Amazon Lex, the technology behind Alexa, opens up to developers

Amazon Lex, the technology powering Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, has exited preview, according to a report from Reuters this morning. The system, which involves natural language understanding technology combined with automatic speech recognition, was first introduced in November, at Amazon’s AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas.

At the time, Amazon explained how Lex can be used by developers who want to build their own conversational applications, like chatbots.

As an example, the company had demoed a tool that allowed users to book a flight using only their voice.

However, the system is not limited to working only in the chatbots you find in today’s consumer messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger (though it can be integrated with that platform). Lex can actually work in any voice or text chatbot on mobile, web or in other chat services beyond Messenger, including Slack and Twilio SMS.
Read more

MasterCard adds fingerprint sensors to payment cards

Our fingerprints are quickly replacing PINs and passwords as our primary means of unlocking our phones, doors and safes. They’re convenient, unique, and ultimately more secure than easily guessed or forged passwords and signatures. So it makes sense that fingerprint sensors are coming to protect our credit and debit cards. MasterCard is testing out new fingerprint sensor-enabled payment cards that, combined with the onboard chips, offer a new, convenient way to authorize your in-person transactions. Instead of signing a paper receipt or entering your PIN while struggling to cover up the number pad, you simply place your thumb on your card to prove your identity.

Read more

Facebook is developing a way to read your mind

“What if you could type directly from your brain?”

That was the question Facebook executive Regina Dugan, who runs the company’s secretive research and hardware lab Building 8, posed to the audience Wednesday at the company’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose.

The question was not meant to be rhetorical. Dugan and Facebook are actually making technology intended to do just that.

Facebook is building what it calls a “brain-computer speech-to-text interface,” technology that’s supposed to translate your thoughts directly from your brain to a computer screen without any need for speech or fingertips.

The idea is that this technology will be able to take what you’re thinking to yourself in silence, using non-invasive sensors that can read exactly what you intend to say, and turn it into readable text.

Dugan says the idea is not that crazy. She showed video of a woman from a Stanford research experiment who could type eight words per minute using a small electrode implanted into her brain to move a computer cursor over a keyboard.

Dugan says Facebook’s goal is to create technology that could autonomously type 100 words per minute based on a person’s thoughts “in a few years.”

The goal is to “one day become a speech prosthetic for people with communication disorders or a new means for input to AR,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Even something as simple as a ‘yes/no’ brain click or a ‘brain mouse’ would be transformative.”

It is supposed to only detect activity in a very specific region of the brain where thoughts are translated into speech. “We are not talking about decoding your random thoughts,” she said. “That might be more than any of us care to know.”

But in order to ensure that Facebook is only translating the thoughts you want to share, the company says it will need to build new sensor technology that can better detect brain activity at lightning speed.

That tech doesn’t yet exist, but the company says it has over 60 scientists working on it now. Facebook also expects to create and ship these sensors at scale, thanks in part to miniaturization advancements from the telecom industry.

Reading the human brain isn’t the kind of technology announcement we’re used to seeing from Facebook, which makes truckloads of money advertising against user selfies and home videos.

But Facebook signaled that it had widespread ambitions last year when Dugan was hired and her new secret research lab, Building 8, was announced alongside hundreds of millions in funding. And Facebook spent the better part of its F8 presentations talking about its plans for augmented reality; the company envisions a world where smartphones will be replaced by smart glasses and keyboards may not exist.

Dugan previously ran the U.S. military’s research lab, DARPA, and then worked at Google before joining Facebook, and her work thus far has been kept private. It turns out that her plans for Facebook are as audacious as you might have imagined when she joined.

“Is it a little terrifying? Of course,” she said at the end of her keynote address. “If we fail, it’s gonna suck.”
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has not been shy about his scientific ambitions — but most of those have been linked to his philanthropic efforts, specifically a pledge with his wife Priscilla to spend $3 billion over the next decade trying to cure all disease.

In a lengthy letter published in February, Zuck made just a small mention of “accelerating science” amid lots of talk about creating global communities.
It’s the interface

Facebook isn’t only planning to listen to your thoughts. The company is also building technology to communicate with humans through their skin.

Facebook says its technology will act like the cochlea part of the ear, which translates sound into frequencies that are sent to the brain and decoded. Only rather than using your ears, Facebook says it will use your skin.

Though details on this project are slim, the social media company compared its new project with braille, which translates specific surface textures into words and is used by those who are visually impaired.


A Wrist Sensor That Works up a Sweat

Researchers who are trying to find a way to make wearable health technology real say they’ve taken a big step with a device that generates enough sweat to be useful.

They’ve built a prototype that generates a few drops of perspiration — enough to measure blood sugar and to monitor other bodily functions.

It’s not ready for the market yet, but shows it is possible for people to wear lightweight devices that can deliver on the promise of pain-free diagnosis.

“You don’t stick people with anything. You can just wrap it on people’s hands and have them engage in their daily activities and you can continuously monitor them,” said Sam Emaminejad, who helped work on the device while at Stanford University.

Many groups are working to develop wearable health tech, from the glucose-sensing contact lens that Google currently has put on hold, to a so-called artificial pancreas that is really a series of linked devices that monitor blood sugar and deliver insulin as needed for diabetes patients.

What a wearable health device needs is enough bodily fluids to measure something, such as blood sugar, sodium or hormones. The time-honored method is a needle, and anywhere from a drop to a few vials of blood.

Non-invasive alternatives would have to use sweat.

There are several problems with that, number one being whether you can measure blood sugar or look for, say hormones, in sweat. Second is getting enough sweat to measure in the first place.

The Stanford team thinks they have done that.

They’ve put together sweat-stimulating compounds into a small device that delivers a low current. It can measure glucose, sodium and other compounds in the sweat and wirelessly relay that information.

“This platform extracts sweat (at a high secretion rate) on demand or periodically and performs sweat analysis in situ (in place),” they wrote in their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was not painful and could be worn strapped to the arm. “It could be like a watch,” Emaminejad, who’s now at UCLA, told NBC News.

For proof of principle, the team measured blood sugar and minerals associated with flareups of cystic fibrosis in their volunteers. Such a device might be useful for monitoring a patient’s response to drugs, they said.

“One way I think this technology can be incorporated into our daily lives is to be incorporated into a smartwatch,” Emaminejad said. The compounds that stimulate sweating and that measure the desired compounds would need regular refreshing.

“We need a clever solution. Do we need a disposable cartridge that we can insert easily?” he asked.

And researchers will have to work on better ways to correlate measurements of blood sugar, lactase, potassium and other compounds taken from sweat to what doctors know they mean when measured in blood.

That’s one of the hiccups that held up work on the blood sugar-sensing contact lens — a lack of data on whether measurements in tears were as accurate as measurements taken from blood.

NBC News

Why You Should Wait Before Buying Samsung’s New Galaxy S8

When a splashy new smartphone hits the market, consumers often weigh whether to place an order right away or to wait and see how others react to the device.

But with the Galaxy S8, Samsung’s first major smartphone release since the spontaneously combusting Galaxy Note 7 was discontinued last year, there isn’t much of a debate. Your best bet is to wait to buy the roughly $750 device — not just for safety reasons, but also because other uncertainties surround it.

Samsung declined to provide an early review unit of the Galaxy S8 to The New York Times, but several consumer electronics experts who tried the device ahead of its release this Friday were cautiously optimistic about the product. Even so, they said the phone had some radical design changes that might make people uncomfortable, a few key features were unfinished and Samsung’s recent safety record remained a concern.

Read more

This Phishing Attack is Almost Impossible to Detect On Chrome, Firefox and Opera

A Chinese infosec researcher has discovered a new “almost impossible to detect” phishing attack that can be used to trick even the most careful users on the Internet.

He warned, Hackers can use a known vulnerability in the Chrome, Firefox and Opera web browsers to display their fake domain names as the websites of legitimate services, like Apple, Google, or Amazon to steal login or financial credentials and other sensitive information from users.

Read more

More and more people are using VPN services to protect their privacy online — here’s how they work

Internet privacy was once again thrust into the limelight recently when President Donald Trump signed a bill that would allow internet service providers to sell your browsing history to third parties like advertisers.

As much as the news rekindled concerns around internet privacy, little has actually changed. The signed bill is generally keeping things as they are. The outrage comes from the fact that the bill is rolling back an Obama-era measure to prevent ISPs from tracking and selling your browsing history, which didn’t have time to take effect before he left office.

Read more

How to stop those annoying, endless robocalls to your smartphone

Have you noticed an uptick in those super annoying robocalls, telemarketers, and scams hitting up your smartphone all hours of the day and night? I have, and it’s driving me nuts.

Last month, I had a bogus call to lower my electricity bill. A few weeks ago, it was a pause after I said hello, then a woman saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m adjusting my headset,” before launching into a sales pitch of some sort. And then there’s the daily deluge of numbers that look legit — like my daughter’s school calling, or a media outlet from Manhattan — only to end up being an obvious scam. “This is George Michael,” says a male caller with a heavy accent, “calling from your online pharmacy with your diet medication.” Talk about adding insult to injury.

Robocall rage

According to the Federal Communications Commission, there are nearly 2.4 billion robocalls made every month. That’s more than 7 calls per person, according to new research from the YouMail Robocall Index.

At best, the calls are frustrating. At worst, they’re robbing us blind. So what can we do about it once and for all?

#1 Google your own smartphone number

Let’s start with a little self-education. How the heck are these criminal-callers getting our cell numbers in the first place? If you don’t post it publicly across social media, use it on shady shopping sites, or shout it out to every telemarketer who calls — how is it getting out there? The Better Business Bureau recommends Googling your own number. Do it. I’ll wait.

Was it there? Mine was. It might not be alongside your name, but chances are it’s there, collected by a “people search” company like Nuwber that aggregates information from “White Pages listings, Public Records and Social Network Information.” Thanks to modern technology, these lists are now easy for cyber scammers to scrape.  And that’s how the the robo-games begin.

#2 Add your number to the Do No Call list

If you haven’t already, add your cell number to the National Do Not Call list. I just went there to verify that I’m on the list and sure enough, I’ve been registered since February 2006. So much for that. Obviously, it doesn’t fix the issue all the way around, but it does help keep legitimate companies from cold-calling you. Sadly for us, the bad-guys have easy workarounds (like #1).

If you’re already on the Do Not Call Registry and still get hit up, report the calls to the FTC, which compiles the reports and hands out the fines. You can also block them right from your smartphone and block any spammy texts too.

#3 Blocking calls and texts

On iPhones, tap the green phone icon on your home screen, select the “Recents” tab on the bottom of the screen, then tap the blue “i” information icon next to the phone number you want to block. A screen pops up with a bunch of options and at the very bottom you’ll find “Block This Caller.” Tap it and then when the verification screen appears, confirm your decision.

On most Androids, there are two easy ways to block numbers. If you’re on the standard version of Android 6.0 you can go into your call log and long-press on the number you want to block, then select “Block number” from the pop-up menu.

If you’re using a version of Android other than the stock version (or if you don’t know which version you’re actually using) you can select “Settings” and then “Call blocking,” then tap “Add number” and type in the number you want to block.

#4 Bring in the big guns

There are a handful of apps that promise enough anti-spam ammo to stop annoying calls for good. They all require a bit of set-up, but the toughest part of that so far for me has just been remembering my AT&T password. (You’ll need the provider password for some of them.)

Nomorobo – (iOS)

This is my best of these apps I’ve reviewed to date — so it’s no surprise that it won a competition by the FTC. After you download the app onto your device, you can sign up for a free trial for 30-days, or commit right away to either $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year. (If you don’t remember to cancel your sign-up, you’ll be auto-billed.)

After you install the app, it prompts go into your iPhone’s settings, select “Phone” then tap “Call Blocking & Identification” and tap Nomorobo to enable it. Back in the Nomorobo app, it asks you to enter your phone number for verification (to make sure you’re not a robocaller yourself). After that — you’re done.

You can send yourself a test robocall to see exactly how it all works. When a sketchy telemarketer hits up your phone number, your call screen shows a big red dot and a note that says “Robocaller” so you know to avoid it. There’s even an option in the app to block these calls automatically, before they even reach your smartphone screen.

Nomorobo swears it doesn’t block legitimate calls from pharmacies, schools, or other important institutions — because it “analyzes millions of calls made to hundreds of thousands of phone lines every single day.” While it doesn’t want to say much more about its secret sauce than that, I’m using it and it seems to be working well.

Truecaller – This paid app (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone) reports that it’s collected more than 3-billion phone numbers and relies on information from users to filter out the scams. When the app identifies a specific phone number as robocall or scam, it lets you know with an alert on the call screen. The website says it gets its information from a central database that is constantly being updated with new phone numbers.

Set up is similar to NoMoRobo. Download the app, follow the prompts. I like that you get link it to Facebook to auto-fill and there’s an animated screen that shows you the entire set-up process. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

There are several pricing options, but you end up paying about $1.50 per month for the full suite of features. Because Truecaller queries a central database for information on each number, the app requires a data connection to identify new callers, so keep that in mind if you often find yourself in places without 3G or 4G available.

Enough is enough!

I posted a message on this topic in my Facebook feed, and dozens of people chimed in. Other people have good things to say about similar apps such as PrivacyStar, Mr. Number, Hiya, and YouMail. We’ll try those and deliver an updated anti-spam round-up with the next few weeks.

Have you found a clever way to outsmart robocalls? Be sure to let us know in the comments section below.
usa today

Hacking Group Claims N.S.A. Infiltrated Mideast Banking System

For the past few months, an elite hacking group calling itself the Shadow Brokers has sporadically leaked sensitive data from the National Security Agency. On Friday, just when its leaks had appeared to slow, the group released what appears to be its most damaging leak so far: a trove of highly classified hacking tools used to break into various Microsoft systems, along with what it said was evidence that the N.S.A. had infiltrated the backbone of the Middle East’s banking infrastructure.

The timing of the leaks coincides with the United States’ recent shift in policy in Syria, which has escalated the conflict with the Syrian government’s main backer, Russia. The Shadow Brokers wrote in broken English in an online post, which cited the American missile attack on a Syrian air base among other reasons for the leak, that after a hiatus, it had returned to leaking because it was upset that President Trump was abandoning “the peoples who getting you elected.”

Read more

New tech harvests drinking water from (relatively) dry air using only sunlight

A new device the size of a coffee mug can generate drinkable water from desert air using nothing but sunlight.

“With this device, you can harvest the equivalent of a Coke can’s worth of water in an hour,” says cocreator Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s about how much water a person needs to survive in the desert.”

Read more