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Thousands of Users Unknowingly Joined Signal Because of a 12-Year-Old's App

"At least 10,000 Signal users can be attributed to a 12-year-old kid in India who created a somewhat popular clone of the encrypted chat app," reports Motherboard: Dev Sharma, a Signal user from Melbourne, Australia, found the Signal clone when he encountered an unusual thing: Signal displayed a pop-up showing that their friend had just joined the app. Sharma messaged their friend, but the friend had never even heard of Signal, despite apparently using the app. The friend had downloaded a different app called "Calls Chat," according to a tweet from Dev. It turned out, Calls Chat is actually a clone of Signal and lets users communicate with people on the legitimate Signal app. The app may have been harmless in this instance, but its existence and thousands of downloads shows how it can be relatively easy for someone to take the open source code of Signal and repurpose it for their own means, potentially misleading users about what they're actually downloading in the process. "I didn't know I was creating a clone of Signal, in fact I didn't even know such an app existed," Dheeraj, the boy who made the clone, told Motherboard in a phone call... The Google Play Store bars developers from impersonating other apps or making others that are deceptive, however. Google told Motherboard on Wednesday that the chat app is no longer available on the Play Store.

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 8:24 pm

Google Employees Try Baking Recipes Created by AI

"Behold the cakie: It has the crispiness of a cookie and the, well, 'cakiness' of a cake." So says a triumphant blog post by Google Cloud's developer advocate and an applied AI Engineer for Google's Cloud AI. "We also made breakies, which were more like fluffy cookies, almost the consistency of a muffin" (or bread). Food and Wine explains the project (in an article shared by Slashdot reader John Trumpian): Inspired by the pandemic-spawned spike in searches for baking, the team at Google Cloud "decided to dive a little deeper into the trend and try to understand the science behind what makes cookies crunchy, cake spongy and bread fluffy," according to a post on their blog. Then, once armed with that machine learning knowledge, they attempted to mix these attributes into what they bill as "two completely new baking recipes...." [T]hese Google Cloud employees organized about 700 recipes covering cookies, cakes, and breads — standardizing measurements, isolating the key ingredients, and re-categorizing things like banana breads that aren't really "breads." Then, they fed them into a tool called "AutoML Tables" to create a machine learning model that was able to predict whether a recipe was a cookie, cake, or bread based on its ingredient amounts. ["If you've never tried AutoML Tables, it's a code-free way to build models from the type of data you'd find in a spreadsheet like numbers and categories — no data science background required," explains the blog post.] Of course, recipes don't necessarily fit perfectly into one category. As Sara Robinson, who led the project, explained, a recipe might come back as 97 percent bread, 2 percent cake, and 1 percent cookie. So what if she asked the model to create its own recipe: something that's 50 percent cookie and 50 percent cake? That's how the Cakie was born. And she was happily surprised by the results. "It is yummy," Robinson said. "And it strangely tastes like what I'd imagine would happen if I told a machine to make a cake cookie hybrid." Based on that success, she and colleague Dale Markowitz continued to tweak their model — which resulted in the Breakie. "We should caveat that while our model gave us ingredients, it didn't spit out any baking directions, so we had to improvise those ourselves," the blog post explains. "And, we added chocolate chips and cinnamon for good measure." Robinson also built a prediction-making web app to help quickly experiment with different ingredient ratios. They ultimately identified which ingredients were the biggest "signal" of cake-ness, cookie-ness, and bread-ness, concluding that "In our case, the amount of butter, sugar, yeast and egg in a recipe all seemed to be important indicators..."

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 7:15 pm

Superconducting Microprocessors? Turns Out They're Ultra-Efficient

Long-time Slashdot reader AmiMoJo quotes IEEE Spectrum: Computers use a staggering amount of energy today. According to one recent estimate, data centers alone consume two percent of the world's electricity, a figure that's expected to climb to eight percent by the end of the decade. To buck that trend, though, perhaps the microprocessor, at the center of the computer universe, could be streamlined in entirely new ways. One group of researchers in Japan have taken this idea to the limit, creating a superconducting microprocessor — one with zero electrical resistance. The new device, the first of its kind, is described in a study published last month in the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits ... The price of entry for the niobium-based microprocessor is of course the cryogenics and the energy cost for cooling the system down to superconducting temperatures. "But even when taking this cooling overhead into account," says Christopher Ayala, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Advanced Sciences at Yokohama National University, in Japan, who helped develop the new microprocessor, "The AQFP is still about 80 times more energy-efficient when compared to the state-of-the-art semiconductor electronic device, [such as] 7-nm FinFET, available today."

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 6:08 pm

Joe Biden Promotes 'Science Advisor' to US Cabinet-Level Position

"President-elect Joe Biden announced Friday that he has chosen a pioneer in mapping the human genome — the so-called 'book of life' — to be his chief science adviser," reports the Associated Press, "and is elevating the top science job to a Cabinet position." Biden nominated Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who was the lead author of the first paper announcing the details of the human genome, as director of Office of Science and Technology Policy and adviser on science. He is the first life scientist to have that job. His predecessor is a meteorologist. Saying "science will always be at the forefront of my administration," Biden said he is boosting the science advisor post to Cabinet level, a first in White House history.... "Elevating (the science adviser) role to member in the President's Cabinet clearly signals the administration's intent to involve scientific expertise in every policy discussion," said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society.

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 5:19 pm

US President-Elect Biden Starts New Twitter Account, Criticizes Policy on POTUS Account

"This will be the account for my official duties as President," tweeted U.S. president-elect Joe Biden on Thursday — but from a new account at @PresElectBiden (which will transition to @POTUS after Wednesday's inauguration). But Bloomberg reports Biden is still "clashing with the social media company over its decision to deny the incoming administration millions of existing White House followers." Biden's transition opened @PresElectBiden in order to start building a following for one of the official accounts the new president will inherit at noon on Jan. 20: @POTUS. In a change in practice from 2017, when President Donald Trump entered office, Twitter Inc. plans to reset both the @POTUS and @WhiteHouse official accounts to zero followers for Biden. The two accounts currently have a massive audience — nearly 60 million followers combined, though there is overlap. Trump got a head start in 2017 when he inherited about 12 million followers of @POTUS from President Barack Obama's tenure, plus millions of followers from other official accounts. Though Trump used his personal account, @realDonaldTrump, as his primary social media mouthpiece throughout his presidency, Biden's aides think it's unfair Twitter isn't handing over followers along with the official accounts... Twitter said it is too technically difficult to copy or roll over the millions of followers from the Trump White House accounts to Biden's official accounts. But two transition officials privately expressed skepticism, pointing to other social media platforms' handling of the change in administration. Both Facebook Inc. and its subsidiary Instagram will duplicate the millions of followers currently following the Trump White House accounts to follow new Biden White House accounts. "They are advantaging President Trump's first days of the administration over ours," Rob Flaherty, the transition's digital director who will be director of digital strategy in the Biden White House, said of Twitter. "If we don't end the day with the 12 million followers that Donald Trump inherited from Barack Obama, then they have given us less than they gave Donald Trump, and that is a failure."

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 4:34 pm

EFF, Cory Doctorow Warn About the Dangers of De-Platforming and Censorship

Last week Cory Doctorow shared his own answer for what Apple and Google should've done about Parler: They should remove it, and tell users, "We removed Parler because we think it is a politically odious attempt to foment violence. Our judgment is subjective and may be wielded against others in future. If you don't like our judgment, you shouldn't use our app store." I'm 100% OK with that: first, because it is honest; and second, because it invites the question, "How do we switch app stores?" Doctorow warns that "vital sectors of the digital economy became as concentrated as they are due to four decades of shameful, bipartisan neglect of antitrust law." And now Slashdot reader esm88 notes that "The EFF has made a statement raising concerns over tech giants control over the internet and who gets to decide which speech is allowed." Whatever you think of Parler, these decisions should give you pause. Private companies have strong legal rights under U.S. law to refuse to host or support speech they don't like. But that refusal carries different risks when a group of companies comes together to ensure that forums for speech or speakers are effectively taken offline altogether... Amazon's decision highlights core questions of our time: Who should decide what is acceptable speech, and to what degree should companies at the infrastructure layer play a role in censorship? At EFF, we think the answer is both simple and challenging: wherever possible, users should decide for themselves, and companies at the infrastructure layer should stay well out of it.... The core problem remains: regardless of whether we agree with an individual decision, these decisions overall have not and will not be made democratically and in line with the requirements of transparency and due process. Instead they are made by a handful of individuals, in a handful of companies, the most distanced and least visible to the most Internet users. Whether you agree with those decisions or not, you will not be a part of them, nor be privy to their considerations. And unless we dismantle the increasingly centralized chokepoints in our global digital infrastructure, we can anticipate an escalating political battle between political factions and nation states to seize control of their powers. On Friday Bill Ottman, founder and CEO of the right-leaning blockchain-based social network Minds (which includes a Slashdot discussion area), posted that in order to remain in the Google Play store, "We had to remove search, discovery, and comments..." We aren't happy and will be working towards something better. What is fascinating is how Signal and Telegram are navigating this and in my opinion they are still there because they are encrypted messengers without much "public" content. Obviously controversial speech is happening there too... We will be releasing a full report on our plan for fully censorship-resistant infrastructure. Ottman also advises users downloading apps from Apple's store to "leave if you're smart."

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 3:34 pm

Quixotic Californian Crusade To Officially Recognize the Hellabyte

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Register: In 2010, Austin Sendek, then a physics student at UC Davis, created a petition seeking recognition for prefix "hella-" as an official International System of Units (SI) measurement representing 10^27. "Northern California is home to many influential research institutions, including the University of California, Davis, the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, and the Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories," he argued. "However, science isn't all that sets Northern California apart from the rest of the world. The area is also the only region in the world currently practicing widespread usage of the English slang 'hella,' which typically means 'very,' or can refer to a large quantity (e.g. 'there are hella stars out tonight')." To this day, the SI describes prefixes for quantities for up to 10^24. Those with that many bytes have a yottabyte. If you only have 10^21 bytes, you have a zettabyte. There's also exabyte (10^18), petabyte (10^15), terabyte (10^12), gigabyte(10^9), and so on. Support for "hella-" would allow you to talk about hellabytes of data, he argues, pointing out that this would make the number of atoms in 12 kg of carbon-12 would be simplified from 600 yottaatoms to 0.6 hellaatoms. Similarly, the sun (mass of 2.2 hellatons) would release energy at 0.3 hellawatts, rather than 300 yottawatts. [...] The soonest [a proposal for a "hella-" SI could be officially adopted] is in November 2022, at the quadrennial meeting of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM)'s General Conference on Weight and Measures, where changes to the SI usually must be agreed upon. The report notes that Google customized its search engine in 2010 to let you convert "bytes to hellabytes." A year later, Wolfram Alpha added support for "hella-" calculations. "Sendek said 'hellabyte' initially started as a joke with some college friends but became a more genuine concern as he looked into how measurements get defined and as his proposal garnered support," reports The Register. He believes it could be useful for astronomical measurements.

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 1:00 pm

FAA Approves Fully Automated Commercial Drone Flights

A Massachusetts company has been granted approval to operate commercial drone flights without a person directing the machine and keeping it in sight. It's the first time that the Federal Aviation Administration has allowed fully automated commercial drone flights. ABC News reports: American Robotics Inc. touted the advantage of its machines as being able to operate continuously without "expensive human labor." The Marlborough, Massachusetts, company said Friday it has tested fully automated drones for four years. CEO and co-founder Reese Mozer said there could be a $100 billion market in providing drone services to industries such as energy and agriculture, but that FAA safety requirements have restricted their use. The company said its Scout drones have technology to stay a safe distance from other aircraft. They are housed in base stations that allow for autonomous charging and to process and transmit the data they collect from aerial surveys. According to documents posted Thursday by the FAA, the drones, which fly along planned routes, will be limited to altitudes below 400 feet (122 meters) in rural areas. The FAA will allow them to have a maximum takeoff weight of 20 pounds (nine kilograms).

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 10:00 am

Seagrass 'Neptune Balls' Sieve Millions of Plastic Particles From Water, Study Finds

Underwater seagrass in coastal areas appear to trap plastic pollution in natural bundles of fiber known as "Neptune balls," researchers have found. The Guardian reports: With no help from humans, the swaying plants -- anchored to shallow seabeds -- may collect nearly 900 million plastic items in the Mediterranean alone every year, a study reported in the journal Scientific Reports said. "We show that plastic debris in the seafloor can be trapped in seagrass remains, eventually leaving the marine environment through beaching," lead author Anna Sanchez-Vidal, a marine biologist at the University of Barcelona, told AFP. This clean-up "represents a continuous purge of plastic debris out of the sea," she added. To better understand the plastic bundling capabilities of seagrass, Sanchez-Vidal and her team studied a species found only in the Mediterranean sea, Posidonia oceanica. In 2018 and 2019, they counted the number of plastic particles found in seaballs that had washed up on four beaches in Mallorca, Spain, which has large seagrass meadows offshore. There was plastic debris in half of the loose seagrass leaf samples, up to 600 bits per kilogram of leaves. Only 17% of the tighter bundled seagrass fibre known as Neptune balls contained plastic, but at a much higher density -- nearly 1,500 pieces per kilogram of seaball. Using estimates of seagrass fibre production in the Mediterranean, the researchers worked up an estimate of how much plastic might be filtered in the entire basin. The oval orbs -- the shape of a rugby ball -- form from the base of leaves that have been shredded by the action of ocean currents but remain attached to stems, called rhizomes. As they are slowly buried by sedimentation, the damaged leaf sheaths form stiff fibres that intertwine into a ball, collecting plastic in the process.

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 7:00 am

MacOS Malware Used Run-Only AppleScripts To Avoid Detection For Five Years

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ZDNet: For more than five years, macOS users have been the targets of a sneaky malware operation that used a clever trick to avoid detection and hijacked the hardware resources of infected users to mine cryptocurrency behind their backs. Named OSAMiner, the malware has been distributed in the wild since at least 2015 disguised in pirated (cracked) games and software such as League of Legends and Microsoft Office for Mac, security firm SentinelOne said in a report published this week. But the cryptominer did not go entirely unnoticed. SentinelOne said that two Chinese security firms spotted and analyzed older versions of the OSAMiner in August and September 2018, respectively. But their reports only scratched the surface of what OSAMiner was capable of, SentinelOne macOS malware researcher Phil Stokes said yesterday. The primary reason was that security researchers weren't able to retrieve the malware's entire code at the time, which used nested run-only AppleScript files to retrieve its malicious code across different stages. As users installed the pirated software, the boobytrapped installers would download and run a run-only AppleScript, which would download and run a second run-only AppleScript, and then another final third run-only AppleScript. Since "run-only" AppleScript come in a compiled state where the source code isn't human-readable, this made analysis harder for security researchers.

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 3:30 am

Facebook Uses AI To Predict If COVID-19 Patients Will Need More Care

Facebook is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to help doctors predict whether they will need more resources, such as extra oxygen to care for COVID-19 patients in hospitals. CNET reports: The social network said Friday it developed two AI models, one based on a single chest X-ray, and another from a series X-rays, that could help forecast if a patient infected by the coronavirus is likely to get worse. A third model predicts the amount of extra oxygen a COVID-19 patient might need. Facebook's AI models generally did a better job than a human when it came to forecasting up to four days in advance if a patient will need more intensive care resources. Partnering with with New York University Langone Health's Predictive Analytics Unit and Department of Radiology, Facebook's AI research is another example of how tech companies are trying to help the health industry battle COVID-19. [...] Facebook's models rely on a technique in which AI learns on its own rather than depending on data labelled by humans, which can be a time-consuming process. The social network and NYU are publishing their research and open sourcing the AI models.

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 2:02 am

Amazon.com and 'Big Five' Publishers Accused of eBook Price-Fixing

Amazon.com and the "Big Five" publishers -- Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster -- have been accused of colluding to fix ebook prices, in a class action filed by the law firm that successfully sued Apple and the Big Five on the same charge 10 years ago. The Guardian reports: The lawsuit, filed in district court in New York on Thursday by Seattle firm Hagens Berman, on behalf of consumers in several US states, names the retail giant as the sole defendant but labels the publishers "co-conspirators." It alleges Amazon and the publishers use a clause known as "Most Favored Nations" (MFN) to keep ebook prices artificially high, by agreeing to price restraints that force consumers to pay more for ebooks purchased on retail platforms that are not Amazon.com. The lawsuit claims that almost 90% of all ebooks sold in the US are sold on Amazon, in addition to over 50% of all print books. The suit alleges that ebook prices dropped in 2013 and 2014 after Apple and major publishers were successfully sued for conspiring to set ebook prices, but rose again after Amazon renegotiated their contracts in 2015. "In violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, Defendant and the Big Five Co-conspirators agreed to various anti-competitive MFNs and anti-competitive provisions that functioned the same as MFNs," the complaint states. "Amazon's agreement with its Co-conspirators is an unreasonable restraint of trade that prevents competitive pricing and causes Plaintiffs and other consumers to overpay when they purchase ebooks from the Big Five through an ebook retailer that competes with Amazon. That harm persists and will not abate unless Amazon and the Big Five are stopped." The suit seeks compensation for consumers who purchased ebooks through competitors, damages and injunctive relief that would require Amazon and the publishers to "stop enforcing anti-competitive price restraints."

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 1:25 am

Apple Plans First iMac Desktop Redesign In Nearly a Decade

In addition to upgraded MacBook Pros, Bloomberg reports that Apple is also "planning the first redesign of its iMac all-in-one desktop computer since 2012," as it shifts away from Intel to its own silicon. From the report: The new models will slim down the thick black borders around the screen and do away with the sizable metal chin area in favor of a design similar to Apple's Pro Display XDR monitor. These iMacs will have a flat back, moving away from the curved rear of the current iMac. Apple is planning to launch two versions -- codenamed J456 and J457 -- to replace the existing 21.5-inch and 27-inch models later this year, the people said, asking not to be identified because the products are not yet announced. The new models will use next-generation versions of Apple's Mac processors like the upcoming 2021 MacBook Pros. The iMac redesign will be one of the biggest visual updates to any Apple product this year, according to people familiar with the company's roadmap. Apple is also working on a pair of new Mac Pro desktop computers, its priciest Mac machines that don't come with a screen included, the people said. One version is a direct update to the current Mac Pro and will continue to use the same design as the version launched in 2019. Apple has discussed continuing to use Intel processors for that model rather than moving to its own chips. The second version, however, will use Apple's own processors and be less than half the size of the current Mac Pro. The design will feature a mostly aluminum exterior and could invoke nostalgia for the Power Mac G4 Cube, a short-lived smaller version of the Power Mac, an earlier iteration of the Mac Pro. Apple has also reportedly started development of a cheaper external monitor to sell alongside the Pro Display XDR. "The cheaper monitor would feature a screen geared more for consumer than professional use and wouldn't have the brightness and contrast ratio of the top-tier offering," reports Bloomberg.

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 12:45 am

Xbox's 'Instant On' Feature Could Consume 4 Billion kWh By 2025

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: The "instant on" feature that's activated by default on new Xbox Series S/X consoles could suck up a total of 4 billion kWh -- the equivalent of a year's operation for a large power plant -- from US owners alone through 2025. That's according to a preliminary report released this week from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentally focused nonprofit advocacy group. As the name implies, the "instant on" feature of the Series S/X (and the Xbox One before it) lets users skip the usual startup time when turning the console back on. That saves about 10 to 15 seconds of waiting per power cycle on the Series S/X, down from about 45 seconds on the Xbox One. "Instant on" standby also lets the system check periodically for system updates in order to download and install them in between play sessions. But leaving the "instant on" feature active means the Xbox Series S/X draws nine to 10 watts of power 24 hours a day -- even when it's not being actively used -- compared to less than 1W if the standby settings are switched to "energy saving" mode. The Xbox Series S/X initially drew 25 to 28W of "instant on" standby power at launch, but a recent firmware update caused a dramatic reduction, placing the new systems below the ~13W drawn by the Xbox One's "instant on" mode. The PlayStation 5, by contrast, uses between 1 and 2 watts when sitting idle in "rest mode."

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Posted on 16 January 2021 | 12:02 am

Calculations Show It'll Be Impossible To Control a Super-Intelligent AI

schwit1 shares a report from ScienceAlert: [S]cientists have just delivered their verdict on whether we'd be able to control a high-level computer super-intelligence. The answer? Almost definitely not. The catch is that controlling a super-intelligence far beyond human comprehension would require a simulation of that super-intelligence which we can analyze. But if we're unable to comprehend it, it's impossible to create such a simulation. Rules such as "cause no harm to humans" can't be set if we don't understand the kind of scenarios that an AI is going to come up with, suggest the authors of the new paper. Once a computer system is working on a level above the scope of our programmers, we can no longer set limits. Part of the team's reasoning comes from the halting problem put forward by Alan Turing in 1936. The problem centers on knowing whether or not a computer program will reach a conclusion and answer (so it halts), or simply loop forever trying to find one. As Turing proved through some smart math, while we can know that for some specific programs, it's logically impossible to find a way that will allow us to know that for every potential program that could ever be written. That brings us back to AI, which in a super-intelligent state could feasibly hold every possible computer program in its memory at once. Any program written to stop AI harming humans and destroying the world, for example, may reach a conclusion (and halt) or not -- it's mathematically impossible for us to be absolutely sure either way, which means it's not containable. The alternative to teaching AI some ethics and telling it not to destroy the world -- something which no algorithm can be absolutely certain of doing, the researchers say -- is to limit the capabilities of the super-intelligence. It could be cut off from parts of the internet or from certain networks, for example. The new study rejects this idea too, suggesting that it would limit the reach of the artificial intelligence -- the argument goes that if we're not going to use it to solve problems beyond the scope of humans, then why create it at all? If we are going to push ahead with artificial intelligence, we might not even know when a super-intelligence beyond our control arrives, such is its incomprehensibility. That means we need to start asking some serious questions about the directions we're going in.

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Posted on 15 January 2021 | 11:20 pm