Technonlogy

WIRED Awake August 10: Computer malware has been encoded into DNA

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Your WIRED daily briefing. Today, genetic analysis systems could be vulnerable to exploits encoded in DNA, Facebook has launched its new Watch video platform, Tesla plans to begin testing autonomous lorry ‘platoons’ and more.

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1. Computer malware has been encoded into DNA

Researchers at the University of Washington have successfully encoded computer malware in a strand of DNA and used it to exploit a computer that analysed the genetic material (TechCrunch). Co-author Karl Koscher told TechCrunch that “the conversion from ASCII As, Ts, Gs, and Cs into a stream of bits is done in a fixed-size buffer that assumes a reasonable maximum read length,” allowing the team to create an exploit, encoded as DNA, to carry out a buffer overflow attack and execute commands on the analysis computer. The proof-of-concept sounds like the stuff of sci-fi but shows that malware encoded into genetic material could potentially become a threat vector for labs carrying out analysis.

2. Facebook launches new Watch video platform

Facebook has announced Watch, a new streaming video platform that will appear as part of Facebook’s main mobile apps, desktop browser interface and in its apps for smart TVs (The Verge). The new Watch tab will provide a centralised hub for video programming created for Facebook by specialist content creators, pitching it somewhere between YouTube and Netflix. The company says: “We’ll be introducing Watch to a limited group of people in the U.S. and plan to bring the experience to more people soon. Similarly, we’ll be opening up Shows to a limited group of creators and plan to roll out to all soon”. There’s currently no indication of when UK users will get the new feature. Facebook has also discontinued its dedicated Groups app, saying that instead “we’re focusing on groups in the main Facebook app and on facebook.com”.

3. Tesla to begin testing autonomous lorry ‘platoons’

Emails seen by Reuters indicate that Tesla has plans to test “platoons” of self-driving semi trucks driving in formation on US roads (Ars Technica). The emails between the electric vehicle maker and the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles are in keeping with Tesla’s plan to unveil its first autonomous lorries in September. Tesla is also meeting with California officials to discuss self-driving truck tests on public roads. Meanwhile, the company’s newest cars have been confirmed as coming equipped with updated hardware, and the company says that older cars will be upgraded free of charge if the new configuration provides a safer autonomous driving experience in the future.

4. Draft US government climate report indicates dire consequences of warming

A draft version of a key US government report into climate change has been published by The New York Times, revealing the researchers’ conclusion that: “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for the observed climate changes over the last 15 decades. There are no alternative explanations” (Popular Science). The report includes predictions of extreme weather conditions including heatwaves, storms, droughts and floods around the world. The National Climate Assessment report has emerged at a troubled period for science in US politics and contradicts the Trump administration’s position that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain. On a related note, recent UK Met Office figures confirm other organisations’ findings that 2016 was indeed particularly hot – the 13th warmest year for the UK since records began.

5. Black holes seemingly affected by relativity

The first hints have emerged that stars orbiting around supermassive black holes are affected by Einstein’sTheory of General Relativity have been published (WIRED). A group of physicists studied the movement of a group of stars around the black hole at the centre of our own galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, which is about 300,000 light years away. The team found suggestions of a small change in the motion of one of the stars, known as S2, in line with the predictions of general relativity – which Einstein published over 100 years ago. The paper has been published in the Astrophysical Journal. “These are tiny deviations that require high-precision techniques and a very careful analysis of data, which have not been done so far,” said Vladimir Karas, from the Czech Academy of Sciences and one of the study’s authors. “Although we did expect that our results would eventually reach agreement with the predictions of General Relativity, I am very happy that we see the effect at work”.

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6. Speedtest launches new global internet speed ranking

Massively useful internet connection speed checker Speedtest.net creator Ookla has begun publishing a global index, aggregating that data to reveal which countries have the fastest fixed and mobile broadband speeds (TechCrunch). In an announcement, the company says that viewers can “use these country pages to spot spikes and dips in internet performance on a country level. Uncover trends and detect potential storylines”. The data for July reveals that Norway has the fastest mobile broadband speeds and Singapore the fastest fixed connections, while the UK comes in 40th for mobile and 25th for fixed, with average download speeds of 25.83Mbit/s and 49.22Mbit/s respectively.

7. This AI powered app lets you try out different dye jobs

If you’ve always wondered how you’d look with green hair, but would rather try before you dye, AI powered photo editor Teleport may be the app you’ve been waiting for (TechCrunch). Available for Android and iOS Teleport leverages a neural network that’s been trained to produce artificial hair colouring that’s “qualitative and closer to natural”, according to co-founder Victor Koch. He says: “We train our models using Tensorflow, because currently it is the most powerful and actively developing deep learning framework. We have several Amazon Instances which we use to train our model. Our dataset consists of 30k photos chosen manually. Moreover, we created our own framework which is up to 20 times faster than the popular Tensorflow library”.

8. Google’s AI declares galactic war on StarCraft

Having rolled over the world of competitive Go like a relentless tide, Google’s DeepMind is now taking on multiplayer real-time strategy game StarCraft II (WIRED). DeepMind and Blizzard Entertainment have released tools to let AI researchers create bots capable of competing in a galactic war against humans. The bots will be able to see and do all the things human players can do, and nothing more. Such efforts could produce more than just fun. Mastering StarCraft could see software take on more complex and lucrative jobs. “From a scientific point of view, the properties of StarCraft are very much like the properties of real life,” says David Churchill, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who advised DeepMind on its StarCraft tools, and organizer of a leading StarCraft bot competition. “We’re making a test bed for technologies we can use in the real world”.

9. The Coen brothers are making a western anthology series for Netflix

Netflix has announced forthcoming wild west anthology series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men) (The Verge). Produced by Annapurna Television and due out in 2018, the series will comprise “six tales about the American frontier told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen”. The Coen brothers said: “We are streaming motherfuckers!”

10. Get glitch-art puzzler Pony Island for free

Humble is giving away Pony Island – an improbably named and very rewarding meta puzzle game about glitches – to promote its current Humble microJumbo bundle (Rock, Paper, Shotgun). Highlights of the bundle’s paid tiers include hard-as-nails ultra-fast retro FPS Devil Daggers and rhythm platformer Geometry Dash. Just scroll to the bottom of the Humble microJumbo bundle page and enter your email address to get a free Steam code for Pony Island, along with the first episode of adventure game Space Pilgrim.

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