Start Up: making China great again (by omission), Fancy Bear is back, crafting Apple’s emoji, and more

Yes, I’m afraid that machine learning has spoiled the fun of this as well. Photo by in_future on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Start the week as you mean to finish it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Techmate: how AI rewrote the rules of chess • Financial Times

Richard Waters:


Besides being pleasantly struck by the similarities he sees between AlphaZero’s game and his own, Kasparov suggests there have been some surprises from watching the software play. It’s well known, for instance, that the person who plays white, and who moves first, has an edge. But Kasparov says that AlphaZero’s victory over Stockfish has shown that the scale of that starting advantage is actually far greater than anyone had realised. It won 50% of the games when it played white, compared to only 6% when it played black. (The rest of the games were draws.)

Kasparov is cautious about predicting that AlphaZero has significant new chess lessons to teach, although he concedes it might encourage some players to try “a more dynamic game”. But if he seems only mildly interested in the quality of the chess, he is more forthright in his admiration for the technology. Kasparov has studied AI and written a book on it. AlphaZero, he says, is “the prototype of a flexible machine”, the kind that was dreamed of at the dawn of the computer age by two of the field’s visionaries, Alan Turing and Claude Shannon.

All computers before this, as he describes it, worked by brute force, using the intellectual equivalent of a steamroller to crack a nut. People don’t operate that way: “Humans are flexible because we know that sometimes we have to depart from the rules,” he says. In AlphaZero, he thinks he has seen the first computer in history to learn that very human trick…

…When transferred to the real world, however, the gulf between AI and the human brain looms large again. Chess, says [Stuart] Russell [who has been looking at AI and chess], has “known rules and short horizons”, and it is “fully observable, discrete, deterministic, static”. The real world, by contrast, “shares exactly none of these characteristics”.


One really good point is that Stockfish, which was defeated, was programmed by people who start from the point of valuing material: capturing is good. Being a pawn up is good. (It’s more subtle now.) But play like AlphaZero’s is more focussed on winning than material.
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How to find Wally with a neural network • Towards Data Science

Tadej Magajna:


Deep learning provides yet another way to solve the Where’s Wally puzzle problem. But unlike traditional image processing computer vision methods, it works using only a handful of labelled examples that include the location of Wally in an image.


“What did parents do before there were neural networks?”

“They put their kids to sleep by making them play Where’s Wally. Damn computers.”
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Making China Great Again • The New Yorker

Evan Osnos has a big analysis of how Trump’s reluctance, or inability, to engage with CHina’s growing desire to influence the world is giving Xi the long-sought chance to move into driving seat. Here he looks at how a recumbent US leaves gaps for aggressive moves in technology:


In Beijing, I hailed a cab and headed to the northwest corner of the city, where a Chinese company called SenseTime is working on facial recognition, a field at the intersection of science and individual rights. The company was founded in 2014 by Tang Xiao’ou, a computer scientist who trained at M.I.T. and returned to Hong Kong to teach. (For years, China’s startups lagged behind those in Silicon Valley. But there is more parity now. Of the forty-one private companies worldwide that reached “unicorn” status in 2017—meaning they had valuations of a billion dollars or more—fifteen are Chinese and seventeen are American.)

SenseTime’s offices have a sleek, industrial look. Nobody wears an identification badge, because cameras recognize employees, causing doors to open. I was met there by June Jin, the chief marketing officer, who earned an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago and worked at Microsoft, Apple, and Tesla. Jin walked me over to a display of lighthearted commercial uses of facial-recognition technology. I stepped before a machine, which resembled a slender A.T.M., that assessed my “happiness” and other attributes, guessed that I am a thirty-three-year-old male, and, based on that information, played me an advertisement for skateboarding attire. When I stepped in front of it again, it revised its calculation to forty-one years old, and played me an ad for liquor. (I was, at the time, forty.) The machines are used in restaurants to entertain waiting guests. But they contain a hidden element of artificial intelligence as well: images are collected and compared with a facial database of V.I.P. customers. “A waiter or waitress comes up and maybe we get you a seat,” Jin said. “That’s the beauty of A.I.”

Next, Jin showed me how the technology is used by police. She said, “We work very closely with the Public Security Bureau,” which applies SenseTime’s algorithms to millions of photo I.D.s. As a demonstration, using the company’s employee database, a video screen displayed a live feed of a busy intersection nearby. “In real time, it captures all the attributes of the cars and pedestrians,” she said. On an adjoining screen, a Pac-Man-like trail indicated a young man’s movements around the city, based only on his face. Jin said, “It can match a suspect with a criminal database. If the similarity level is over a certain threshold, then they can make an arrest on the spot.”


link to this extract

Cybersecurity firm: US Senate in Russian hackers’ crosshairs • Associated Press

Raphael Satter:


The same Russian government-aligned hackers who penetrated the Democratic Party have spent the past few months laying the groundwork for an espionage campaign against the U.S. Senate, a cybersecurity firm said in a report Friday.

The revelation suggests the group often nicknamed Fancy Bear, whose hacking campaign scrambled the 2016 U.S. electoral contest, is still busy trying to gather the emails of America’s political elite.

“They’re still very active — in making preparations at least — to influence public opinion again,” said Feike Hacquebord, a security researcher at Trend Micro Inc. who authoered the report. “They are looking for information they might leak later.”

The Senate Sergeant at Arms office, which is responsible for the upper house’s security, declined to comment, but Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said it was time for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to return to Congress to say what action had been taken to help ensure lawmakers’ digital safety.

“The Administration needs to take urgent action to ensure that our adversaries cannot undermine the framework of our political debates,” he said in a statement.

Trend Micro based its report on the discovery of a clutch of suspicious-looking websites dressed up to look like the U.S. Senate’s internal email system. The Tokyo-based firm then cross-referenced digital fingerprints associated with those sites to ones used almost exclusively by Fancy Bear, which it dubs “Pawn Storm.”


Blimey, they’re a busy bunch, what with hacking the IOC and all. And the same method, broadly, as used against Hillary Clinton’s team and John Podesta.
link to this extract

Army rips out Chinese-made surveillance cameras overlooking US base • WSJ

Dan Strumpf:


The U.S. Army said it removed surveillance cameras made by a Chinese state-backed manufacturer from a domestic military base, while a congressional committee plans to hold a hearing this month into whether small businesses face cybersecurity risks from using the equipment.

Fort Leonard Wood, an Army base in Missouri’s Ozarks, replaced five cameras on the base branded and made by Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co. , said Col. Christopher Beck, the base’s chief of staff. He said officials at the base acted after reading media reports about the company.

“We never believed [the cameras] were a security risk. They were always on a closed network,” Col. Beck said. The decision to replace the cameras was meant to “remove any negative perception” surrounding them following media reports, he added, without elaborating…

…A Defense Department spokesman said the Hikvision cameras at Fort Leonard Wood weren’t connected to the military network. He said the department is conducting a review of all network-connected cameras on the base to ensure they are “in compliance with all security updates.” The spokesman declined to comment on whether Hikvision cameras are in use at other military facilities.


There’s no threat but they don’t want it to look bad? That’s shonky. However plenty of these cameras are amazingly insecure; the Mirai and Reaper botnets feast on this stuff.
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Where’s Cortana? Microsoft is playing the long game as Amazon and Google dominate CES • GeekWire

Nat Levy:


Lost in the shuffle of Amazon and Google’s digital assistant showdown this week at CES is another tech giant’s virtual brain: Microsoft’s Cortana.

Unlike fellow tech heavyweights Facebook and Apple, which don’t go to CES, Microsoft does have a presence here. But it is more behind the scenes than Google’s flashy booth or the array of Alexa announcements. That’s because, in Microsoft’s view, the voice assistant market is in the very early stages.

“It’s a long journey to making a real assistant that you can communicate with over a longer period of time to really be approachable and interesting and better than the alternative,” Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president of Cortana engineering, told GeekWire. “That is our journey, to make some make some great experiences that shine through, and recognize that long haul.”


Translation: we’re getting squashed in this contest. Consumer isn’t really where Microsoft plays, but it’s where the voice play is. (Yes yes Windows but Cortana isn’t getting traction there.)
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The making of Apple’s emoji: how designing these tiny icons changed my life • Medium

Angela Guzman:


It was the summer of 2008, and I was one year away from receiving my MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It was the same summer I landed an internship at Apple on a team I was eager to meet. The same design team responsible for the iPhone; a magical device that launched the year prior at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. One could only imagine the size of my butterflies as I flew to Cupertino and arrived at 1 Infinite Loop. To add to the uncontrollable fluttering, I had no idea what project I would be given, the size of the team, where I would sit, or if I could really bike to work (I’m terrible on bikes).

Soon after my arrival and meeting the team (oh and biking to work!) I was handed my project. I was still trying to make sense of the assignment I’d just received when someone asked if I knew what an emoji was. And well, I didn’t, and at the time, neither did the majority of the English speaking world. I answered ‘no’. This would all change, of course, as the iPhone would soon popularize them globally by offering an emoji keyboard. Moments later I learned what this Japanese word meant and that I was to draw hundreds of them. Just as I was looking down the hallway and internally processing, “This isn’t type or an exercise in layout, these are luscious illustrations,” I was assigned my mentor…

…My first emoji was the engagement ring, and I chose it because it had challenging textures like metal and a faceted gem, tricky to render for a beginner. The metal ring alone took me an entire day. Pretty soon, however, I could do two a day, then three, and so forth. Regardless of how fast I could crank one out, I constantly checked the details: the direction of the woodgrain, how freckles appeared on apples and eggplants, how leaf veins ran on a hibiscus, how leather was stitched on a football, the details were neverending. I tried really hard to capture all this in every pixel, zooming in and zooming out, because every detail mattered. And for three months I stared at hundreds of emoji on my screen.


Wonderful story.
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CES was full of useless robots and machines that don’t work • Daily Beast

Taylor Lorenz:


Take the FoldiMate, a giant robotic machine that costs $850 that can supposedly fold your clothes. The machine, which took up more space than a washing machine, might be worth it if you could dump a huge pile of laundry inside some chamber and have your garments returned to you in neatly folded stacks. But that type of machine has yet to be built.

In order for the FoldiMate to work, you must individually button up each shirt then manually clip it onto the machine, which could be more time consuming than just folding everything yourself.

The machine can only fold certain items too. Dress pants and traditional button up shirts are fine, bulky sweatshirts, baby clothes, socks, or undergarments are off the table.

The FoldiMate fit right in with the other “smart home”-type products at CES, where the primary innovation in the past year seemed to be adding Amazon Alexa to absolutely everything.

The Haier smart mirror caught my eye as I stepped into the Central Hall of the convention center. It promised to help me dress by recommending outfits for travel, work, or a date. It could also give detailed washing instructions for different garments and track where it was sitting in my closet.

Intrigued, I asked how it would know so much about all my clothes. “Do I dump all my laundry into a big scanner?” I asked naively.


Read it to find out just how naive. (Very.)
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Can’t remove the lithium battery from your smart luggage? Consider it grounded • Washington Post

Andrea Sachs:


On Monday, airlines including American, Alaska, Hawaiian, Delta, United and Southwest will no longer allow passengers to fly with smart bags that contain nonremovable lithium batteries. The policy change applies to checked and carry-on bags that require lithium batteries to power high-tech features such as a USB charging station and a location tracker.

“Customers who travel with a smart bag must be able to remove the battery in case the bag has to be checked at any point in the customer’s journey,” American Airlines said in a statement. “If the battery cannot be removed, the bag will not be allowed.”

The rule springs from safety concerns. Lithium metal and lithium ion/polymer batteries are susceptible to emitting smoke, catching fire and even exploding. Between March 1991 and May 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration documented 160 incidents involving lithium batteries that were being transported as cargo or baggage.


That’s going to put a crimp on a few of the early adopters.
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The secret history of the Russian consulate in San Francisco • Foreign Policy

Zach Dorfman with a fascinating long read about the now-closed consulate and its former occupants:


Some suspected Russian intelligence officers were found engaging in weird, repetitive behaviors in gas stations in dusky, arid burgs off Interstate 5, California’s main north-south artery. In one remarkably strange case, said one former intelligence official, two suspected Russian spies were surveilled pulling into a gas station. The driver stood next to his car, not purchasing any fuel. The passenger approached a tree, circling it a few times. Then they both got back into the car and drove away. Suspected Russian intelligence operatives would perform the same strange rituals multiple times at the same gas stations.

Multiple theories about these activities emerged. One was that the Russians were trying to confuse and overwhelm their FBI surveillance teams, in order to gauge just how extensive their coverage really was — in other words, to test the capacity of their counterspies. Another theory revolved around a long-standing communications technique among Russian spies, known as “burst transmissions,” wherein intelligence operatives transmit data to one another via short-wave radio communications. But for these, said another former intelligence official, you need a line of sight, and such transmissions are only effective at relatively short distances.

Many of these behaviors, however, didn’t seem to fit a mold. For one, the FBI couldn’t establish that these suspected Russian intelligence operatives — some of whom were spotted with little devices in their hands, others without — were engaging in any communications. But according to multiple sources, one recurrent and worrying feature of these activities was that they often happened to correspond to places where underground nodes connected the country’s fiber-optic cable network.


And then it gets a whole lot more spooky.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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