Google suspends Gemini AI chatbot's ability to generate pictures of people

Chatbot's ability suspended

Google said Thursday it is temporarily stopping its Gemini artificial intelligence chatbot from generating images of people a day after apologizing for “inaccuracies” in historical depictions that it was creating.

Gemini users this week posted screenshots on social media of historically white-dominated scenes with racially diverse characters that they say it generated, leading critics to raise questions about whether the company is over-correcting for the risk of racial bias in its AI model.

“We’re already working to address recent issues with Gemini’s image generation feature,” Google said in a post on the social media platform X. “While we do this, we’re going to pause the image generation of people and will re-release an improved version soon.”

Previous studies have shown AI image-generators can amplify racial and gender stereotypes found in their training data, and without filters are more likely to show lighter-skinned men when asked to generate a person in various contexts.

Google said on Wednesday that it's “aware that Gemini is offering inaccuracies in some historical image generation depictions” and that it's "working to improve these kinds of depictions immediately."

Gemini can generate a “wide range of people,” which the company said is “generally a good thing" because people around the world use the system but it is “missing the mark.”

University of Washington researcher Sourojit Ghosh, who has studied bias in AI image-generators, said he's in favor of Google pausing the generation of people's faces but is a “little conflicted about how we got to this outcome.” Contrary to claims of so-called “white erasure” and the premise that Gemini refuses to generate faces of white people — ideas circulating on social media this week — Ghosh's research has largely found the opposite.

“The rapidness of this response in the face of a lot of other literature and a lot of other research that has shown traditionally marginalized people being erased by models like this — I find a little difficult to square,” he said.

When the AP asked Gemini to generate pictures of people, or even just a big crowd, it responded by saying it's “working to improve” the ability to do so. “We expect this feature to return soon and will notify you in release updates when it does,” the chatbot said.

Ghosh said it's likely that Google can find a way to filter responses to reflect the historical context of a user's prompt, but solving the broader harms posed by image-generators built on generations of photos and artwork found on the internet requires more than a technical patch.

“You’re not going to overnight come up with a text-to-image generator that does not cause representational harm,” he said. “They are a reflection of the society in which we live.”

Maple Leaf Foods reports $9.3M Q4 loss compared with $41.5M loss a year earlier

Losses at Maple Leaf Foods

Maple Leaf Foods Inc. reported a fourth-quarter loss of $9.3 million compared with a loss of $41.5 million a year earlier.

The meat processor says the loss amounted to eight cents per share for the quarter ended Dec. 31 compared with a loss of 34 cents per share in its fourth quarter of 2022.

Sales totalled $1.19 billion for the quarter, about the same as a year earlier.

Sales for the company's meat protein business amounted to $1.16 million, up from $1.15 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022, while plant protein sales totalled $36.5 million, down from $40.0 million a year earlier.

On an adjusted basis, Maple Leaf says it earned eight cents per share in its latest quarter compared with an adjusted loss of 28 cents per share in the fourth quarter of 2022.

Maple Leaf also announced that Adam Grogan has been promoted to the role of chief operating officer, while Casey Richards has been posted to the newly created job of president, Maple Leaf Foods USA.


Canadian retail sales up 0.9% in December, helped by stronger new car sales

Retail sales up 0.9%

Statistics Canada says retail sales rose 0.9 per cent to $67.3 billion in December, helped by strength in sales at new car dealers.

However, the agency says its early estimate of retail sales for January points to a decrease of 0.4 per cent for the first month of 2024.

For December, Statistics Canada says sales were up in five of the nine subsectors it tracks.

Sales for the motor vehicle and parts dealers subsector rose 1.9 per cent, helped by a 2.4 increase in sales at new car dealers, offset in part by a 2.7 per cent drop at automotive parts, accessories and tire retailers.

Core retail sales — which exclude gasoline stations and fuel vendors, as well as motor vehicle and parts dealers — were up 0.5 per cent in December.

In volume terms, Statistics Canada says retail sales rose 0.8 per cent in December.


Teck Resources reports Q4 profit up and record copper production

Teck sees jump in copper

Teck Resources Ltd. reported its fourth-quarter profit rose compared with a year earlier as it ramped up operations at its Quebrada Blanca mine and produced a record amount of copper.

The Vancouver-based mining company says it earned a profit attributable to shareholders of $483 million or 92 cents per diluted share for the quarter ended Dec. 31, up from $266 million or 51 cents per diluted share a year earlier.

On an adjusted basis, Teck says it earned $1.40 per diluted share in its latest quarter, up from an adjusted profit of $1.07 per diluted share a year earlier.

Revenue totalled $4.11 billion, up from $3.14 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022.

Production in the quarter totalled 103,000 tonnes of copper, up from 65,000 tonnes a year earlier, while zinc in concentrate production amounted to 182,000 tonnes, up from 143,000 a year earlier. Refined zinc production totalled 70,000 tonnes, up from 46,000.

Teck's steelmaking coal production rose to 6.4 million tonnes for the quarter, up from 4.9 million tonnes a year earlier.


Grocery and drugstore retailer Loblaw reports Q4 profit and revenue up from year ago

Loblaw profit rises

Loblaw Cos. Ltd. reported its fourth-quarter profit and sales rose compared with year ago.

The grocery and drugstore retailer says it earned a profit available to common shareholders of $541 million or $1.72 per diluted share for the quarter ended Dec. 30. The result compared with a profit of $529 million or $1.62 per diluted share in the last three months of 2022.

Revenue totalled $14.53 billion, up from $14.01 billion a year earlier.

Food retail same-stores sales rose by 2.0 per cent, while drug retail same-store sales increased 4.6 per cent, with front store same-store sales growth of 1.7 per cent and pharmacy and health-care services same-store sales growth of 8.0 per cent.

On an adjusted basis, Loblaw says it earned $2 per share in its latest quarter compared with an adjusted profit of $1.76 per share a year earlier.

Markets were expecting earnings per share of $1.90 as of Feb. 21, according to financial data firm Refinitiv.

"We are very pleased to deliver another year of consistent operational and financial performance, reflecting our ongoing focus on retail excellence," Loblaw chief executive Per Bank said in statement on Thursday.

"Canadians continue to recognize the superior value and service we provide across our network, something all 220,000 of our colleagues are proud to deliver each and every day."

In its outlook for 2024, Loblaw said it expects its retail business to grow earnings faster than sales, with growth of adjusted net earnings per common share in the high single-digits.

The company said it will also continue to invest in its store network and distribution centres with a net investment of $1.8 billion in capital expenditures, including $2.2 billion in gross capital investments offset in part by about $400 million in proceeds from property sales.

The latest results come as Loblaw faces pressure from politicians and Canadian shoppers regarding inflation and the cost of groceries.

The company recently had to walk back a decision to reduce its discount on food items nearing their sell-by date after the move drew intense scrutiny.

Loblaw is also being urged by politicians to sign on to the grocery code of conduct, which it and Walmart Canada have said could raise prices.

The earnings follow an announcement by Loblaw on Tuesday that it planned to build more than 40 new stores, expand or relocate 10 stores and renovate more than 700 locations across its banners.

The company, which owns the Loblaws, Shoppers Drug Mart, No Frills, Real Canadian Superstore and T&T banners, has a network of 2,500 stores across the country.

The company said the investment plan will introduce more than 40 new discount stores and 140 new pharmacy care clinics, and will create more than 7,500 jobs in stores and in construction.

Americans reporting nationwide cellular outages from AT&T, Cricket Wireless and other providers

US cellular outages

A number of Americans are dealing with cellular outages on AT&T, Cricket Wireless, Verizon, T-Mobile and other service providers, according to data from Downdetector.

AT&T had more than 73,000 outages around 9:30 a.m. ET, in locations including Houston, Atlanta and Chicago. The outages began at approximately 3:30 a.m. ET. The carrier has more than 240 million subscribers, the country's largest.

Cricket Wireless, which is owned by AT&T, had more than 13,000, the outage tracking website said Thursday.

“Some of our customers are experiencing wireless service interruptions this morning. We are working urgently to restore service to them. We encourage the use of Wi-Fi calling until service is restored,” AT&T and Cricket said in a statement.

Verizon had more than 4,000 outages and T-Mobile had more than 1,800 outages. Boost Mobile had about 700 outages.

“Verizon’s network is operating normally. Some customers experienced issues this morning when calling or texting with customers served by another carrier. We are continuing to monitor the situation,” Verizon said.

T-Mobile said that it did not experience an outage.

“Our network is operating normally. Down Detector is likely reflecting challenges our customers were having attempting to connect to users on other networks,” T-Mobile said.

Some iPhone users have seen SOS messages displayed in the status bar on their cellphones. The message indicates that the device is having trouble connecting to their cellular provider's network, but it can make emergency calls through other carrier networks, according to Apple Support.

So far, no reason has been given for the outages. But Lee McKnight, an associate professor in the iSchool at Syracuse University, believes the most likely cause of the outage is a cloud misconfiguration, or human error.

"A possible but far less likely outcome is an intentional malicious hack of ATT’s network, but the diffuse pattern of outages across the country suggests something more fundamental,” McKnight said in an emailed statement.

China plans to send San Diego Zoo more pandas this year, reintroducing panda diplomacy

Panda diplomacy returns

China plans to send a new pair of giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo, renewing its longstanding gesture of friendship toward the United States after a recalling nearly all the iconic bears on loan to U.S. zoos as relations soured between the two nations.

The China Wildlife Conservation Association has signed cooperation agreements with zoos in San Diego and Madrid, the Spanish capital, and is in talks with zoos in Washington, D.C. and Vienna, the Chinese organization said, describing the deals as a new round of collaboration on panda conservation.

San Diego Zoo officials told The Associated Press that if all permits and other requirements are approved, two bears, a male and a female, are expected to arrive as early as the end of summer, about five years after the zoo sent its last pandas back to China.

“We're very excited and hopeful,” said Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and vice president of Wildlife Conservation Science. “They've expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo.”

Zoos typically pay a fee of $1 million a year for two pandas, with the money earmarked for China's conservation efforts, according to a 2022 report by America’s Congressional Research Service.

In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised hopes his country would start sending pandas to the U.S. again after he and President Joe Biden convened in Northern California for their first face-to-face meeting in a year and pledged to try to reduce tensions.

China is considering a pair that includes a female descendent of Bai Yun and Gao Gao, two of the zoo's former residents, said Owen, an expert in panda behavior who has worked in San Diego and China.

Bai Yun, who was born in captivity in China, lived at the zoo for more than 20 years and gave birth to six cubs there. She and her son were the zoo's last pandas and returned to China in 2019.

Gao Gao was born in the wild in China and lived at the San Diego Zoo from 2003 to 2018 before being sent back.

Decades of conservation efforts in the wild and study in captivity saved the giant panda species from extinction, increasing its population from fewer than 1,000 at one time to more than 1,800 in the wild and captivity.

The black-and-white bears have long been the symbol of the U.S.-China friendship since Beijing gifted a pair of pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. China later loaned pandas to zoos to help breed cubs and boost the population.

The U.S., Spain and Austria were among the first countries to work with China on panda conservation, and 28 pandas have been born in those countries, China's official Xinhua News Agency said. The latest collaboration will include research on disease prevention and habitat protection, and contribute to China's national panda park construction, it said.

“We look forward to further expanding the research outcomes on the conservation of endangered species such as giant pandas, and promoting mutual understanding and friendship among peoples through the new round of international cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in Beijing.

Demands for the return of giant pandas, known as China’s “national treasure,” grew among the Chinese public as unproven allegations that U.S. zoos mistreated the pandas flooded Chinese social media.

Fears over the future of so-called panda diplomacy escalated last year when zoos in Memphis, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., returned their pandas to China, leaving only four pandas in the United States, all at the zoo in Atlanta. That loan agreement expires later this year.

Many loan agreements were for 10 years and often were extended well beyond. But negotiations last year to extend the agreements with U.S. zoos or send more pandas did not produce results. China watchers speculated that Beijing was gradually pulling its pandas from Western nations due to deteriorating diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other countries.

Then on Nov. 15, 2023, a week after the National Zoo's pandas departed for China, Xi spoke at a dinner in downtown San Francisco with American business executives and signaled that more pandas might be sent. He said he learned the San Diego Zoo and people in California “very much look forward to welcoming pandas back."

“I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas and went to the zoo to see them off,” Xi said.

The San Diego Zoo continued to work with their Chinese counterparts even after it no longer had any pandas.

Owen said China is particularly interested in exchanging information on the zoo's successful breeding of pandas in captivity. Giant pandas are difficult to breed in part because the female’s reproductive window is extremely narrow, lasting only 48 to 72 hours each year.

Bai Yun's first cub, Hua Mei, was also the first panda born through artificial insemination to survive into adulthood outside of China, and would go on to produce 12 cubs on her own after she was sent to China.

Bai Yun, meanwhile, remained at the zoo where she gave birth to two more females and three males. With cameras in her den, researchers monitored her, contributing to the understanding of maternal care behavior, Owen said.

“We have a lot of institutional knowledge and capacity from our last cooperative agreement, which we will be able to parlay into this next chapter, as well as training the next generation of panda conservationists,” she said.

Chinese experts would travel with the bears and spend months in San Diego, Owen said.

She said the return of the bears is not only good for San Diego but the giant panda's recovery as a species.

“We do talk about panda diplomacy all the time,” Owen said. “Diplomacy is a critical part of conservation in any number of contexts. .... If we can't learn to work together, you know, in sometimes difficult situations or situations that are completely out of the control of conservationists, then we're not going to succeed."


Toyota recalls 280,000 pickups and SUVs because transmissions can deliver power even when in neutral

280K Toyotas recalled

Toyota is recalling about 280,000 pickup trucks and SUVs in the U.S. to fix a transmission problem that can let the vehicles creep forward while in neutral.

The recall covers certain Toyota Tundra pickups and Lexus LX 600 SUVs from the 2022 and 2023 model years. Also included are 2023 and 2024 Toyota Sequoia SUVs.

Toyota said Wednesday that certain parts of the vehicles' automatic transmissions may not immediately disengage when shifted into neutral. That can transfer some engine power to the wheels. The vehicles could creep forward at low speeds on flat surfaces if the brakes aren't applied, increasing the risk of a crash.

The company wouldn't say whether there have been any crashes or injuries.

Dealers will update the transmission software to fix the problem. Owners will be notified by late April, Toyota said.

FDA warns against smartwatches and rings that claim to measure blood sugar without needles

FDA warns of smartwatches

Smartwatches and rings that claim to measure blood sugar levels for medical purposes without piercing the skin could be dangerous and should be avoided, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Wednesday.

The caution applies to any watch or ring, regardless of brand, that claims to measure blood glucose levels in a noninvasive way, the agency said. The FDA said it has not authorized any such device.

The agency's notice doesn't apply to smartwatch apps linked to sensors, such as continuous glucose monitoring systems that measure blood sugar directly.

Roughly 37 million Americans have diabetes. People with the disease aren’t able to effectively regulate their blood sugar because their bodies either don’t make enough of the hormone insulin or they have become resistant to insulin.

To manage the condition, they must regularly check their blood sugar levels with a finger prick blood test or with a sensor that places needles just under the skin to monitor glucose levels continuously.

Using the unapproved smartwatch and smart ring devices could result in inaccurate blood sugar measurements, with “potentially devastating” consequences, said Dr. Robert Gabbay, of the American Diabetes Association. That could cause patients to take the wrong doses of medication, leading to dangerous levels of blood sugar and possibly mental confusion, coma or even death.

Several companies are working on noninvasive devices to measure blood sugar, but none has created a product accurate and secure enough to get FDA approval, said Dr. David Klonoff, who has researched diabetes technology for 25 years.

The technology that allows smartwatches and rings to measure metrics like heart rate and blood oxygen is not accurate enough to measure blood sugar, said Klonoff, of the Sutter Health Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in San Mateo, California. Efforts to measure blood sugar in body fluids such as tears, sweat and saliva are not ready for prime time, either.

“It's challenging, and I believe at some point there will be at least one scientist or engineer to solve it,” Klonoff said.

In the meantime, consumers who want to measure their blood sugar accurately can buy an FDA-cleared blood glucose monitor at any pharmacy.

“It comes down to risk. If the FDA approves it, the risk is very small,” he said. “If you use a product that is not cleared by the FDA, very often the risk is very large.”

First Quantum launches US$1B bought deal as Panama closure pushes miner to the brink

Miner launches US$1B deal

First Quantum Minerals Ltd. said it will raise roughly US$1 billion through a bought deal offering and use the proceeds to repay debt and bolster its liquidity as it says its operations could be threatened by the closure of its Cobre Panamá mine.

The deal is being underwritten by a syndicate led by RBC Capital Markets, BMO Capital Markets and Goldman Sachs, where the underwriters have agreed to purchase 121,680,000 common shares of First Quantum at a price of C$11.10 each. 

In a bought deal, a bank or group of investors purchases a group of shares, usually at a discount, then sell them to a third party.

The company also said it was embarking on several other measures to shore up its finances.

Earlier in the day on Wednesday, First Quantum revealed it's seeking at least US$20 billion through international arbitration after the Panama government effectively shut down its copper mine in the country. 

The CEO of First Quantum Minerals Ltd. said arbitration is not the company's first choice and that it continues to hope it can reach a satisfactory solution with the government of Panama regarding the future of Cobre Panamá.

But Tristan Pascall told analysts on a fourth-quarter conference call Wednesday that the company commenced the arbitration process under the terms of the free-trade agreement between Canada and Panama as well as through the International Chamber of Commerce's International Court of Arbitration.

"We have provided a minimum value we saw in those proceedings of US$20 billion, reflecting an estimated fair market value of the initial investments," Pascall said.

"But in reality, with damages and interest, it could be very much higher."

First Quantum suspended production at its open-pit Cobre Panamá mine at the end of November after Panama's Supreme Court ruled that a 20-year contract allowing for its operation in the country was unconstitutional.

The mine had been the focus of ongoing blockades and widespread protest by nationalists and environmentalists concerned about its impact in a delicate jungle ecosystem.

The shutdown has had a devastating effect on First Quantum, which has said that it could take up to a decade for the company to implement the inspections, planning and environmental stability measures required by the country's government.

In the meantime, the company has said it will cost between US$15 million and US$20 million per month to safely maintain the site while it is shut down.

In the fourth quarter, the blockade around the mine impacted First Quantum's ability to ship approximately 121,000 tonnes of copper concentrate, which had been produced prior to the Supreme Court ruling. As a result, the company's revenue declined 40 per cent in the quarter to US$1.2 billion.

First Quantum Minerals Ltd. reported a net loss for the quarter of US$1.45 billion, and warned in its earnings release that the situation in Panama has impacted the company's earnings potential to the point that its ability to continue operating could be threatened within the next 12 months.

But Pascall said the company is confident in a number of initiatives it has undertaken to bolster its finances and protect against this risk, including the signing of a US$500-million copper prepay arrangement. The company is also aiming to sell off minor assets and shares in major ones, and is working with lenders to amend and extend its loan facilities.

"We have a long relationship with our lending banks, and there's a high degree of alignment among parties, and we expect to provide updates to the market in short order," he said.

First Quantum shares closed 2.58 per cent higher on the TSX Wednesday at $11.91 but have lost more than half of their value over the past year.  

Suncor breaks oilsands record, but adjusted earnings fall on weaker oil prices

Oilsands record broken

Suncor Energy Inc. says it earned $2.82 billion in the fourth quarter of 2023, up from $2.74 billion in the same period of 2022.

The Calgary-based oil company says its net earnings for the three months ended Dec. 31 work out to $2.18 per common share, and include a $1.12 billion non-cash gain as a result of the company's acquisition of TotalEnergies' Canadian oilsands operations.

On an adjusted basis, Suncor says its operating earnings were $1.63 billion, or $1.26 per common share, in the fourth quarter, compared with $2.43 billion in the prior year's quarter.

The company says the decrease was primarily due to lower crude oil prices and a weaker business environment.

Suncor's total upstream production in the quarter was 808,100 barrels of oil equivalent per day, the second-highest quarter in the company's history, while its oilsands production hit an all-time record of 757,400 boe/d.

Suncor also announced Wednesday that its board chair Michael Wilson will retire, effective March 15. He will be replaced by Russ Girling, a former CEO of TC Energy Corp. who has served on Suncor's board since 2021.

Canadians' grocery shopping habits increasingly driven by discounts and deals: report

Shoppers seeking discounts

Almost two-thirds of Canadians say they have switched their primary grocery store in the past year to score better deals.

A new survey by Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab and marketing insights firm Caddle found that almost 30 per cent of respondents exclusively choose their grocery stores based on in-store discounts and promotions.

While in-store, the report found that almost 60 per cent of Canadians consistently seek discounted food products, with preferences for discounts on expiring or clearance items.

The study "underscores the importance for retailers to strategically prioritize discounting initiatives to remain competitive in an increasingly dynamic market," said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, in the report.

According to the survey, which was conducted through Caddle's platform, flyers remain the most common way for shoppers to discover discounts, followed by mobile apps and in-store signs.

"Discounts play a significant role in in-store selection and product purchases, with percentage discounts and loyalty rewards proving particularly attractive," the report said. "Therefore, grocery stores stand to benefit from prioritizing these types of promotions."

Loblaw-owned stores are the top destination for discounted food, the survey found, followed by Walmart and Costco.

The report said that fresh produce is the most-purchased discounted item, followed closely by meat products, packaged and canned goods, baked goods and dairy products.

The report also found that while food-rescue apps like Flashfood or Too Good To Go are gaining popularity, almost 58 per cent of shoppers have never tried them.

But among shoppers who have tried these apps, 95.1 per cent said they would recommend them to others. The primary motivation for using these apps was to save money.

The use of these apps highlights a growing market for "technology-driven savings" in grocery, the report said.

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