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Star Wars News: Life After ‘Solo’ May or May Not Include a Lando Movie

May 21, 2018 No Comments

Will Donald Glover be getting his own ‘Star Wars Story’? It’s not impossible!
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Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

May 19, 2018 No Comments

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a data center for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping.

Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.)

Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation.

To begin with I’m going to consider all phone calls as “confidential” for the purposes of the law. What constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is far from settled, and some will have it that you there isn’t such an expectation when making an appointment with a salon. But what about a doctor’s office, or if you need to give personal details over the phone? Though some edge cases may qualify as public, it’s simpler and safer (for us and for Google) to treat all phone conversations as confidential.

As a second assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a data center somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be recorded and sent in some form to that data center for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken.

On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whomever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google data centers. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work.

But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law.

This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important.

“There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the data center and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.”

For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines.

But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the onstage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind.

What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission.

A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and, therefore, no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive.

“It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said.

If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law.

That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why.

We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

Mobile – TechCrunch


Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is an inspiring example of inclusive design

May 18, 2018 No Comments

Every gamer with a disability faces a unique challenge for many reasons, one of which is the relative dearth of accessibility-focused peripherals for consoles. Microsoft is taking a big step toward fixing this with its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device created to address the needs of gamers for whom ordinary gamepads aren’t an option.

The XAC, revealed officially at a recent event but also leaked a few days ago, is essentially a pair of gigantic programmable buttons and an oversized directional pad; 3.5mm ports on the back let a huge variety of assistive devices like blow tubes, pedals and Microsoft-made accessories plug in.

It’s not meant to be an all-in-one solution by any means, more like a hub that allows gamers with disabilities to easily make and adjust their own setups with a minimum of hassle. Whatever you’re capable of, whatever’s comfortable, whatever gear you already have, the XAC is meant to enable it.

I’d go into detail, but it would be impossible to do better than Microsoft’s extremely interesting and in-depth post introducing the XAC, which goes into the origins of the hardware, the personal stories of the testers and creators and much more. Absolutely worth taking the time to read.

I look forward to hearing more about the system and how its users put it to use, and I’m glad to see inclusivity and accessibility being pursued in such a practical and carefully researched manner.

Gadgets – TechCrunch


Index and Atomico back Teatime Games, a stealthy new startup from QuizUp founders

May 16, 2018 No Comments

Teatime Games, a new Icelandic “social games” startup from the same team behind the hugely popular QuizUp (acquired in by Glu Mobile), is disclosing $ 9 million in funding, made up of seed and Series A rounds.

Index Ventures led both, but have been joined by Atomico, the European VC fund founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, for the $ 7.5 million Series A round. I understand this is the first time the two VC firms have done a Series A deal together in over a decade.

Both VCs have a decent track record in gaming. Index counts King, Roblox and Supercell as previous gaming investments, whilst Atomico also backed Supercell, along with Rovio, and most recently Bossa Studios.

As part of the round, Guzman Diaz of Index Ventures, Mattias Ljungman of Atomico, and David Helgason, founder of Unity, have joined the Teatime Games board of directors.

Meanwhile, Teatime Games is keeping shtum publicly on exactly what the stealthy startup is working on, except that it plays broadly in the social and mobile gaming space. In a call with co-founder and CEO Thor Fridriksson yesterday, he said a little more off the record and on condition that I don’t write about it yet.

What he was willing to describe publicly, however, is the general problem the company has set out to solve, which is how to make mobile games more social and personalised. Specifically, in a way that any social features — including communicating with friends and other players in real-time — enhances the gameplay rather than gets in its way or is simply bolted on as an adjunct to the game itself.

The company’s macro thesis is that games have always been inherently social throughout different eras (e.g. card games, board games, arcades, and consoles), and that most games truly come to life “through the interaction between people, opponents, and the audience”. However, in many respects this has been lost in the age of mobile gaming, which can feel like quite a solitary experience. That’s either because they are single player games or turn-based and played against invisible opponents.

Teatime plans to use the newly-disclosed investment to double the size of its team in Iceland, with a particular focus on software engineers, and to further develop its social gaming offering for third party developers. Yes, that’s right, this is clearly a developer platform play, as much as anything else.

On that note, Atomico Partner Mattias Ljungman says the next “breakout opportunity” in games will see a move beyond individual studios and titles to what he describes as fundamental enabling technologies. Linked to this he argues that the next generation of games companies being developed will “become ever more mass market and socially connected”. You can read much more on Ljungman and Atomico’s gaming thesis in a blog post recently published by the VC firm.

Mobile – TechCrunch


A free web tool can predict your hair, skin, and eye color from DNA data

May 14, 2018 No Comments

A new tool by researchers at the School of Science at IUPUI and Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam in the Netherlands can predict your hair, skin, and eye color from your DNA data. The system, which is essentially a web app that can accept DNA sequences, compares known color phenotypes to known data and tells you the probabilities of each color.

The app, called HIrisPlex-S, can tell colors from even small amounts of DNA like that left at a crime scene.

“We have previously provided law enforcement and anthropologists with DNA tools for eye color and for combined eye and hair color, but skin color has been more difficult,” said forensic geneticist Susan Walsh from IUPUI. “Importantly, we are directly predicting actual skin color divided into five subtypes — very pale, pale, intermediate, dark and dark to black – using DNA markers from the genes that determine an individual’s skin coloration. This is not the same as identifying genetic ancestry. You might say it’s more similar to specifying a paint color in a hardware store rather than denoting race or ethnicity. If anyone asks an eyewitness what they saw, the majority of time they mention hair color and skin color. What we are doing is using genetics to take an objective look at what they saw.”

You can actually try the web app here but be warned: it’s not exactly the most user friendly app on the web. It requires you to know specific alleles for your test subject or upload a set of alleles in a csv file. It is, however, free and looks like it could wildly useful in law enforcement and figuring out what your hair color was before you dyed it purple.

“With our new HIrisPlex-S system, for the first time, forensic geneticists and genetic anthropologists are able to simultaneously generate eye, hair and skin color information from a DNA sample, including DNA of the low quality and quantity often found in forensic casework and anthropological studies,” said Manfred Kayser of Erasmus MC.


Startups – TechCrunch


First launch of SpaceX’s revamped Falcon 9 carries Bangladesh’s space ambitions

May 13, 2018 No Comments

Today brings historic firsts for both SpaceX and Bangladesh: the former is sending up the final, highly updated revision of its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time, and the latter is launching its first satellite. It’s a preview of the democratized space economy to come this century.

Update: Success! The Falcon 9 first stage, after delivering the second stage to the border of space, has successfully landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, and Bangabandhu has been delivered to its target orbit.

You can watch the launch below:

Although Bangabandhu-1 is definitely important, especially to the nation launching it, it is not necessarily in itself a highly notable satellite. It’s to be a geostationary communications hub that serves the whole country and region with standard C-band and Ku-band connectivity for all kinds of purposes.

Currently the country spends some $ 14 million per year renting satellite time from other countries, something they determined to stop doing as a matter of national pride and independence.

“A sovereign country, in a pursuit of sustainable development, needs its own satellite in order to reduce its dependency on other nations,” reads the project description at the country’s Telecommunications Regulation Commission, which has been pursuing the idea for nearly a decade.

It contracted with Thales Alenia Space to produce and test the satellite, which cost about $ 250 million and is expected to last at least 15 years. In addition to letting the country avoid paying satellite rent, it could generate revenue by selling its services to private companies and nearby nations.

Bangabandhu-1 in a Thales test chamber.

“This satellite, which carries the symbolic name of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu, is a major step forward for telecommunications in Bangladesh, and a fantastic driver of economic development and heightened recognition across Asia,” said the company’s CEO, Jean-Loïc Galle, in a recent blog post about the project.

Bangabandhu-1 will be launching atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but this one is different from all the others that have flown in the past. Designed with crewed missions in mind, it could be thought of as the production version of the rocket, endowed with all the refinements of years of real-world tests.

Most often referred to as Block 5, this is (supposedly) the final revision of the Falcon 9 hardware, safer and more reusable than previous versions. The goal is for a Block 5 first stage to launch a hundred times before being retired, far more than the handful of times existing Falcon 9s have been reused.

There are lots of improvements over the previous rockets, though many are small or highly technical in nature. The most important, however, are easy to enumerate.

The engines themselves have been improved and strengthened to allow not only greater thrust (reportedly about a 7-8 percent improvement) but improved control and efficiency, especially during landing. They also have a new dedicated heat shield for descent. They’re rated to fly 10 times without being substantially refurbished, but are also bolted on rather than welded, further reducing turnaround time.

The legs on which the rocket lands are also fully retractable, meaning they don’t have to be removed before transport. If you want to launch the same rocket within days, every minute counts.

Instead of white paint, the first stage will have a thermal coating (also white) that helps keep it relatively cool during descent.

To further reduce heat damage, the rocket’s “grid fins,” the waffle-iron-like flaps that pop out to control its descent, are now made of a single piece of titanium. They won’t catch fire or melt during reentry like the previous aluminum ones sometimes did, and as such are now permanently attached features of the rocket.

(SpaceX founder Elon Musk is particularly proud of these fins, which flew on the Falcon Heavy side boosters; in the briefing afterwards, he said: “I’m actually glad we got the side boosters back, because they had the titanium fins. If I had to pick something to get back, it’d be those.”)

Lastly (for our purposes anyway) the fuel tank has been reinforced out of concerns some had about the loading of supercooled fuel while the payload — soon to be humans, if all goes well — is attached to the rocket. This system failed before, causing a catastrophic explosion in 2016, but the fault has been addressed and the reinforcement should help further mitigate risk. (The emergency abort rockets should also keep astronauts safe should something go wrong during launch.)

The changes, though they contribute directly to reuse and cost reductions, are also aimed at satisfying the requirements of NASA’s commercial crew missions. SpaceX is in competition to provide both launch and crew capsule services for missions to the ISS, scheduled for as early as late 2018. The company needs to launch the Block 5 version of Falcon 9 (not necessarily the same exact rocket) at least 7 times before any astronauts can climb aboard.

Gadgets – TechCrunch


Kilauea and the Implacable Power of Volcanic Lava

May 11, 2018 No Comments

The Hawaiian volcano continues to erupt. There’s not much anyone can do about it except watch.
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Review: Huawei’s P20 Pro is a shiny phone with a strong personality

May 9, 2018 No Comments

It’s been a month since Huawei unveiled its latest flagship device. I’ve played with this phone for a few weeks and it’s one of the most interesting Android phones currently available.

The P20 Pro is a solid successor to the P10 and a good alternative to other flagship phones, such as the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9.

But it isn’t the perfect phone either. Some features are missing for no apparent reason. Some of Huawei’s choices are also questionable.

Looking for the perfect Android phone

A few years ago, many Android phones paled in comparison with the latest iPhone. Most of them were made out of plastic. And Android was simply too clunky back then.

2018 is a completely different story as you have a lot of options. Maybe you like Samsung devices or the pure Android experience of the Pixel 2. And maybe you’ve been looking at Huawei devices from afar. But if you live in the U.S., you won’t be able to buy the P20 Pro any time soon.

Let’s start with the overall design of the phone. It features a gigantic 6.1-inch OLED display with a now familiar notch at the top. It’s not as prominent as the one in the iPhone X, but it’s clear that Apple has started the next trend in smartphone design.

The frame of the design is made out of polished aluminium. It’s shiny and looks like stainless steel — but it’s lighter than steel. It feels good in your hand and is a great indication of what an iPhone X Plus could be.

The glass back comes in multiple colors. My review device had the twilight back. It’s a nice gradient from purple to blue that makes the P20 Pro stand out from the crowd. It’s much more distinctive than unified (boring) colors.

You can also use the P20 Pro as a portable mirror to fix your makeup or your hair when you’re on the subway. But the back of the device is so shiny that it was covered in fingerprints most of the time. That’s increasingly the case when you have a smartphone with a glass back.

Below the display, you’ll find a good old fingerprint sensor. In my experience it works well and I like having it on the front of the device when my phone is resting on a table. Unfortunately, it makes the phone quite tall overall.

Why stop at two when you can have three cameras

Everybody laughed when smartphone manufacturers started putting two camera sensors at the back of their devices. And yet, many people upgrade their phone to get a better camera. Some people even choose their next phone based on the camera exclusively.

And Huawei went a bit crazy on this front as the company integrated three cameras at the back of the device. There’s a 40 megapixels lens combined with a 20 megapixels monochrome lens and an 8 megapixels telephoto lens. And the phone supports super slow-motion videos at 960 frames per second.

On paper, it sounds like a bit too much. But it’s true that those three cameras are the most important and remarkable feature of the P20 Pro.

I used both an iPhone X and the P20 Pro on my last vacation to Cambodia. And here’s a gallery of some sample photos:

Let’s be honest, I’m not a great photographer. So I wanted to use the P20 Pro in the most normal use case. The P20 Pro has so many options and manual triggers that it feels a bit overwhelming for a normal user. But Huawei keeps saying that the P20 Pro is smart and can automatically capture the best shot for you.

If you use the normal photo mode, the camera tries to detect the content of the photo and adjust the settings automatically. For instance, if you’re shooting a portrait of a person, the P20 Pro automatically switches to Portrait mode. If you’re shooting at night, the phone will take a night mode photo by capturing multiple under- and overexposed photos and recompositioning the scene.

In my experience, the camera performed extremely well. It was quite hard to get a blurry, unfocused shot. But it was also something completely different from the iPhone X camera.

Colors are oversaturated in most cases. It looks too bright, too shiny and quite far from reality. And that wasn’t just the case on the smartphone itself (by default, the color profile of the display is quite saturated too). It was particularly true with nature shots. And I prefer the more natural tone of iPhone X photos.

When it comes to night photos, the P20 Pro is the best performing smartphone I’ve used. It performed incredibly well and it’s quite impressive that you can shoot these photos with a smartphone.

You can feel the strong personality of the P20 Pro when you’re taking selfies too. The camera app has a built-in beautifying effect that makes you look better. It is enabled by default, and you can’t disable it completely. Even when you set it to 0, it’ll make your skin smoother.

Overall, I’m impressed with the P20 Pro camera. But that doesn’t mean I like it better than the iPhone X. In some ways, it feels too complicated to get the perfect shot. In other ways, it corrects photos with software features that make them look a bit fake.

Many people will love the P20 Pro camera. It just depends on what you’re looking for.

Fine prints

Let’s go through some miscellaneous items. The P20 Pro doesn’t feature wireless charging. While it’s not a dealbreaker, it’s hard to go back to plugging a cable if you were already using wireless charging.

The system-on-a-chip is a Kirin 970 made by Huawei. Instead of boring you with benchmarks, let’s just say that it was perfectly fine and I didn’t feel limited at any moment. The P20 Pro is on par with other flagship Android devices. But it was particularly well optimized for power consumption. Battery life on the P20 Pro was very good.

The P20 Pro doesn’t have a microSD slot, but comes with 128GB of internal storage by default. There’s a single USB Type-C port (no headphone jack) and you’ll find both USB Type-C earbuds and a USB Type-C to headphone jack adapter.

My device had two SIM slots, but be careful if you plan on buying the P20 Pro. Huawei said that some versions of the device will only have one SIM slot.

When it comes to software, the P20 Pro runs Android 8.1 with Huawei’s EMUI custom skin. I’m not a fan of EMUI as the company regularly pushes you to create a Huawei account. The company has also developed its own version of many of Google’s apps.

It can be confusing if you’re just looking for Google’s own apps. But this is understandable as all Google services are still blocked in China. Chinese users need Huawei’s alternatives.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the P20 Pro. It ticks all the right boxes to become a strong Samsung Galaxy S9 contender.

But more importantly, Huawei didn’t just build a safe phone. The P20 Pro has a strong personality and the company made some polarizing choices. You can see it across the board, from the back of the device to the beautifying effect when you’re taking selfies.

Huawei has been using the camera as the main element of its advertising campaign for the P20 Pro. The company is right to brag about its camera as it performs incredibly well. But software correction and saturated colors sometimes go too far, depending on your taste.

For years, most people looked at the new Samsung Galaxy S phone and the new iPhone to see what’s next in the smartphone world. But Huawei is now also pushing the needle forward with this phone.

Gadgets – TechCrunch


Best Amazon Device Deals: 20-30% Sale on Echos, Kindles, Fires (May 2018)

May 7, 2018 No Comments

Save up to 30 percent off almost all Fire tablets, Fire TVs, Cloud Cams, and Echo speakers.
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UK Regulators Demand Cambridge Analytica Hand Over User Data

May 6, 2018 No Comments

David Carroll, a professor at Parsons School of Design, might finally get to see everything Cambridge Analytica knows about him.
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