Radar trends to watch: November 2021 – O’Reilly

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While October’s news was dominated by Facebook’s (excuse me, Meta’s) continued problems (you’d think they’d get tired of the apology tour), the most interesting news comes from the AI world. I’m fascinated by the use of large language models to analyze the “speech” of whales, and to preserve endangered human languages. It’s also important that machine learning seems to have taken a step (pun somewhat intended) forward, with robots that teach themselves to walk by trial and error, and with robots that learn how to assemble themselves to perform specific tasks.

AI

  • The design studio Artefact has created a game to teach middle school students about algorithmic bias.
  • Researchers are building large natural language models, potentially the size of GPT-3, to decode the “speech” of whales.
  • A group at Berkeley has built a robot that uses reinforcement learning to teach itself to walk from scratch–i.e., through trial and error. They used two levels of simulation before loading the model into a physical robot.
  • AI is reinventing computers: AI is driving new kinds of CPUs, new “out of the box” form factors (doorbells, appliances), decision-making rather than traditional computation. The “computer” as the computational device we know may be on the way out.
  • Weird creatures: Unimals, or universal animals, are robots that can use AI to evolve their body shapes so they can solve problems more efficiently. Future generations of robotics might not be designed with fixed bodies, but have the capability to adapt their shape as needed.
  • Would a National AI Cloud be a subsidy to Google, Facebook, et.al., a threat to privacy, or a valuable academic research tool?
  • I’ve been skeptical about digital twins; they seem to be a technology looking for an application. However, Digital Twins (AI models of real-world systems, used for predicting their behavior) seem like a useful technology for optimizing the performance of large batteries.
  • Digital Twins could provide a way to predict supply chain problems and work around shortages. They could allow manufacturers to navigate a compromise between just-in-time stocking processes, which are vulnerable to shortages, and resilience.
  • Modulate is a startup currently testing real-time voice changing software. They provide realistic, human sounding voices that replace the user’s own voice. They are targeting gaming, but the software is useful in many situations where harassment is a risk.
  • Voice copying algorithms were able to fool both people and voice-enabled devices roughly 50% of the time (30% for Azure’s voice recognition service, 62% for Alexa). This is a new front in deep fakery.
  • Facebook AI Research has created a set of first-person (head-mounted camera) videos called Ego4D for training AI.  They want to build AI models that see the world “as a person sees it,” and be able to answer questions like “where did I leave my keys.” In essence, this means that they will need to collect literally everything that a subscriber does.  Although Facebook denies that they are thinking about commercial applications, there are obvious connections to Ray-Ban Stories and their interest in augmented reality.
  • DeepMind is working on a deep learning model that can emulate the output of any algorithm.  This is called Neuro Algorithmic Reasoning; it may be a step towards a “general AI.”
  • Microsoft and NVIDIA announce a 530 billion parameter natural language model named Megatron-Turing NLG 530B.  That’s bigger than GPT-3 (175B parameters).
  • Can machine learning be used to document endangered indigenous languages and aid in language reclamation?
  • Beethoven’s 10th symphony completed by AI: I’m not convinced that this is what Beethoven would have written, but this is better than other (human) attempts to complete the 10th that I’ve heard. It sounds like Beethoven, for the most part, though it quickly gets aimless.
  • I’m still fascinated by techniques to foil face recognition. Here’s a paper about an AI system that designs minimal, natural-looking makeup that reshapes the parts of the face that face recognition algorithms are most sensitive to, without substantially altering a person’s appearance.

Ethics

  • Thoughtworks’ Responsible Tech Playbook is a curated collection of tools and techniques to help organizations become more aware of bias and become more inclusive and transparent.

Programming

  • Kerla is a Linux-like operating system kernel written in Rust that can run most Linux executables. I doubt this will ever be integrated into Linux, but it’s yet another sign that Rust has joined the big time.
  • OSS Port is an open source tool that aims to help developers understand large codebases. It parses a project repository on GitHub and produces maps and tours of the codebase. It currently works with JavaScript, Go, Java, and Python, with Rust support promised soon.
  • Turing Complete is a game about computer science. That about says it…
  • wasmCloud is a runtime environment that can be used to build distributed systems with wasm in the cloud. WebAssembly was designed as a programming-language-neutral virtual machine for  browsers, but it increasingly looks like it will also find a home on the server side.
  • Adobe Photoshop now runs in the browser, using wasm and Emscripten (the C++ toolchain for wasm).  In addition to compiling C++ to wasm, Emscripten also translates POSIX system calls to web API calls and converts OpenGL to WebGL.
  • JQL (JSON Query Language) is a Rust-based language for querying JSON (what else?).

Security

  • Microsoft has launched an effort to train 250,000 cyber security workers in the US by 2025. This effort will work with community colleges. They estimate that it will only make up 50% of the shortfall in security talent.
  • Integrating zero trust security into the software development lifecycle is really the only way forward for companies who rely on systems that are secure and available.
  • A supply chain attack against a Node.js library (UA-Parser-JS) installs crypto miners and trojans for stealing passwords on Linux and Windows systems. The library’s normal function is to parse user agent strings, identifying the browser, operating system, and other parameters.
  • A cybercrime group has created penetration testing consultancies whose purpose is to acquire clients and then gather information and initiate ransomware attacks against those clients.
  • A federated cryptographic system will allow sharing of medical data without compromising patient privacy.  This is an essential element in “predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory” medicine (aka P4).
  • The European Parliament has taken steps towards banning surveillance based on biometric data, private face recognition databases, and predictive policing.
  • Is it possible to reverse-engineer the data on which a model was trained? An attack against a fake face generator was able to identify the original faces in the training data. This has important implications for privacy and security, since it appears to generalize to other kinds of data.
  • Adversarial attacks against machine learning systems present a different set of challenges for cybersecurity. Models aren’t code, and have their own vulnerabilities and attack vectors. Atlas is a project to define the the machine learning threat landscape. Tools to harden machine learning models against attack include IBM’s Adversarial Robustness Toolbox and Microsoft’s Counterfit.
  • Researchers have discovered that you can encode malware into DNA that attacks sequencing software and gives the attacker control of the computer.  This attack hasn’t (yet) been found in the wild.
  • Masscan is a next generation, extremely fast port scanner.  It’s similar to nmap, but much faster; it claims to be able to scan the entire internet in 6 minutes.
  • ethr is an open source cross-platform network performance measurement tool developed by Microsoft in Go. Right now, it looks like the best network performance tool out there.
  • Self-aware systems monitor themselves constantly and are capable of detecting (and even repairing) attacks.

Infrastructure and Operations

Devices and Things

  • Amazon is working on an Internet-enabled refrigerator that will keep track of what’s in it and notify you when you’re low on supplies.  (And there are already similar products on the market.) Remember when this was joke?
  • Consumer-facing AI: On one hand, “smart gadgets” present a lot of challenges and opportunities. On the other hand, it needs better deliverables than “smart” doorbells. Smart hearing aids that are field-upgradable as a subscription service?
  • A drone has been used to deliver a lung for organ transplant. This is only the second time a drone has been used to carry organs for transplantation.
  • Intel has released its next generation neuromorphic processor, Loihi. Neuromorphic processors are based on the structure of the brain, in which neurons asynchronously send each other signals. While they are still a research project, they appear to require much less power than traditional CPUs.

Web

  • ipleak and dnsleaktest are sites that tell you what information your browser leaks. They are useful tools if you’re interested in preserving privacy. The results can be scary.
  • Dark design is the practice of designing interfaces that manipulate users into doing things they might not want to do, whether that’s agreeing to give up information about their web usage or clicking to buy a product. Dark patterns are already common, and becoming increasingly prevalent.
  • Black Twitter has become the new “Green Book,” a virtual place for tips on dealing with a racist society. The original Green Book was a Jim Crow-era publication that told Black people where they could travel safely, which hotels would accept them, and where they were likely to become victims of racist violence.

Quantum Computing

  • A group at Duke University has made significant progress on error correcting quantum computing. They have created a “logical qubit” that can be read with a 99.4% probability of being correct. (Still well below what is needed for practical quantum computing.)
  • There are now two claims of quantum supremacy from Chinese quantum computing projects.

Miscellaneous

  • Would our response to the COVID pandemic been better if it was approached as an engineering problem, rather than scientific research?

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