Tech
Enlarge / Guess what won't be on display at one of the biggest US gaming gatherings? Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Update, February 20: One day after Sony's PAX East cancellation, the company's PlayStation arm has now announced plans to skip a second major gaming expo, the Game Developers Conference, by citing the impact of coronavirus on its worldwide operations. Its exit from the March expo has company: Oculus, the virtual reality arm of Facebook, will also no longer attend GDC.

GamesIndustry.biz reported the pair of cancellations on Thursday with statements from both companies. Both statements revolve around concern for the health and safety of employees worldwide, while Oculus insists it will proceed as planned by posting GDC-timed announcements online and "host[ing] GDC partner meetings remotely" in the near future.

GDC's organizers posted a statement on Thursday assuring attendees that they're moving forward with the expo as planned, based on guidance from state and city health advisers. "We believe that, based on the strict US quarantine around coronavirus and a large number of enhanced on-site measures, we are able to execute a safe and successful event for our community," the statement said.

Original report:

One of the biggest names in gaming won't be at one of the biggest US gaming conventions next week, as Sony today unexpectedly pulled out of PAX East, citing coronavirus concerns.

Sony Interactive Entertainment today announced its withdrawal from the event as an update to an earlier blog post touting its planned lineup for the exhibition.

"We felt this was the safest option as the situation is changing daily," the update reads. "We are disappointed to cancel our participation in this event, but the health and safety of our global workforce is our highest concern."

PAX East 2020 will begin February 27—next Thursday—in Boston. Sony was planning to have 25 playable Playstation demo games on hand at PAX East, including a hands-on experience with the highly anticipated The Last of Us Part II. The PAX booth was slated to be the first time the general public could try any part of the game, which was originally slated for release this week before being bumped to May.

Kyle Marsden-Kish, PAX event director for ReedPOP, said in a statement that PAX East will have "enhanced cleaning and sanitation" event-wide, but otherwise the show will go on. "While we are saddened that Sony will no longer have a presence at PAX East 2020," he added, "we look forward to welcoming our friends at Sony to future PAX events and are focused on making PAX East 2020 a successful and enjoyable event for all attendees and exhibitors."

As of today, more than 75,200 cases of novel coronavirus disease, now named COVID-19, have been diagnosed Read More – Source

Tech
Enlarge / The iPhone 11.Samuel Axon

Apple is seriously considering the possibility of allowing users to change the default apps for Web browsing, mail, or music on their iPhones. The company might also allow users to listen to Spotify or other music streaming services besides Apple Music via Siri on the iPhone or on the HomePod smart speaker.

These revelations were outlined in a report by Bloomberg's Mark Gurman this morning, who cited multiple people familiar with Apple's internal plans.

While Apple's plans are not final, the changes could go into effect as soon as Apple's iOS 14 release later this year, which means they would likely be introduced during Apple's developer conference this June.

Currently, iOS users can download third-party applications for mail or Web browsing like Outlook or Firefox, but they cannot set them to be the default apps that the system opens when a link or email address is tapped in another application, for example. Apple does allow users to do these things in some cases with its macOS software for desktops and laptops, even though it's not possible on the company's mobile platforms.

This could help Apple's iOS platform compete with Google's Android, which has the dominant position in the smartphone market; this lack of flexibility in iOS is sometimes cited by users as a reason for opting for Android instead, as Android has long given users these kinds of choices.

And as Bloomberg notes, more elegant support for streaming services besides Apple Music would almost certainly be a boon for sales of Apple's HomePod smart speaker, as that lack of flexibility is a major limitation for that product compared to its competitors. Yes, HomePod users can stream Spotify to the HomePod using Apple's AirPlay technology, but many users may feel that is not a complete solution.

If these changes occur, they would be welcome ones for many iPhone owners. And they may help Apple preempt or address some lawsuits or antitrust complaints.

Taking music as an example, Spotify filed an antitrust complaint with European Union officials claiming that Apple unfairly prioritizes its own Music streaming service over Spotify's, even when users are deliberately seeking out Spotify. Among other things, Spotify has pointed out that Apple stacked search results in its on-device App Store with first-party software results at the expense of third-parties like Spotify, though Apple has already responded to those complaintsRead More – Source

Tech
Enlarge / An image of Phobos captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Japan's space agency has finalized a plan to send a probe to the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos, and it includes an ambitious lander to collect samples from Phobos to return to Earth.

The agency, JAXA, submitted the plan to the country's science ministry on Wednesday, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported. On Twitter, the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) official account also announced that it had formally moved from design into the "development" phase of operations. The space agency estimated that the total cost for the mission would come to $417 million.

The current plan calls for a 2024 launch of the probe on an H-3 rocket, a new booster built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and expected to debut late this year or in 2021. The MMX spacecraft would enter into orbit around Mars in 2025 and return to Earth in 2029.

Japan has experience with similar kinds of missions to small bodies in the Solar System. Its Hayabusa-2 probe successfully grabbed material from surface of the asteroid Ryugu and is scheduled to return the asteroid samples to Earth late this year. With a diameter of just 23km, Phobos has a surface gravity that is about one-thousandth that of Earth.

The MMX team has already said it plans to work on a similar small lander to Hayabusa-2 for the Mars mission, collaborating with the German and French space agencies.

No spacecraft have yet flown to Mars with the designated purpose of studying its small moons, nor has mRead More – Source

Tech

Thanks to the cancellation of next week's scheduled Mobile World Congress, tech companies are beginning to come forward with their previously planned MWC announcements. One of those, from HTC's Vive division, mostly revolves around plans to double-down on its consumer-grade Vive Cosmos VR headset. The company has announced three new models of the Cosmos, and each is a spin on the existing Cosmos system, only with new swappable "face plates."

The thing is, we've yet to go hands-on with any of these new versions of the Cosmos, which HTC says it'll remedy soon enough. In the meantime, if we're going to talk about unproven hardware, why not shoot for the moon?

  • Say hello to the HTC Vive Proton prototype headset. While HTC is currently quite mum about its specs, the company is currently bullish about the Proton as a combination device for VR, AR, and MR use… whenever it sees the light of day, anyway. HTC
  • HTC told Ars Technica that this pictured headset, the one with a dangling cord, is an "actual working prototype." HTC
  • However, HTC isn't ready to reveal the "lightweight component" that the Proton connects to for processing, battery, 5G connectivity, and more. HTC
  • HTC also revealed another Proton design, which clearly lacks a cord or tether. However, the company's representatives wouldn't provide any further details about this device, beyond the fact that this is currently a target render, not a real piece of hardware. HTC
  • Another angle of the untethered target render. HTC

That brings us to HTC's wackiest Thursday announcement: the HTC Vive Proton. This brand-new "prototype" headset system, as pictured above, is built around HTC's belief that "immersive" headset experiences will, for the foreseeable future, be a blend of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. As a result, the Proton is built around this concept of being able to see your real-life environs, with a certain level of 3D content superimposed on top, depending on what a given game or app demands.

In a phone interview with Ars Technica, HTC Vive President Dan O'Brien did not clarify whether the Proton will show users' real-life surroundings via a "pass-through" camera (a la the HTC Vive Pro's optional toggle) or as a clear view of the outside world through transparent glass (a la Magic Leap and Hololens).

While O'Brien insists that the first image in the above gallery is a shot of "an actual working prototype," this picture is missing the "lightweight component" that houses the system's processors, memory, battery, and 5G modem. While O'Brien didn't describe the shape or size of this object, he didn't deny our suggestion that it resembles the processing "puck" attached to the Magic Leap augmented-reality headset system. Meaning: this headset connects to some sort of battery-powered device that you can expect to attach to a belt or hip in some fashion.

"A tethered 5G experience that helps with rendering will be beneficial and safer for the user," O'Brien said in a phone interview. "It'll be more comfortable for the user, so you don't pack in too much weight, battery, and heat in the headset." O'Brien pointed to consumer concerns about attaching a 5G modem to a device that's strapped onto a user's head: "We don't see the viability of putting 5G antennas on people's foreheads."

One of O'Brien's comments lends credence to this being a truly working prototype: that it currently only works with a "three degrees of freedom" (3DOF) controller, even though the headset itself can handle six degrees of freedom (6DOF) for all head movement. In other words, you can safely walk and move your head while wearing the current Proton and expect virtual images to move and translate in kind, but the controller will only appear with a simpler "relative" positioning in virtual space. (If you're wondering how this works, read my Oculus Go review from late 2018. The short version: It's the worst part of using Oculus Go's apps.) O'Brien says the system "will work with 6DOF controllers in the future."

O'Brien emphasized multiple times in our conversation that HTC had no further specs or details to confirm at this time. He also wasn't willing to mention any other hardware manufacturers or partners who may be involved in its production. "We're still developing this product," he said. "We will feed out more information as we refine this product in 2020." While a prototype device like this would make sense to show off at an expo like Mobile World Congress, particularly with behind-closed-doors demos to build its mystique and buzz, we're a bit confused as to why HTC would show off such a vague, forward-looking device. Perhaps it's a reaction to Apple's rumored plans for its own Proton-like device coming as soon as 2022.

Three more Vive Cosmos options: Face… off

  • Behold, the bewildering HTC Vive Cosmos family of headsets, faceplates, and controllers. HTC
  • The Vive Cosmos Elite will have a black body, but its base headset is otherwise identical to other Vive Cosmos headsets. It's that front faceplate, and its compatibility with SteamVR tracking boxes, that varies from its Cosmos siblings. Worth noting: Because the Cosmos Elite doesn't use inside-out tracking, its side-facing cameras don't even function by default; they're just there in case you want to swap to a faceplate that does support inside-out tracking.
  • The Cosmos Play will be positioned as a lower-price option, as it has two fewer cameras than the standard Cosmos. It's also missing embedded speakers.
  • The Cosmos XR has a much more pronounced pair of lower-front cameras than the standard Cosmos headset, and these will be used to feed camera footage for "mixed reality" experiences.
  • For reference, here's the original Vive Cosmos system. If you already bought one of these, you can snap its front faceplate off and swap it with the other models' variants to switch use cases on the fly.
  • If you want to use the Vive Cosmos controllers, be warned that they will not function with the Cosmos Elite bundle or faceplate. HTC

The rest of HTC Vive's Thursday announcements are about three new Vive Cosmos headsets: the Vive Cosmos Play, the Vive Cosmos Elite, and the Vive Cosmos XR. This is where things get a bit confusing, as each model is effectively the same headset… with the exception of each model's faceplate.

All three new headsets come with the same form factor as Read More – Source

Tech
Enlarge / Artist's impression of an insider threat stealing your stuff.D-Keine / Getty Images

In the second of our series of podcasts on artificial intelligence produced in association with Darktrace, we dive into something a little spookier: the world of "insider threat" detection.

Click here for a transcript and click here for an MP3 direct download.

There have been a number of recent high-profile cases where people within organizations use their access to data for self-enrichment or ill-intent, and it slipped past the usual policies and tools that are collectively referred to as "data loss prevention." Most of the time, employees are long gone before the data theft is noticed (if it ever is), and preventing data loss almost requires a Minority Report level of pre-cognition.

To get some insight into how AI could play a role in detecting insider threats, Ars editors Sean Gallagher and Lee Hutchinson spoke with Kathleen Carley, director of the Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems at Carnegie Mellon University, about her research into identifying the tells of someone about to take the data and run. Lee and Sean also talked to Rob Juncker, senior vice president of Research and Development at data loss prevention software company Code42, about whether AI can really help detect when people are about to walk off with or upload their employer's data. And Justin Fier, director for Cyber Intelligence and Analysis at Darktrace, spoke with Lee about how AI-related technologies are already being brought to play to stop insider threats.

This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed in the following places:Read More – Source

Tech

The European Commission has told its staff to start using Signal, an end-to-end-encrypted messaging app, in a push to increase the security of its communications.

The instruction appeared on internal messaging boards in early February, notifying employees that “Signal has been selected as the recommended application for public instant messaging.”

The app is favored by privacy activists because of its end-to-end encryption and open-source technology.

“Its like Facebooks WhatsApp and Apples iMessage but its based on an encryption protocol thats very innovative,” said Bart Preneel, cryptography expert at the University of Leuven. “Because its open-source, you can check whats happening under the hood,” he added.

Signal was developed in 2013 by privacy activists. It is supported by a nonprofit foundation that has the backing of WhatsApp founder Brian Acton, who had left the company in 2017 after clashing with Facebooks leadership.

In December 2018, cybersecurity research firm Area 1 Security said it found that thousands of diplomatic cables were downloaded from the EUs COREU (or Courtesy) system

Privacy experts consider that Signals security is superior to other apps. “We cant read your messages or see your calls,” its website reads, “and no one else can either.”

While WhatsApps technology is based on Signals protocol (known as Open Whisper Systems), it isnt open-source. Another popular messaging app, Telegram, meanwhile, faces similar concerns over the lack of transparency on how its encryption works.

EU not-so-confidential

After a series of high-profile incidents that shocked diplomats and officials in Brussels and across the Continent, the European Union is beefing up its cybersecurity standards.

In December 2018, cybersecurity research firm Area 1 Security said it found that thousands of diplomatic cables were downloaded from the EUs COREU (or Courtesy) system, which is used by national governments and EU institutions to exchange day-to-day information on foreign policy.

The use of Signal was mainly recommended for communications between staff and people outside the institution.

Then in June last year, the news broke that the EUs delegation in Moscow had suffered what appeared to be a cybersecurity breach in 2017, with two computers allegedly hacked to steal diplomatic information. The Commission said it was investigating the issue and informed its top diplomats.

The EU on Wednesday said it would soon draft a new European cybersecurity strategy. It announced earlier it would set up a “joint cybersecurity unit” to support EU countries and organizations in the event of an attack.

Commission officials are already required to use encrypted emails to exchange sensitive, non-classified informatRead More – Source

Tech
  • The homescreen in Microsoft Office for iOS. Samuel Axon
  • Pressing the add button brings up three options: Notes, Lens, and Documents. Samuel Axon
  • Selecting documents lets you pick from these options for Excel, Word, and PowerPoint documents. Samuel Axon
  • The other major feature at the top level in this app is Actions, which gives you quick access to common tasks on mobile devices like signing PDFs or scanning images to text. Samuel Axon
  • Here's the settings panel in Microsoft Office for iOS. Samuel Axon
  • Editing a Word document. Samuel Axon
  • Editing an Excel document. Samuel Axon
  • Editing a PowerPoint presentation. Samuel Axon
  • For all three document types, you can select from templates. Samuel Axon

Today, Microsoft launched the Microsoft Office app for iOS and Android. It combines PowerPoint, Word, and Excel into one application, and it adds a number of mobile-oriented features.

“This app maintains all the functionality of the existing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint mobile apps but requires far less phone storage thanRead More – Source

Tech
Enlarge / The seemingly simple act of charing is getting increasingly complex.Argonne National Lab

Batteries tend to involve lots of trade-offs. You can have high capacity, but it means more weight and a slower charge. Or you can charge quickly and see the lifetime of your battery drop with each cycle. There are ways to optimize performance—figuring out the fastest charging you can do without cutting into the battery life—but that varies from product to product and requires extensive testing to identify.

But perhaps that testing is not so extensive, thanks to a new system described in the journal Nature. The system uses a combination of machine learning and Bayesian inference to rapidly zero in on the optimal charging pattern for any battery, cutting the amount of testing needed down considerably.

Not so fast

Fast charging is obviously useful for everything from phones to cars. But when a battery is subjected to fast charging, it doesn't store its ions quite as efficiently. The overall capacity will go down, and there's the potential for permanent damage, as some of the lithium ends up precipitating out and becoming unavailable for future use.

There are, however, ways of altering the charging profile to avoid this issue. For example, it might be possible to start charging slowly and generate some ordered lithium storage and then switch to rapid charging that builds on these before slowing the charge rate again to pack the last bit of lithium in efficiently. Modern chargers have enough processing power to manage a charging process that's designed to optimize speed against battery performance. All batteries see performance drop over time, but the right profile will minimize it.

The problem is identifying the right charging profile. At the moment, the only way we have to find it is to do empirical tests: run a bunch of batteries through a lot of charge/discharge cycles and monitor how their performance changes over time. Since there are a lot of potential charging profiles, and the performance decay is gradual, the process ends up requiring that hundreds of batteries have to be sent through enough charge/discharge cycles to take them to near their end-of-life point. Making matters worse, the profile will be different for each battery type, so learning what sort of charging works well for your cell phone won't necessarily tell us how to charge a phone from a different manufacturer.

The new work, done by a large collaboration, was an attempt to cut down on the time involved in testing a given battery.

Learning Bayesians

The setup the researchers use does involve standard battery-testing hardware, allowing them to send multiple batteries through repeated charge/discharge cycles at the same time. But beyond that, most of the action takes place in software.

One key software component is called a Bayesian Optimizer, or BO. The BO balances two competing interests: finding the best charging profile will mean testing as many profiles as possible, and the best profile is likely to be somewhere near one you've already identified as being good. Handle this balance poorly and you'll end up exploring all the area around a decent solution but miss a cluster of better solutions elsewhere in the set of charging profiles.

Bayesian statistics is designed to take prior information into account so it can use knowledge gained from the first few rounds of testing to ensure that both future rounds simultaneously explore more solutions while focusing additional tests near the best solutions from earlier rounds.

On its own, a Bayesian optimizer would simply increase the efficiency with which a set of charging profiles is tested—good, but not especially exciting. But in this case, the researchers coupled it with a machine-learning algorithm that takes the voltage profile seen during discharges and uses that to predict the future lifetime of the battery. In previous work, this algorithm was able to successfully predict lifetime performance using just 100 cycles of data. This has the effect of cutting testing of a set of batteries from 40 days down to 16.

That's good for a single round of testing. But remember that the goal is to both explore most of the set of charge profiles and to test all of the profiles around the successful solutions found in the first round. Doing just a few rounds of that sort of testing could mean nearly a half-year spent identifying the best charging profile. And by the time six months have passed, most companies are gearing up to work on a new product desRead More – Source

Tech
Enlarge / YOKOHAMA, JAPAN – FEBRUARY 19, 2020: A bus carrying passengers who will take the flight chartered by the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China drives past the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked the Daikoku Pier.Getty | Tomohiro Ohsumi

On Wednesday, the initial 14-day quarantine aboard a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship docked in Yokohama, Japan, officially ended. But the grueling saga seems far from for over for the ships 3,711 passengers and crew.

As the quarantine time ran out, Japanese officials were still reporting dozens of new cases of COVID-19 aboard. As of Wednesday, the number of coronavirus infections linked to the ship total 621—by far the largest cluster of COVID-19 infections anywhere outside of China. The next-largest cluster outside of China is in Singapore, which has 84 confirmed cases.

Japanese health officials are facing international criticism for their handling of the quarantine on the ship, the Diamond Princess. The quarantine was intended to curb the spread of disease by keeping people aboard, isolated from each other and from the public on land. But as cases mounted over the two weeks, it became clear that the control efforts only enabled the new coronavirus to spread. In fact, the 621 cases include at least three Japanese health officials, who were there to support the quarantine efforts but ended up becoming infected themselves.

"The quarantine process failed," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said Monday. "I'd like to sugarcoat it and try to be diplomatic about it, but it failed. People were getting infected on that ship. Something went awry in the process of the quarantining on that ship. I don't know what it was, but a lot of people got infected on that ship."

Floating petri dish

Passenger Arnold Hopland, a primary-care physician from Tennessee, provided some hints as to what went wrong. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Hopland described passengers drying their laundry on cabin balconies and leaning over to chat with neighbors while not wearing face masks.

Though passengers were largely confined to their cabins during the 14-day quarantine, they were allowed to take walks on the decks. They were instructed to wear face masks and keep their distance from other passengers during the strolls, but health experts are skeptical that everyone was compliant.

Additionally, Dr. Hopland counted having contact with crew members up to 10 times a day as they went door-to-door, hand-delivering food and supplies to guests.

As the Associated Press pointed out, crew members were not in isolation. They continued to share rooms, eat together in a mess hall, serve guests, and enter guest cabins for cleaning.

Just before Dr. Hopland and his wife planned to board an evacuation plane chartered by the US State Department on Sunday, test results came back indicating his wife had contracted the virus. She was moved to a local hospital, and Dr. Hopland remains on the ship in an extended quarantine.

The chartered flights, meanwhile, repatriated over 300 other American cruise ship passengers, 14 of whom tested positive for the virus en route to the US.

“I was surprised I was negative because I knew the virus had swept through this boat like wildfire,” Dr. Hopland told the Journal. “My analogy is they put us in a petri dish to get infected.”

Ongoing risk

The case highlights the complexity of outbreak control and the continued uncertainty people aboard theRead More – Source

Tech
Enlarge / Studying how ants organize division of labor within a colony can lend insight into how political polarization occurs in human society.Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Ants may be tiny critters with tiny brains, but these social insects are capable of collectively organizing themselves into a highly efficient community to ensure the colony survives. And it seems that the social dynamics of how division of labor emerges in an ant colony is similar to how political polarization develops in human social networks, according to a recent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

"Our findings suggest that division of labor and political polarization—two social phenomena not typically considered together—may actually be driven by the same process," said co-author Chris Tokita, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. "Division of labor is seen as a benefit to societies, while political polarization usually isn't, but we found that the same dynamics could theoretically give rise to them both."

Tokita and his adviser/co-author, Corina Tarnita, were collaborating with a group at Rockefeller University that was using camera tracking to study ants—specifically, how division of labor emerges in very small groups (between 12-16 ants). Their job was to devise a model for a behavioral mechanism that would explain the patterns that the Rockefeller people had observed in their experiments. "Originally, we thought social interactions might play a part," Tokita told Ars. "But it turns out we didn't need to think about social interactions to capture their results."

Tokita was familiar with the growing body of research in the social sciences involving opinion dynamics models—that is, how people's opinions can change over time as they interact with and influence each other. And he noticed that the emergence of political polarization within such models was similar to how division of labor emerges among ant colonies.

He thought it should be possible to combine the response threshold model he'd developed for the ants' social dynamics with the basic mechanism behind political polarization: a feedback loop between social influence and interaction bias. Social influence is the tendency of individuals to become similar to those they interact with, while interaction bias describes our tendency to interact with others who are already like us.

In Tokita's original ant model, the ants choose their jobs within the colony based on which need meets a critical internal threshold. For example, if one ant has a lower threshold for hunger, it will be more likely to go forage for food, while another ant with a low threshold for concern about the colony's larvae will devote more time to the nursery. Over time, each ant will have more interactions with other ants with thresholds similar to its, leading to the natural emergence of two groups: foragers and care providers.

This is usually a positive development, since it allows for the efficient functioning of the colony. However, Tokita and Tarnita found that if you add a strong feedback loop between social influence and interaction bias into the model, the two groups soon become so divided that they rarely interact at all, to the detriment of the colony as a whole.

According to Tokita, when only social influence is present, individuals interact randomly and become similar, so no division of labor naturally develops. When only interaction bias is present, individuals don't differentiate, so you don't get social factions. When both social forces are present, a strong feedback loop develops between them, resulting in both division of labor and polarized social networks. As both social influence and interaction bias increase, individual behavior becomes more specialized (biased) and individuals increasingly interact with those who are similar.

  • (Top) Model when only social influence is present. (Bottom) Model when only interaction bias is present. (Center) Both social forces produce division of labor and social polarization. Chris Tokita, Princeton University
  • As both social influence and interaction bias increase, individuals increasingly interact with those who are similar.
  • Princeton computational ecologist Chris Tokita. Sameer Khan/Fotobuddy

"We basically showed that there are critical tipping points where you expect individuals to diverge in their behavior, and that's when there is a strong enough bias towards those [most similar] to you," said Tokita. Interaction bias might still exist below that threshold, but it probably won't be strong enough to produce the strong feedback loop that further reinforces the polarization.

According to Tokita, it is possible to reduce that strong divide simply by interacting a little bit more with those who are less like us, and/or letting our internal thresholds shift a little so we are a little less like our current "in" group. This essentially erases the differences. When that happens, "You don't get division of labor, yRead More – Source