Your WIRED daily briefing. Today, microparticles of plastic have been found in tap water around the world, Facebook says that a Russian firm bought ads for “divisive” propaganda during US election, hackers took control of power grids in Europe and the USA, and more.
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Research funded by global development firm Orb Media has found that tap water supplies around the world are contaminated with plastic microparticles (Ars Technica). According to figures published by The Guardian, US water supplies had the highest level of contamination, with 94 per cent of samples containing plastic microfibres, while European countries including the UK, France and Germany had the lowest, at 72 per cent. The quantities are minute, with just 4.8 bits of plastic measuring as little as 2.5 micrometers in even US tap water, but the findings illustrate the ubiquitous nature of microplastics pollution. Unfortunately, although there’s evidence of tiny plastic fragments turning up in everything from sea life to birds, there’s currently a paucity of research into the potential effects of microplastics consumption on human health.
Facebook has published details of adverts apparently bought by a Russian political PR organisation during the 2016 US election campaign, which the social media firm says “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum – touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights” (BBC News). Facebook says it’s cooperating with a US investigation into illegal attempts to influence the election and suspects that the $100,000 (£77,000) advertising spend was made by the St Petersburg based Internet Research Agency. Meanwhile, it’s emerged that Facebook claims it can sell ads to people who don’t actually exist: it says its ads can reach 41 million 18 to 24-year-olds in the United States, but census data indicates that there are only 31 million people in that demographic, which in turn implies that there are an awful lot of fake accounts knocking around on the social network.
Security firm Symantec is warning that a series of recent hacker attacks not only compromised energy companies in the US and Europe but also resulted in the intruders gaining hands-on access to power grid operations – enough control that they could have caused blackouts at will (WIRED). Symantec on Wednesday revealed a new campaign of attacks by a group it is calling Dragonfly 2.0, which it says targeted dozens of energy companies in the spring and summer of this year. In more than 20 cases, Symantec says the hackers successfully gained access to the target companies’ networks. And at a handful of US power firms and at least one company in Turkey, their forensic analysis found that the hackers obtained what they call operational access: control of the interfaces power company engineers use to send actual commands to equipment like circuit breakers, giving them the ability to stop the flow of electricity into homes and businesses. Symantec security analyst Eric Chien said: “We’re now talking about on-the-ground technical evidence this could happen in the US, and there’s nothing left standing in the way except the motivation of some actor out in the world”.
A massive genetic study of 215,000 people has identified ways in which humans have evolved in just the last couple of generations (Nature). The study used longevity as a measure of genetic fitness – people with harmful genetic variants are more likely to die early, so it becomes rare in older sectors of the population. The team found that specific genetic variants appear less frequently in long-lived individuals, including those that give people a predisposition to asthma, a high BMI or high cholesterol. Additionally, the longest-lived people also showed increased levels of genetic variants associated with delayed puberty and late childbearing.
Data from Nasa’s Juno spacecraft has revealed that Jupiter’s auroras are like nothing on Earth (WIRED). On our planet, auroras form an orderly inverted V structure as they go: Their potential energy is lower on the edges and ramps up into overdrive in the middle over the pole. The part you can actually see is the result of those accelerated electrons raining down on Earth’s atmosphere, where they bash into oxygen and nitrogen molecules. As the excited molecules calm down, they release photons and create an undulating light show. Barry Mauk, lead author of a new Jupiter aurora study says it’s in that electron acceleration phase that Jovian auroras stop making sense. Mauk and his team are seeing monstrous electric potentials over Jupiter’s polar regions – anywhere between 10 and 30 times greater than any seen on Earth. Which they expected – everything’s bigger on Jupiter. However, Jupiter’s aurora isn’t 10 or even 30 times stronger than Earth’s. It’s about a hundred times stronger. And there is no Earthly explanation for that discrepancy. “Basically, the aurora is a factor of 10 brighter than it should be based on Earth-like physics,” Mauk says.
From DDoS attacks to data manipulation, new cybersecurity regulations to organised fraud, businesses and consumers alike are faced with ever greater levels of security threats. Get inside knowledge on the developing threat landscape at WIRED Security 2017, returning to London on September 28.
A paper recently published to the arXiv pre-print server details a method of using a neural network to recognise photos of people whose faces are partially covered by masks, hats, scarves, beards or glasses (The Verge). The system uses facial key-points to identify individuals, and was only able to link a covered face to the key-points of its uncovered owner 55 per cent of the time when the person was wearing a hat, sunglasses and scarf. However, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observed that the development of such technology could put those protesting against unjust governments at further risk, while Jack Clark’s AI newsletter, Mapping Babel, observes that rigid masks could prevent a viable solution and says: “the datasets and underlying machine learning techniques will need to get dramatically better and larger for this sort of approach to be tractable and practical – especially when dealing with diverse groups of protesters”.
A new fabric, inspired by solar panels and satellites, has been used to create baby clothes grow as a baby does (WIRED). “We have limited resources on Earth so we need to be clever about how we use them,” says engineer Ryan Yasin, 24, the UK winner of this year’s James Dyson Award. “Because this is seven sizes in one, you’re not buying, manufacturing and transporting seven times as many garments.” Yasin’s Petit Pli clothing expands to fit children from six to 36 months. This is possible, he says, because the material uses the Negative Poisson’s ratio. If you pull the pleated garment along it’s length, it will grow along its width simultaneously. Yasin was inspired by his two-year-old nephew, who kept growing out of the clothes he bought him. “Usually in children’s wear brochures you see these little angels, but we are designing clothes for little rugrats who are running around, exploring,” he says. The fabric is also heat-treated to make it last longer, hydrophobic and windproof.
Channel 4 has announced that Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams will get its UK premiere on Sunday, September 17 at 21:00 (Den of Geek). The show is a ten-episode sci-fi anthology series based on the mind- and reality-bending short fiction of Dick, whose stories also inspired films such as Blade Runner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. The series’ impressive cast includes Timothy Spall, Bryan Cranston and Anna Paquin.
A forthcoming game adaptation of Animal Farm, authorised by the estate of George Orwell, is to combine elements of adventure game and management sim (Polygon). In an interview with gamesindustry.biz, lead developer Imre Jele said: “Animal Farm will be a narrative-lead management game. This adventure-tycoon will place the player in the Manor Farm as one of the animals just before the revolution, and will follow their journey through the ups and downs of the farm. The gameplay will combine story choices and decisions about how to run the farm into a consistent narrative. Our story and play mechanics will be about our deeply rooted, collective desires for liberty, equality and fraternity that are overshadowed by the absolute corruptive effect of power over individuals”.
Torn Banner Studios has made its mage-battling first-person shooter, Mirage: Arcane Warfare free for a day, and it’s yours to keep if you download it before 18:00 BST today, September 7 (Rock, Paper, Shotgun). The game, a critically-acclaimed sequel to Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is being offered for free to boost its player base, Torn Banner explains: “Mirage launch sales were poor. That sucked, and we know it. Our company’s doing fine, and we’ll be able to continue to make awesome games in the future. More than anything, we’re disappointed for the players who stuck by us and did buy Mirage – but who have struggled to find people to play against. We just want people to play the game we spent years making”.
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Has the internet spiralled into an angry mess of tribes fighting with one another? The founding dream that heralded the arrival of the World Wide Web was very different, notes Lucas Dixon, chief scientist at Google’s Jigsaw project. “We used to fantasise that the internet would be a kind of utopia,” he says. While it did help to bring together people thousands of miles apart, the consequences are sometimes distinctly unfriendly. “Unfortunately, discussions have a tendency to turn pretty bitter,” he acknowledges.
Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is replacing the web interface with an AI that sells customers whatever they want, whenever they need it. In this issue, WIRED looks at Jeff Bezos’ masterplan and what Amazon’s next move is. You can also read about Korea’s mega bot; the ultimate gear guide; pastry hacks; African architecture; how to disrupt the death industry; lab-grown diamonds and more. Out in print and digital. Subscribe now and save.