2 that accompany energy consumption.

A calculation of the emissions of CO2 across Hitachi’s entire value chain shows that 90% of total emissions occur during the use of the products and services it sells. Here, the term “value chain” refers to the sequence of steps involved in the supply of products, services, and solutions, encompassing materials and parts procurement, production, transportation, use, and ultimate disposal and recycling. As Hitachi’s business includes many products and services that consume large amounts of energy during use, the key to achieving the target lies in reducing CO2 emissions in the use of these products (by making them more energy efficient).

Expansion of Low-carbon Businesses to Reduce CO2 Emissions from Products in Use

To reduce CO2 emissions at the stage of the value chain where products are actually used, Hitachi will need to expand its low-carbon businesses (those that reduce the carbon emissions associated with products and services) in the sectors where its activities are focused, including energy, mobility, lifestyle, industry, and information technology (IT).

In the energy sector, this involves the supply of energy systems that are based on renewables and other forms of energy that do not derive from fossil fuels and the implementation of smart grids with benefits that include more efficient and reliable electricity transmission and distribution. In terms of mobility, Hitachi is seeking to make transportation more energy efficient by boosting uptake of the electric power trains used in electric vehicles (EVs) and other products. In the lifestyle sector, Hitachi is seeking to make cities more efficient by working on total solutions for buildings that improve all aspects of their efficiency. In IT, Hitachi is helping reduce energy consumption by supplying innovative digital solutions and enhancing the efficiency of various different systems used in society.

The following sections give examples of low-carbon businesses in which Hitachi is involved. If products can be made more efficient, such that they consume less energy while still delivering equal or better functionality, then they will help reduce CO2 emissions during their use.

The Super Amorphous Zero S Series transformers made by Hitachi Industrial Equipment Systems Co., Ltd. use an amorphous alloy and are up to 13% more energy-efficient than previous transformers, giving them industry-leading energy performance that is up to 166% of the Top Runner standard. Thanks to optimization of the design, the new transformers have roughly the same size and installation dimensions as the previous models, making them suitable for sites where installation space is limited or for improving energy efficiency as part of an equipment upgrade.

Air compressors are widely used to supply compressed air as a source of power at industrial facilities. Hitachi’s oil-free scroll compressors feature low noise and vibration, do not require lubricant, and are widely used in applications such as the food industry, healthcare, and research. An oil-free scroll compressor with a built-in amorphous motor achieves even better energy efficiency than previous models though use of a motor that satisfies the highest international efficiency standard (IE5).

Reducing Production CO2 Emissions at Factories and Offices

Ways of reducing CO2 emissions during the production stage of the value chain include making production at factories and offices more efficient, promoting energy efficiency, and making greater use of renewable energy.

Hitachi undertakes rigorous efficiency-improvement and energy-saving measures at its own factories and offices. At factories, it is working on using the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve productivity, the installation of smart meters to reduce the amount of energy consumed in production, and the utilization of renewable energy.

At Omika Works, activities include use of smart manufacturing practices to save energy at the site. This includes installation of 940 kW of photovoltaic panels and 4.2 MWh of battery storage to make greater use of renewable energy, and the site is also seeking to improve productivity and reduce the load on the environment through the use of the IoT to save energy, having installed smart meters at approximately 900 locations.

Hitachi also supplies a wide variety of solutions to its customers that are based on the highly efficient production models established at Omika Works. These use digital technology to bring innovations to the manufacturing workplace while also helping customers to lower CO2 emissions by being more energy-efficient.

Publication of Climate Change Information

The IPCC has developed a number of different scenarios for future climate change, including one in which a low-carbon society succeeds in keeping the temperature rise to within 2°C and another where countermeasures prove inadequate and temperatures rise by 4°C or more. In a statement, the TCFD called for companies to provide information on whether they will be able to remain in business under these different scenarios and to indicate whether they are aware of the risks and opportunities that climate change poses.

Hitachi expressed its approval of the TCFD statement in June 2018 and set about providing the requested information. While Hitachi had published its assessment of the risks and opportunities of both climate change and water in previous editions of its Hitachi Sustainability Report, the information in the 2018 report was collated in accordance with the classifications used in the TCFD statement. These included the risks associated with the transition to a low-carbon economy, the risks from the physical impacts of climate change, and so on.

One of the risks of transitioning to a low-carbon economy identified by Hitachi is the potential for increases in production costs brought about by tighter government policy and regulation, such as a carbon tax, taxation of fuel and energy consumption, or emissions trading. To address this risk, Hitachi invested about 5.4 billion yen in energy efficiency during FY2017 to improve production efficiency and to make its products use less energy.

Another risk is that Hitachi’s low-carbon technology will lose market competitiveness. Having set an ambitious target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by FY2050, Hitachi is striving to improve its technologies for producing products and services that will help create a low-carbon society. Meanwhile, addressing this risk has the potential to create opportunities for higher market prices or revenues through the supply of innovative products and services that deliver energy efficiency. Accordingly, actions by Hitachi include the development of innovative devices and materials that will contribute to the development and wider adoption of highly efficient products and low-carbon energy and to reducing the load on the environment.

Hitachi has also given thought to the physical impacts of climate change such as interruptions to plant operation resulting from more frequent natural disasters. Hitachi strives to reduce risks in ways that take account of the particular topography and other characteristics of each site, including by assessing factors such as potential for flooding when selecting sites for factories or other new facilities, and also by compiling business continuity plans (BCPs) that specify what to do if a disaster does happen.

Future Activities

By engaging in low-carbon businesses through its Social Innovation Business, Hitachi is seeking to reduce the emission of CO2 during product use, which accounts for the bulk of its greenhouse gas emissions. Hitachi is also introducing measures for improving efficiency and saving energy at the factories and offices where the production stage of the value chain takes place.

Being a year in which Hitachi will publish an updated edition of its three-yearly environmental action plan, FY2019 will see the formulation of new plans for FY2021 and the commencement of action to implement these across the company. Hitachi believes that, by consistently hitting the targets set in these successive environmental action plans, it will achieve its long-term environmental targets and make a contribution to creating a low-carbon society.

Hitachi intends to continue contributing to the achievement of the sustainable, low-carbon society envisaged by its Environmental Vision.


*: ESG investment: Investment that takes account not only of conventional financial information, but also environmental, social, and governance considerations.

Microsoft Had a Crazy Idea to Put Servers Under Water—and It Totally Worked

A little over two years ago, a shipping container-sized cylinder bearing Microsoft’s name and logo was lowered onto the ocean floor off the northern coast of Scotland. Inside were 864 servers, and their submersion was part of the second phase of the software giant’s Project Natick. Launched in 2015, the project’s purpose is to determine the feasibility of underwater data centers powered by offshore renewable energy.

A couple months ago, the deep-sea servers were brought back up to the surface so engineers could inspect them and evaluate how they’d performed while under water.

But wait—why were they there in the first place?

As bizarre as it seems to sink hundreds of servers into the ocean, there are actually several very good reasons to do so. According to the UN, about 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of an ocean. As internet connectivity expands to cover most of the globe in the next few years, millions more people will come online, and a lot more servers will be needed to manage the increased demand and data they’ll generate.

In densely-populated cities real estate is expensive and can be hard to find. But know where there’s lots of cheap, empty space? At the bottom of the ocean. This locale also carries the added benefit of being really cold (depending where we’re talking, that is; if you’re looking off the coast of, say, Mumbai or Abu Dhabi, the waters are warmer).

Servers generate a lot of heat, and datacenters use most of their electricity for cooling. Keeping not just the temperature but also the humidity level constant is important for optimal functioning of the servers; neither of these vary much 100 feet under water.

Finally, installing data centers on the ocean floor is, surprisingly, much faster than building them on land. Microsoft claims its server-holding cylinders will take less than 90 days to go from factory ship to operation, as compared to the average two years it takes to get a terrestrial data center up and running.

Microsoft’s Special Projects team operated the underwater data center for two years, and it took a full day to dredge it up and bring it to the surface. One of the first things researchers did was to insert test tubes into the container to take samples of the air inside; they’ll use it to try to determine how gases released from the equipment may have impacted the servers’ operating environment.

The container was filled with dry nitrogen upon deployment, which seems to have made for a much better environment than the oxygen that land-bound servers are normally surrounded by; the failure rate of the servers in the water was just one-eighth that of Microsoft’s typical rate for its servers on land. The team thinks the nitrogen atmosphere was helpful because it’s less corrosive than oxygen. The fact that no humans entered the container for the entirety of its operations helped, too (no moving around of components or having to turn on lights or adjust the temperature).

Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group who leads Project Natick, believes the results of this phase of the project are sufficient to show that underwater data centers are worth pursuing. “We are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go and prove out some more,” he said.

Cutler envisions putting underwater datacenters near offshore wind farms to power them sustainably. The data centers of the future will require less human involvement, instead being managed and run primarily by technologies like robotics and AI. In this kind of “lights-out” datacenter, the servers would be swapped out about once every five years, with any that fail before then being taken offline.

The final step in this phase of Project Natick is to recycle all the components used for the underwater data center, including the steel pressure vessel, heat exchangers, and the servers themselves—and restoring the sea bed where the cylinder rested back to its original condition.

If Cutler’s optimism is a portent of things to come, it may not be long before the ocean floor is dotted with sustainable datacenters to feed our ever-increasing reliance on our phones and the internet.

Image Credit: Microsoft

Walmart Is Piloting Drone Delivery in North Carolina

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to quickly adapt to circumstances that were unimaginable a year ago. Companies are finding new ways to do business, and in the process we’re seeing an acceleration of technologies that, though they were already in the pipeline, would have taken several more years to really pick up speed.

One of these technologies is drones. Though the regulations around them are still somewhat piecemeal, drones have seen a steady uptick in practical use cases over the last couple years. Then along came a virus that made people want to stay at home, avoid interaction with strangers, and buy a lot more of the products they need for day-to-day life online (Amazon’s stock has gone up by more than 50 percent this year, and the company has had to hire 175,000 new employees to keep up with the huge demand spike in online purchases).

As America’s biggest retailer (as of 2019 it still far outpaced Amazon in terms of revenue), it’s only logical that Walmart is rushing to keep up—and looking to cutting-edge tech to help. This week the company launched a pilot drone delivery program in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In partnership with drone company Flytrex, the mega-retailer is initially planning to use drones to deliver grocery and household items.

Flytrex has been around since 2013, and has aimed to cater to people living in suburban areas; the company’s website emphasizes that urbanites have access to plenty of shopping and delivery options, while suburb-dwellers tend to be at least a few-mile drive away from stores and often don’t have access to a lot of home delivery services.

Flytrex drones go 32 miles per hour, have a cruising height of 230 feet, and can carry up to 6.6 pounds (“6-8 hamburgers” is the somewhat odd example their website gives for this weight). The drones don’t have any onboard cameras, navigating with GPS and sensors only, and they can fly about seven miles before needing a recharge. The company has been working with Icelandic retailer AHA since 2018, delivering groceries to peoples’ backyards in Reykjavik.

Controlled via a cloud-based dashboard, the Walmart delivery drones will hover 80 feet above customers’ yards and lower their orders down using a tether. This seems more complication-prone than other final-delivery options, like having the drone land and the customer pull their order from it, but hey, we’re in a pandemic and contact-free everything is what’s in style.

Walmart and Flytrex haven’t yet said how long the pilot program will last nor when or whether it will be expanded to other areas. But drone delivery is set to be a trend that only grows; a 2019 study estimated that the number of delivery drones in the global e-commerce industry will reach 2.2 million units by 2025, in the process creating a slew of jobs to repair and maintain the drones. Amazon was just granted FAA approval for drone delivery at the end of August, and will soon start its own pilot program in the US.

It will be a while still before we can look up and regularly see drones whizzing across the sky, or have one drop our packages in the yard for us—but the wheels (and propellers) have definitely been set in motion.

Image Credit: Walmart

Microsoft’s New Deepfake Detector Puts Reality to the Test

The upcoming US presidential election seems set to be something of a mess—to put it lightly. Covid-19 will likely deter millions from voting in person, and mail-in voting isn’t shaping up to be much more promising. This all comes at a time when political tensions are running higher than they have in decades, issues that shouldn’t be political (like mask-wearing) have become highly politicized, and Americans are dramatically divided along party lines.

So the last thing we need right now is yet another wrench in the spokes of democracy, in the form of disinformation; we all saw how that played out in 2016, and it wasn’t pretty. For the record, disinformation purposely misleads people, while misinformation is simply inaccurate, but without malicious intent. While there’s not a ton tech can do to make people feel safe at crowded polling stations or up the Postal Service’s budget, tech can help with disinformation, and Microsoft is trying to do so.

On Tuesday the company released two new tools designed to combat disinformation, described in a blog post by VP of Customer Security and Trust Tom Burt and Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz.

The first is Microsoft Video Authenticator, which is made to detect deepfakes. In case you’re not familiar with this wicked byproduct of AI progress, “deepfakes” refers to audio or visual files made using artificial intelligence that can manipulate peoples’ voices or likenesses to make it look like they said things they didn’t. Editing a video to string together words and form a sentence someone didn’t say doesn’t count as a deepfake; though there’s manipulation involved, you don’t need a neural network and you’re not generating any original content or footage.

The Authenticator analyzes videos or images and tells users the percentage chance that they’ve been artificially manipulated. For videos, the tool can even analyze individual frames in real time.

Deepfake videos are made by feeding hundreds of hours of video of someone into a neural network, “teaching” the network the minutiae of the person’s voice, pronunciation, mannerisms, gestures, etc. It’s like when you do an imitation of your annoying coworker from accounting, complete with mimicking the way he makes every sentence sound like a question and his eyes widen when he talks about complex spreadsheets. You’ve spent hours—no, months—in his presence and have his personality quirks down pat. An AI algorithm that produces deepfakes needs to learn those same quirks, and more, about whoever the creator’s target is.

Given enough real information and examples, the algorithm can then generate its own fake footage, with deepfake creators using computer graphics and manually tweaking the output to make it as realistic as possible.

The scariest part? To make a deepfake, you don’t need a fancy computer or even a ton of knowledge about software. There are open-source programs people can access for free online, and as far as finding video footage of famous people—well, we’ve got YouTube to thank for how easy that is.

Microsoft’s Video Authenticator can detect the blending boundary of a deepfake and subtle fading or greyscale elements that the human eye may not be able to see.

In the blog post, Burt and Horvitz point out that as time goes by, deepfakes are only going to get better and become harder to detect; after all, they’re generated by neural networks that are continuously learning from and improving themselves.

Microsoft’s counter-tactic is to come in from the opposite angle, that is, being able to confirm beyond doubt that a video, image, or piece of news is real (I mean, can McDonald’s fries cure baldness? Did a seal slap a kayaker in the face with an octopus? Never has it been so imperative that the world know the truth).

A tool built into Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud computing service, lets content producers add digital hashes and certificates to their content, and a reader (which can be used as a browser extension) checks the certificates and matches the hashes to indicate the content is authentic.

Finally, Microsoft also launched an interactive “Spot the Deepfake” quiz it developed in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, deepfake detection company Sensity, and USA Today. The quiz is intended to help people “learn about synthetic media, develop critical media literacy skills, and gain awareness of the impact of synthetic media on democracy.”

The impact Microsoft’s new tools will have remains to be seen—but hey, we’re glad they’re trying. And they’re not alone; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all taken steps to ban and remove deepfakes from their sites. The AI Foundation’s Reality Defender uses synthetic media detection algorithms to identify fake content. There’s even a coalition of big tech companies teaming up to try to fight election interference.

One thing is for sure: between a global pandemic, widespread protests and riots, mass unemployment, a hobbled economy, and the disinformation that’s remained rife through it all, we’re going to need all the help we can get to make it through not just the election, but the rest of the conga-line-of-catastrophes year that is 2020.

Image Credit: Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Facebook Wants to Make Smart Robots to Explore Every Nook and Cranny of Your Home

“Hey Alexa, turn on the kitchen light.”

“Hey Alexa, play soothing music at volume three.”

“Hey Alexa, tell me where to find my keys.”

You can ask an Alexa or Google home assistant questions about facts, news, or the weather, and make commands for whatever you’ve synced them to (lights, alarms, TVs, etc.). But helping you find things is a capability that hasn’t quite come to pass yet; smart home assistants are essentially very rudimentary, auditory-only “brains” with limited functions.

But what if home assistants had a “body” too? How much more would they be able to do for us? (And what if the answer is “more than we want”?)

If Facebook’s AI research objectives are successful, it may not be long before home assistants take on a whole new range of capabilities. Last week the company announced new work focused on advancing what it calls “embodied AI”: basically, a smart robot that will be able to move around your house to help you remember things, find things, and maybe even do things.

Robots That Hear, Home Assistants That See

In Facebook’s blog post about audio-visual navigation for embodied AI, the authors point out that most of today’s robots are “deaf”; they move through spaces based purely on visual perception. The company’s new research aims to train AI using both visual and audio data, letting smart robots detect and follow objects that make noise as well as use sounds to understand a physical space.

The company is using a dataset called SoundSpaces to train AI. SoundSpaces simulates sounds you might hear in an indoor environment, like doors opening and closing, water running, a TV show playing, or a phone ringing. What’s more, the nature of these sounds varies based on where they’re coming from; the center of a room versus a corner of it, or a large, open room versus a small, enclosed one. SoundSpaces incorporates geometric details of spaces so that its AI can learn to navigate based on audio.

This means, the paper explains, that an AI “can now act upon ‘go find the ringing phone’ rather than ‘go to the phone that is 25 feet southwest of your current position.’ It can discover the goal position on its own using multimodal sensing.”

The company also introduced SemanticMapnet, a mapping tool that creates pixel-level maps of indoor spaces to help robots understand and navigate them. You can easily answer questions about your home or office space like “How many pieces of furniture are in the living room?” or “Which wall of the kitchen is the stove against?” The goal with SemanticMapnet is for smart robots to be able to do the same—and help us find and remember things in the process.

These tools expand on Facebook’s Replica dataset and Habitat simulator platform, released in mid-2019.

The company envisions its new tools eventually being integrated into augmented reality glasses, which would take in all kinds of details about the wearer’s environment and be able to remember those details and recall them on demand. Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, told CNN Business, “If you can build these systems, they can help you remember the important parts of your life.”

Smart Assistants, Dumb People?

But before embracing these tools, we should consider their deeper implications. Don’t we want to be able to remember the important parts of our lives without help from digital assistants?

Take GPS. Before it came along, we were perfectly capable of getting from point A to point B using paper maps, written instructions, and good old-fashioned brain power (and maybe occasionally stopping to ask another human for directions). But now we blindly rely on our phones to guide us through every block of our journeys. Ever notice how much harder it seems to learn your way around a new place or remember the way to a new part of town than it used to?

The seemingly all-encompassing wisdom of digital tools can lead us to trust them unquestioningly, sometimes to our detriment (both in indirect ways—using our brains less—and direct ways, like driving a car into the ocean or nearly off a cliff because the GPS said to).

It seems like the more of our thinking we outsource to machines, the less we’re able to think on our own. Is that a trend we’d be wise to continue? Do we really need or want smart robots to tell us where our keys are or whether we forgot to add the salt while we’re cooking?

While allowing AI to take on more of our cognitive tasks and functions—to become our memory, which is essentially what Facebook’s new tech is building towards—will make our lives easier in some ways, it will also come with hidden costs or unintended consequences, as most technologies do. We must not only be aware of these consequences, but carefully weigh them against a technology’s benefits before integrating it into our lives—and our homes.

Image Credit: snake3d /

New Engineering Report Finds Privately Built Border Wall Will Fail

This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues.

It’s not a matter of if a privately built border fence along the shores of the Rio Grande will fail, it’s a matter of when, according to a new engineering report on the troubled project.

The report is one of two new studies set to be filed in federal court this week that found numerous deficiencies in the 3-mile border fence, built this year by North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel. The reports confirm earlier reporting from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, which found that segments of the structure were in danger of overturning due to extensive erosion if not fixed and properly maintained. Fisher dismissed the concerns as normal post-construction issues.

Donations that paid for part of the border fence are at the heart of an indictment against members of the We Build the Wall nonprofit, which raised more than $25 million to help President Donald Trump build a border wall.

Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage and two others connected to the organization are accused of siphoning donor money to pay off personal debt and fund lavish lifestyles. All four, who face up to 20 years in prison on each of the two counts they face, have pleaded not guilty, and Bannon has called the charges a plot to stop border wall construction.

We Build the Wall, whose executive board is made up of influential immigration hard-liners like Bannon, Kris Kobach and Tom Tancredo, contributed $1.5 million of the cost of the $42 million private border fence project south of Mission, Texas.

Last year, the nonprofit also hired Fisher to build a half-mile fence segment in Sunland Park, New Mexico, outside El Paso.

Company president Tommy Fisher, a frequent guest on Fox News, had called the Rio Grande fence the “Lamborghini” of border walls and bragged that his company’s methods could help Trump reach his Election Day goal of about 500 new miles of barriers along the southern border.

Instead, one engineer who reviewed the two reports on behalf of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune likened Fisher’s fence to a used Toyota Yaris.

“It seems like they are cutting corners everywhere,” said Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It’s not a Lamborghini, it’s a $500 used car.”

Since Fisher’s companies embarked on construction of the Rio Grande fence, the Trump administration has awarded about $2 billion in federal contracts to the firms to build segments of the border wall in other locations.

Fisher agreed to the inspection as part of ongoing lawsuits against Fisher Sand and Gravel filed last year by the National Butterfly Center and the International Boundary and Water Commission. They unsuccessfully sought to convince a federal judge to stop the construction of the project until the potential impacts of the wall on the Rio Grande could be determined.

Mark Tompkins, an environmental engineer hired by the wildlife refuge, noted in his report that widespread erosion and scouring occurred after heavy rain events such as Hurricane Hanna in July, but that the fence has yet to experience a flood of the Rio Grande.

“Fisher Industries’ private bollard fence will fail during extreme high flow events,” concluded Tompkins, who specializes in river management.

Fisher Industries has installed a 10-foot-wide road made with rocks to help address erosion issues while allowing access by Border Patrol agents.
Courtesy of Fisher Industries

“When extreme flow events, laden with sediment and debris, completely undermine the foundation of the fence and create a flow path under the fence or cause a segment of the fence to topple into the river, unpredictable and damaging hydraulics will occur,” he added in an affidavit to be filed in court.

Experts have said the fence will face a never-ending battle with erosion given its proximity to the water and the sandy, silty material of the banks. In the Rio Grande Valley, the federal government usually builds sections of the wall miles inland on top of existing levees, partly due to erosion concerns.

A second report, based on a geotechnical and structural inspection by the Millennium Engineers Group of Pharr, Texas, also hired by the National Butterfly Center, found that the fence was stable for now, but that it faces a host of issues. They include soil erosion on the river side — in some areas gaps up to three feet wide and waist deep, concrete cracking, construction flaws and what the firm concluded was likely substandard construction material below the fence’s foundation.

The Millennium engineers called for a clay covering to protect the embankment from erosion, as well as closely monitoring the project.

Its conclusion: “The geography at the wall’s construction location in comparison to the river bend is not at a favorable location for long-term performance.”

According to a copy of an operation and maintenance plan, Fisher Sand and Gravel plans quarterly inspections of the fence as well as extra checkups after large storms. The company had also said it would plant grasses that better hold in place the sandy riverbank and add a layer of rocks to lessen erosion. New soil will also be “treated and seeded” to help fill ground cover.

Tompkins called the maintenance plan “completely inadequate” and a “haphazard and unprofessional approach to long-term maintenance.”

Tommy Fisher said Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on the reports because he hadn’t reviewed them. But he added that his company has fixed all of the erosion, in part by adding a 10-foot-wide road made out of rocks for the Border Patrol to drive over that his crew considered big enough so it wouldn’t be as easily displaced. He estimates it will cost up to $150,000.

“Bottom line, if you want border security on the border you have to think outside the box,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with what we’ve done.”

In July, Fisher appeared on a podcast hosted by Bannon, who called Fisher “kind of a mentor” who “taught me really about how you actually have to build a wall.”

Asked about the engineering concerns, which Bannon said were part of a “hit piece,” Fisher called them “absolutely nonsense.”

“I would invite any of these engineers that so-called said this was gonna fall over, I’ll meet ‘em there next week. … If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you probably shouldn’t start talking,” he said. “It’s working unbelievably well. There’s a little erosion maintenance we have to maintain.”

But to experts, Fisher’s planned fixes are inadequate.

“To me, it’s almost like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” said Adriana E. Martinez, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor and geomorphologist who reviewed the reports on behalf of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

Officials with the International Boundary Commission have said that they too have found “significant erosion,” but spokeswoman Sally Spener said she couldn’t elaborate on that or on mitigation plans due to pending litigation. The binational body regulates building in the floodplain between the U.S. and Mexico because structures can worsen flooding and alter the course of the river, potentially violating international water treaties.

The Mexican section of the commission has said it worries the wall could obstruct the river’s flow or be knocked down by the force of the water, according to Spener.

Trump tried to distance himself from the private fence after the ProPublica/Tribune stories, saying that he had never agreed with it and that it had been done to make him look bad. He again distanced himself from the project and We Build the Wall after the charges against Bannon and the others.

“When I read about it, I didn’t like it,” he said. “It was showboating and maybe looking for funds. But you’ll have to see what happens.”

Last November, We Build the Wall representatives met with Customs and Border Protection officials about donating the group’s first border wall project — a half-mile fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just outside El Paso. According to a memo obtained by The Nation, CBP called it an “overall positive meet and greet.”

But the federal agency identified several areas of concern with the Sunland Park project, including the possibility that it would require an environmental assessment, but also the fact that Fisher Industries had inflated the speed with which it could complete the project.

“Their performance on this small project shows that some claims may have been inflated due to lack of experience with this type of work,” the memo states.

Fisher has said he wants to donate the Rio Grande fence to the federal government as well, although it’s unclear whether the government will take it. The fence likely will come with a hefty tax bill if not donated, after Hidalgo County recently appraised the land’s value at more than $20 million, which Fisher said his company will fight.

The next court hearing regarding the pending federal lawsuits is scheduled for Sept. 10.