Jan 08

pnutjam writes: New York is proposing a statewide virtual currency aimed at helping unbanked citizens get access to day-to-day financial transactions without predatory fees. Since there are an estimated 14 million U.S. adults without bank accounts, lawmakers in New York are trying to fix this with a new bill that “would create a ‘public Venmo’ system designed to include more people in the formal economy and stimulate local economic growth,” reports Motherboard. “In November, New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim, Senator Julia Salazar, and Cornell law professor Robert Hockett announced their Inclusive Value Ledger (IVL) proposal. If passed, it would create the country’s first publicly owned electronic banking platform, as well as a digital currency that can be exchanged for goods and services within the state.”

“The IVL plan calls for New York State to distribute the $55 billion per year in uncollected individual tax credits through a ‘public Venmo,’ a publicly-administered, non-extractive payment system that would allow recipients to spend freely within the state economy without transaction fees or delays,” the report says. “Every business and individual residing in New York would be issued a virtual wallet, connected to a state government-controlled master wallet, that could act as a viable alternative to a bank account without the fees of a for-profit bank.” The proposal does not include any specifics as to how the payment system will be secure, nor does it address the specific privacy needs for certain groups the lawmakers hope the system will serve, such as people who are undocumented.

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Jan 06

The once-king-of-the-hill smartphone vendor, which had a terrible 2018, continued to bleed last year, according to financial disclosures it made on Monday. From a report: HTC reported revenue of 10,015 TWD ($333 million) in 2019, down 57.8% from 23,741 TWD ($789 million) it posted the year before, and whopping 87% below over $2 billion it grossed in 2017. As Bloomberg columnist Tim Culpan pointed out, Apple now generates more from selling AirPods in a fortnight than HTC clocks from selling each of its offering in a year. The drop in revenue comes as the Taiwanese firm scales back its smartphone business — a sizable portion of which it sold to Google two years ago — and focuses on virtual reality headsets and accessories. HTC has yet to disclose how much money it lost in the quarter that ended in December, but in the other three quarters last year, it lost 7.05 billion TWD ($234.4 million).

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Jan 06

The Verge has been investigating Samsung’s “artificial human” project Neon, which seems to be about creating realistic human avatars:

A tweet from the project’s lead and some leaked videos pretty much confirm this — although they don’t give us nearly enough information to judge how impressive Neon is. The lead of Neon, computer-human interaction researcher Paranav Mistry, tweeted this image, apparently showing one of the project’s avatars. Mistry says the company’s “Core R3″ technology can now “autonomously create new expressions, new movements, new dialog (even in Hindi), completely different from the original captured data….”

In a recent interview, Mistry made clear he thinks “digital humans” will be a major technology in the 2020s… “While films may disrupt our sense of reality, ‘virtual humans’ or ‘digital humans’ will be reality. A digital human could extend its role to become a part of our everyday lives: a virtual news anchor, virtual receptionist, or even an AI-generated film star.”

Reddit users also found the URLs for videos in the source code on Neon’s home page — and though the videos have since been removed, some of the footage has been archived and analyzed on YouTube.

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Jan 06

An anonymous reader quotes Ars Technica:
The next big thing in 3D printing just might be so-called “4D materials” which employ the same manufacturing techniques, but are designed to deform over time in response to changes in the environment, like humidity and temperature. They’re also sometimes known as active origami or shape-morphing systems. MIT scientists successfully created flat structures that can transform into much more complicated structures than had previously been achieved, including a human face. They published their results last fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…

MIT mechanical engineer Wim van Rees, a co-author of the PNAS paper, devised a theoretical method to turn a thin flat sheet into more complex shapes, like spheres, domes, or a human face. “My goal was to start with a complex 3-D shape that we want to achieve, like a human face, and then ask, ‘How do we program a material so it gets there?’” he said. “That’s a problem of inverse design…” van Rees and his colleagues decided to use a mesh-like lattice structure instead of the continuous sheet modeled in the initial simulations. They made the lattice out of a rubbery material that expands when the temperature increases. The gaps in the lattice make it easier for the material to adapt to especially large changes in its surface area. The MIT team used an image of [19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich] Gauss to create a virtual map of how much the flat surface would have to bend to reconfigure into a face. Then they devised an algorithm to translate that into the right pattern of ribs in the lattice.

They designed the ribs to grow at different rates across the mesh sheet, each one able to bend sufficiently to take on the shape of a nose or an eye socket. The printed lattice was cured in a hot oven, and then cooled to room temperature in a saltwater bath.

And voila! It morphed into a human face.

“The team also made a lattice containing conductive liquid metal that transformed into an active antenna, with a resonance frequency that changes as it deforms.”

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Jan 04

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Jan 04

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Apple has expanded a lawsuit against an iOS virtualization company, claiming that its actions facilitate jailbreaking and violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibition on circumvention of copyright-protection systems. Apple sued Corellium, a company that sells access to virtual machines that run copies of the operating system used in iPhones and iPads, in August 2019. Apple said that Corellium sells “perfect replicas” of iOS without a license from Apple and markets its software as “a research tool for those trying to discover security vulnerabilities and other flaws in Apple’s software.” But instead of aiding good-faith security research, Corellium “encourages its users to sell any discovered information on the open market to the highest bidder,” Apple alleged.

The first version of Apple’s lawsuit accused Corellium of copyright infringement. A new version filed on December 27 alleges both copyright infringement and “unlawful trafficking of a product used to circumvent security measures in violation of 17 U.S.C. 1201,” a statute that’s part of the DMCA. Apple argued that Corellium gives users the ability to jailbreak iOS for either benign or malicious purposes. In response to the new allegations, Corellium CEO Amanda Gorton said “Apple’s latest filing against Corellium should give all security researchers, app developers, and jailbreakers reason to be concerned.”

Corellium is “deeply disappointed by Apple’s persistent demonization of jailbreaking,” with Gorton writing that “developers and researchers rely on jailbreaks to test the security of both their own apps and third-party apps.” Apple’s filing, according to Corellium, essentially “assert[s] that anyone who provides a tool that allows other people to jailbreak, and anyone who assists in creating such a tool, is violating the DMCA.” Apple, Gorton wrote, “is using this case as a trial balloon in a new angle to crack down on jailbreaking” and “is seeking to set a precedent to eliminate public jailbreaks.”

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Jan 01

Positive affectivity, or the characteristic that describes how people experience affects (e.g., sensations, emotions, and sentiments) and interact with others as a result, has been linked to increased interest and curiosity as well as satisfaction in learning. Inspired by this, a team of Microsoft researchers propose imbuing reinforcement learning, an AI training technique that employs rewards to spur systems toward goals, with positive affect, which they assert might drive exploration useful in gathering experiences critical to learning. From a report: As the researchers explain, reinforcement learning is commonly implemented via policy-specific rewards designed for a predefined goal. Problematically, these extrinsic rewards are narrow in scope and can be difficult to define, as opposed to intrinsic rewards that are task-independent and quickly indicate success or failure. In pursuit of an intrinsic policy, the researchers developed a framework comprising mechanisms motivated by human affect — one that motivates agents by drives like delight. Using a computer vision system that models the reward and another system that uses data to solve multiple tasks, it measures human smiles as positive affect. The framework encourages agents to explore virtual or real-world environments without getting into perilous situations, and it has the advantage of being agnostic to any specific machine intelligence application. A positive intrinsic reward mechanism predicts human smile responses as the exploration evolves, while a sequential decision-making framework learns a generalizable policy. As for the positive intrinsic affect model, it changes the action selection such that it biases actions providing better intrinsic rewards, and a final component uses data collected during the agent’s exploration to build representations for visual recognition and understanding tasks.

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Dec 27

Researchers aim to recreate intense emotional experience astronauts reported on seeing Earth from space for the first time. From a report: The spectacle of Earth suspended in space was so overwhelming for Edgar Mitchell that the Apollo 14 astronaut and sixth man on the moon wanted to grab politicians by the scruff of the neck and drag them into space to witness the view. Such drastic measures may not be necessary, however. Scientists are about to welcome the first participants on an unprecedented clinical trial that aims to reproduce the intense emotional experience, known as the “Overview effect,” from the comfort of a health spa.

If the trial goes well, what led Mitchell to develop “an instant global consciousness” and a profound connection to Earth and its people could be recreated with nothing more than a flotation tank, a half tonne of Epsom salts, and a waterproof virtual reality (VR) headset. “There’s a lot of division and polarisation and disconnection between people,” said Steven Pratscher, a psychologist and principal investigator on the trial at the University of Missouri. “We’d like to see if we can recreate the Overview effect on Earth to have an impact on those issues.” Pratscher will recruit about 100 volunteers who are willing to don the VR headset and clamber into a dark, salt-laden flotation tank at the city’s Clarity Float spa. The silence and buoyancy will mimic the sensation of floating in space, while the VR headset plays high-definition, 360 degree immersive video recorded by the Silicon Valley startup, SpaceVR.

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Dec 26

Games have long served as a training ground for AI algorithms, and not without good reason. From a report: Games — particularly video games — provide challenging environments against which to benchmark autonomous systems. In 2013, a team of researchers introduced the Arcade Learning Environment, a collection of over 55 Atari 2600 games designed to test a broad range of AI techniques. More recently, San Francisco research firm OpenAI detailed Procgen Benchmark, a set of 16 virtual worlds that measure how quickly models learn generalizable skills. The next frontier might be Mega Man, if an international team of researchers have their way. In a newly published paper [PDF] on the preprint server Arxiv.org, they propose EvoMan, a game-playing competition based on the eight boss fights in Capcom’s cult classic Mega Man 2. As they describe it, competitors’ goal is to train an AI agent to defeat every enemy and evaluate their performances by common metrics.

Why Mega Man 2? The paper’s coauthors assert that few other environments test an AI’s ability to win against a single enemy, or how well an AI generalizes to win matches against waves of enemies or coevolves to create increasingly difficult enemies. To this end, in EvoMan, an AI-controlled Mega Man — a robot equipped with a powerful arm cannon — must beat eight so-called Robot Masters equipped with different weapons. Every time a Robot Master is defeated, the agent acquires its weapon, making it easier to defeat the bosses who remain. As proposed, EvoMan challenge entrants would train their agents on any four enemies and measure how well their learned strategy scales up to a whole set of enemies. The agents would be expected to learn how to identify and react to general patterns like avoiding being shot or shooting at the direction of the enemy, and to deplete an enemy’s health from 100 energy points to 0 by the end of each match.

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Dec 26

The network’s furthering of lies from foreign adversaries and flagrant disregard for the truth have gotten downright dangerous. Garrett M. Graff, writing for Wired earlier this month: Monday’s split-screen drama, as the House Judiciary Committee weighed impeachment charges against President Trump and as the Justice Department’s inspector general released a 476-page report on the FBI’s handling of its 2016 investigation into Trump’s campaign, made one truth of the modern world inescapable: The lies and obfuscations forwarded ad infinitum on Fox News pose a dangerous threat to the national security of the United States. The facts of both dramas were clear to objective viewers: In the one instance, there’s conclusive and surprisingly consistent evidence that President Trump pushed Ukraine to concoct dirt on a domestic political rival to affect the 2020 presidential election, and in the other, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that the FBI was proper to investigate Trump’s dealings with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

But that set of facts is not what anyone who was watching Fox News heard. Instead, Fox spent the night describing an upside-down world where the president’s enemies had spun a web of lies about Trump and Ukraine, even as Horowitz blew open the base corruption that has driven every attack on the president since 2016. Sean Hannity, who had long trumpeted the forthcoming inspector general report and expected a thorough indictment of the behavior of former FBI director James Comey and other members of the “deep state,” had a simple message for his viewers during Fox’s Monday night prime time: “Everything we said, everything we reported, everything we told you was dead-on-center accurate,” he said. “It is all there in black and white, it’s all there.” Except they weren’t right and it wasn’t there. But Fox News’ viewers evidently were not to be told those hard truths — they were to be kept thinking that everything in their self-selected filter bubble was just peachy keen.

Over on Fox Business, Lou Dobbs said the mere fact that the IG found no political bias in the FBI’s investigation of Trump and Russia in 2016 was de facto proof of the power of the deep state. John Harwood, long one of Washington’s most respected conservative voices in journalism, summed up Fox’s approach Monday night simply: “Lunacy.” It’s worse than lunacy, though. Fox’s bubble reality creates a situation where it’s impossible to have the conversations and debate necessary to function as a democracy. Facts that are inconvenient to President Trump simply disappear down Fox News’ “memory hole,” as thoroughly as George Orwell could have imagined in 1984. The idea that Fox News represents a literal threat to our national security, on par with Russia’s Internet Research Agency or China’s Ministry of State Security, may seem like a dramatic overstatement of its own but this week has made clear that, as we get deeper into the impeachment process and as the 2020 election approaches, Fox News is prepared to destroy America’s democratic traditions if it will help its most important and most dedicated daily viewer. The threat posed to our democracy by Fox News is multifaceted: First and most simply, it’s clearly advancing and giving voice to narratives and smears backed and imagined by our foreign adversaries. Second, its overheated and bombastic rhetoric is undermining America’s foundational ideals and the sense of fair play in politics. Third, its unique combination of lies and half-truths has built a virtual reality so complete that it leaves its viewers too misinformed to fulfill their most basic responsibilities as citizens to make informed choices about the direction of the country.

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