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The Week in Tech: Chinese and Iranian Hackers Have Returned

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Each week, technology reporters and columnists from The New York Times review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Hello, dear readers! I’m Nicole Perlroth, cybersecurity reporter here at The Times. I’m afraid the week’s news isn’t all unicorns and rainbows.

This should come as a shock to no one, but President Trump’s confrontational diplomacy has energized state hackers in Iran and China. They are targeting companies and government agencies in the United States with renewed gusto, after a multiyear lull. The rebound in activity comes on top of the continuing threat from Russians, who have already started hacking European civil society groups before elections there in May.

Consider this a preview of 2020.

With the United States pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Iranian hackers are hitting American banks, businesses and federal agencies with cyberattacks. They’ve significantly stepped up their game: harder to track down and more effective.

We’re no longer talking so-called denial-of-service attacks that make websites hiccup. They’re exploiting weaknesses in the internet’s backbone to steal web traffic as it passes between government agencies, banks and businesses that manage their back-end infrastructure.

The attacks rattled Homeland Security officials, who triggered an emergency alert during the government shutdown last month. Security researchers say that the attacks have not relented and that they’re hitting American targets with an unnerving success rate.

The news out of China is even more troubling. Mr. Trump’s trade confrontations with Beijing have energized state hackers in Beijing, who have renewed attacks on American businesses, especially in high-tech and defense companies.

Chinese industrial espionage notably dropped after President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China reached a 2015 deal to cease cybertheft of trade secrets. Now, the gloves are off.

Miriam Wugmeister, a cybersecurity specialist at the law firm Morrison Foerster, told me that Fortune 500 companies were being hit at “shockingly high” rates.

It’s rare that victims step forward — state laws require companies to disclose breaches only if personal data is compromised — but T-Mobile, Boeing and General Electric Aviation are among the companies in the crossfire.

If that’s not worrying you, consider my colleague Sui-Lee Wee’s blockbuster report Thursday on China’s campaign to build a DNA database, in part to track and suppress China’s minority Uighur population. Beijing could not have pulled this off without a big helping hand from Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts equipment maker, and genetic material provided by a prominent Yale University researcher who says he was unaware the material was used as a surveillance tool.

In other news:

■ Lyft is racing to beat Uber to an initial public offering, my colleagues Mike Isaac and Kate Conger reported. Lyft is hoping to debut on the Nasdaq at a $20 billion to $25 billion valuation before it’s overshadowed by its bigger ride-hailing competitor, Uber, which bankers initially pegged at a $120 billion valuation.

■ Google is losing advertisers after a YouTuber posted video showing the prevalence of pedophiles who comment on videos of children doing regular activities like gymnastics or stretching. My colleagues Dai Wakabayashi and Sapna Maheshwari reported that major brands like Nestlé and Epic Games have pulled advertising after users flagged their ads on children’s videos targeted by pedophiles.

YouTube and other big tech companies are already under fire for failing to aggressively police their platforms. Last month, YouTube said it had tweaked its algorithm to stop recommending conspiracy theories to users. This past week, my colleague Kevin Roose wrote a terrific piece outlining one of the central challenges for the company: Some of YouTube’s biggest stars (and ad magnets) push conspiracies.

Google is hardly the only company struggling with misinformation. This month, The Guardian discovered that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms and Facebook’s search results were still steering viewers from fact-based medical information to anti-vaccine misinformation. All this as the Pacific Northwest is still reeling from an emergency measles outbreak.

■ Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion icon, died in Paris on Tuesday. True to form, no obituary had an accurate read on his age, though The Times noted he was “generally thought to be 85.”

A tech newsletter this depressing would not be complete without my favorite Lagerfeld quote: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” (Thank God Karl Lagerfeld never set foot in Silicon Valley.)

Nicole Perlroth writes about cybersecurity in the Times’s San Francisco bureau. Follow her here on Twitter: @nicoleperlroth.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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Lamborghini’s latest Huracán is a supercar with a supercomputer

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Over the past few decades, technology has made vehicles safer and easier to drive. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, torque vectoring and other bits of tech keep cars on the road instead of flying into a ditch when things get hairy. It’s why newer cars typically handle corners better than older cars.

At Lamborghini, they’ve taken things further with their new Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata or LDVI system. The Engine Control Unit (ECU) takes data from the entire car and uses it to adjust how the new Huracán EVO Spyder drives in real time (actually in less than 20 milliseconds. But that’s about as close as you can get to real time). Cars have been doing some form of this for a while but the Italian automaker needs to be able to do this at incredible speeds and in environments your typical sedan or SUV doesn’t encounter.

At Lamborghini, they’ve taken things further with their new Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata or LDVI system. The Engine Control Unit (ECU) takes data from the entire car and uses it to adjust how the new Huracán EVO Spyder drives in real time (actually in less than 20 milliseconds. But that’s about as close as you can get to real time). Cars have been doing some form of this for a while but the Italian automaker needs to be able to do this at incredible speeds and in environments your typical sedan or SUV doesn’t encounter.

With this technology, Lamborghini is able to take the raw power of an all-wheel-drive supercar with a V10 engine and 630 horsepower and tame it, just enough, so your average driver (who can shell out $287,400) can enjoy themselves behind the wheel of the all-wheel-steering vehicle without, you know, flying into a ditch.

To achieve this, the LVDI is actually a super fast central processing unit that takes in data about the road surface, the car’s setup, the tires and how the driver is driving the vehicle. It then uses that info to control various aspects of the Huracan.

The system works in concert with the Lamborghini Piattaforma Inerziale (LPI) version 2.0 hardware sensors. This system uses gyroscopes and accelerometers located at the car’s center of gravity. It measures the vehicle’s movements and shares that data with the LVDI computer.

Lamborghini says the system is so in tune with all aspects of a drive that it can actually predict the best driving setup for the next moment. In other words, if you’re behind the wheel flying around corners on a back road, the system will recognize your behavior as you enter a corner and adjust itself.

“Where it’s possible to do a bigger jump in the future is with the intelligent use of four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering and the movement and control of the torque wheel by wheel in a way that can be more predictable and that is what we have with the Huracan EVO,” said Maurizio Reggiani, chief technology officer of Automobili Lamborghini.

Lamborghini is thinking about a world beyond a completely gas-powered engine though — it has a pipeline for hybrid and electric vehicles. But Reggiani notes that Lamborghini will probably be the last automaker to leave behind a large growling power plant.

Putting all that power to the ground in a controllable way requires an incredible amount of technology — that’s where LVDI and other pieces of technology come in. The automaker believes the result is a driving experience that matches exactly what the driver wants, regardless of the mode the car is in. Whether it be Strada, Sport, or the track ready Corsa, the vehicle (in a controlled way) should deliver.

That control allows a driver to do something that typically takes months if not years to master: drifting. It goes against what the car wants to do — lose traction. But in Sport mode it’s possible. To do that, the vehicle has to figure out (in real time and safely) things like what angle it wants to slide. The Huracán EVO Spyder has to understand that you want to drift and not fight that. If it does, it will jerk the car (and driver) back into alignment.

Lamborghini Huracan EVO Spyder

To relive your Fast and Furious dreams, the automaker started where lots of companies start with new technology: In the simulator. But a computer can’t faithfully reproduce the real world. Mostly that has to do with tires, a variable that’s tough to predict because of the density of the rubber’s compound and its wear.

Then, of course, there’s the driver. We all drive differently but the experience must be the same for everyone. It’s important that even with all that technology, it’s still a driving experience. “We don’t want to have something that substitutes the driver. We want to have a car that is able to understand what the driver wants to do,” Reggiani said.

Lamborghini is known for large engines, intense growls, striking design and bank-busting prices. But the reality is all that power would be useless if drivers couldn’t actually control the car. The automaker’s latest system makes that possible for everyone. Sure, only a select few can own a Lamborghini, but everyone can appreciate a system that makes driving safer while simultaneously more fun.

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This device makes it easy for the elderly to stay in touch with their loved ones

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Only 20 percent of over-75s in the UK have a smartphone compared to 95 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds. Digital technologies change fast, become obsolete quickly and usually need you to spend a bit of time learning how to use them.

This helps explain why most older adults tend to use what they know best when it comes to communicating, which usually means a phone call via a landline or basic mobile, instead of a quick text or social media update.

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But it doesn’t have to be this way. My colleague Massimo Micocci and I have recently designed a more modern device we hope will help older people stay in more frequent touch with instant updates, but that has a familiar feel to it. By drawing on smart materials and what we call “design metaphors”, we hope to make new technology more accessible.

When older people don’t have access to instant messaging, a phone call or a visit may be the only way for friends and family to check their loved ones are well. And doing so more than (or even) once a day might not be feasible or wanted.

Similarly, older people might feel that ringing their relatives morning and night just to let them know they’re OK would be an inconvenience. And while you can buy specialized monitoring devices that record people’s movements around their home, these often feel like an invasion of privacy.

With this in mind, we developed something that lets older people broadcast their status to their families like a social media update. Our device (which is designed for research purposes rather than commercial development) looks like an analogue radio. But it lets users transmit information about their activity captured from a wearable heartbeat sensor in a way that is entertaining and intuitive, and only shared with selected group of followers.

The keep-in-touch. Author provided

The information includes how energetic their current activity is, for example whether they are conducting an active task such as gardening, or a relaxing and restful one such as reading a book.

By designing the device to evoke technology with which people will feel instantly familiar, we’re using the principle of design metaphor. Most people find it easier to interact with devices that resemble products they have already used.

In cognitive psychology, this is known as inferential learning, referring to when someone applies established knowledge in their brain to a new context. The design of our “radio” device makes it easier for users to work out how to use it, based on their previous interactions with traditional radios – even though it has a very different function.

Giving users control

There are plenty of systems that enable people to monitor older family members. But usually these are fully passive, where the older adults are observed directly through cameras and sensors around their homes. Or they are fully active, for example mobile phones that require the older adults to stop what they’re doing and respond right away.

Instead, our device lets people choose the level of communication they want. It runs in the background and doesn’t transmit detailed information such as images of people in their homes. This makes it a much less intrusive way of letting someone know you’re OK.

We also wanted to make the device very easy to understand, interpret and remember. So rather than having an information screen that showed text or images, we wanted to create a display that used so-called smart materials to convey what the user was doing.

In this context, smart materials are those that can change color, shape, viscosity or how much light they emit. Our research showed that light-emitting materials were the best way of conveying messages without words for both under and over-60s.

The “radio” is just a research prototype but it has allowed us to understand that the combination of innovative materials and familiar artefacts can be a successful way to encourage aging users to adopt new technologies. In this way, smart materials and design metaphors could help bridge the digital gap and promote innovation among older consumers.

This article is republished from The Conversation by Gabriella Spinelli, Reader in Design Innovation, Brunel University London under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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