Will Virtual Shopping Malls Save Retailers?

HolodeckVR Demo at Pioneers Conference ViennaTom Atkinson @R3Digital

The past decades have seen a dramatic decline in traditional retail spaces as more people shift towards online shopping. So much so, that empty shops and malls have become a common sight, especially in smaller cities in the US and UK.

Millennials account for more than $1 trillion in U.S. consumer spending, yet they spend differently than previous generations, valuing experiences over possessions, and meaning over money. This why we’ve seen the shopping malls sector being both literally and figuratively demolished by the Millennial generation. Credit Suisse estimates that by 2022, 1 out of every 4 malls in the US could be out of business. This means an average of 8,600 closures in 2017 alone.

As Harvard Business professor Leonard Schlesinger reminds us, “malls were built for patterns of social interaction that increasingly don’t exist.” They made shopping efficient in a time of suburban sprawl. But then came the Internet, Amazon.com, mobile phones, and apps. One-click shopping with free same day delivery is pretty damned efficient.

Where retail used to be about places, therefore, the emphasis has now shifted towards experiences and non-repeatable moments, hence the enduring popularity of live concerts, sports matches, and luxury shopping.

“Places for bigger groups socializing or engaging with something are dying: bars, night clubs, shopping malls too. Groups of people enjoying social interaction are getting smaller. People are either on their way or at home and lots of social interaction happens online, in smaller groups normally – not at real spaces any more,” says Jonathan Nowak Delgado, cofounder of German-based startup HolodeckVR, which has been developing hybrid sensor technology allowing for up to 100 users to share a stadium-size arena at once. The idea behind it is to have 10 people or more interacting socially in the same physical/virtual space, and this social/spatial context applied to VR is what makes it a particularly compelling proposition.

In a 1998 article, B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore coined the term “Experience Economy”, to?refer to the premise that successful businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that with memory themselves becoming the products.

Immersive technologies have the potential to do just that, by bridging the gap between bricks-and-mortar and online retailing, and bringing together the best of the digital and physical worlds. Location-based VR can present a way to extend and amplify the shopping experience.

That scenario would see derelict or declining retail outlets transformed into attractions in their own right –shopping portals where customers can access products and experiences that they wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere. This could well prove a lifeline for local economies struggling to adapt to the new digital economy.

Human-centered design (HCD) is a methodology? for creating new services and experiences that?resonate meaningfully with customers, and according to Delgado, this approach is key for creating compelling content for platforms such as HolodeckVR.

When I spoke to Jeff Burton, cofounder of Electronic Arts and advisor to HolodeckVR at the Pioneers conference in Vienna earlier this year, he was enthusiastic about a range of applications for the holodeck, specially around education:

“A Holodeck classroom is the dream of any school kid wanting to fly through the solar system, roam through ancient Pyramids or walk with the dinosaurs. That’s the future of education without any doubt.”

In a commercial retail/entertainment scenario, not only would users in a small-town outlet be able to browse and buy a range of products and services comparable to the Dubai Mall, but access a range of unique and personalized experiences that would be impossible either in a traditional store setting, or on a website.

Considering buying a new set of golf clubs? Take them for a few practice swings in a professional golf course of your choice. Japan, Florida or Scotland, are all only a few clicks away. Shopping for a new kitchen? Stand in the middle of it and change the layout to your heart’s content, until it looks and feels just right. Always dreamed of shopping in Rodeo Drive but afraid of getting the judgmental “Pretty Woman” treatment from snobbish sales assistants? With VR nobody would need Richard Gere to come to the rescue at all, as each experience is tailored for the customer.

“Holodecks can save places and enhance moments,” concludes Delgado. “We offer the most precise economic free-roam XR tracking tech to date. Our holodecks are disrupting how humans are interacting in virtual and real spaces on an unprecedentedly large level.”

Many have been quick to dismiss VR as a solitary medium full of isolating experiences, yet this emphasis on human connection and socialization as a catalyst for economic recovery and growth shows how varied and exciting the untapped potential for immersive technology really is.

The 'Ada Lace' Books Will Get Girls Interested in STEM

Emily Calandrelli, host of Xploration Outer Space and correspondent on Bill Nye Saves the World, thinks there aren’t enough female science geeks in fiction. She wants to help change that with her Ada Lace series of children’s books.

“What I wanted to do was create a character that was female who had these types of adventures and did these types of science experiments,” Calandrelli says in Episode 318 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “So that kids could have a female character to look up to.”

Science is a constant presence throughout the series, but Calandrelli (and her co-author Tamson Weston) never let the story get bogged down in technical detail.

“What we do in the book is we add just a pinch of science, and then for the kids who want to learn more, there’s basically a glossary of science in the back,” Calandrelli says. “So it’s a fun way—for the kids who really want to dive into the science—to be able to give them that information that they’re craving.”

She also wants to avoid the stereotype of science geeks as strange and socially awkward that appears in shows like The Big Bang Theory. “It’s giving these kids a reason to be proud of liking science and technology,” she says. “It’s someone that they can look at and be like, ‘Yeah, I’d like to be like Ada. Ada seems cool.’”

The books have only been out a year, but so far the plan seems to be working.

“I had a book signing recently to celebrate the release of the third book, and I had kids who dressed up as Ada Lace,” Calandrelli says. “It was an event that allowed them to rally their interest in science and come here so excited to show me that they love science and Ada Lace.”

Listen to the complete interview with Emily Calandrelli in Episode 318 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Emily Calandrelli on aliens:

“In parts of West Virginia there’s very little light pollution, especially where some of my extended family lives, so I just remember being this very anxious kid going to visit some of my family members that were 30 minutes off a back road, and driving to these places at night, and being in the back seat, looking out the window at the night sky, and trying to escape from this high-anxiety life that I’ve created for myself, looking out at the night sky and just imagining what it would be like to leave planet Earth and go to another planet, and just hang out with a bunch of aliens for a while, and not worry about grades, and not worry about all these problems I’ve created for myself. That was my escape.”

Emily Calandrelli on science communication:

“I know that my parents’ ideas have been very much affected by my brother and me, who are very scientifically-minded and do our research on various topics, and then talk to our parents about these topics—who wouldn’t normally get that information from any other source. And so by educating our parents, when they go out and talk to their friends, they share the information that they’ve learned from us, and they’re kind of emboldened with these arguments that we provide, that we tell them, and I think that by them understanding the science behind it, and understanding the logic of what we’re telling them, they can share that logic with others. And so there’s that spidering effect where it trickles into other communities.”

Emily Calandrelli on West Virginia:

“I wanted to give the people of our state something positive that they can share with their kids, a positive role model who’s a West Virginian, because we don’t have a lot of that. And so one of the stories that a parent told me at my last book signing was that her daughter was reading Ada Lace in the living room, not knowing who the author was—this was a parent from West Virginia—and the girl, when she got to the part where she learned that Ada was from West Virginia, ran into the kitchen and excitedly told her mom that Ada Lace was just like her. And it was just one of those things where I was like, ‘That’s exactly why I wanted to do that. That was so perfect. I couldn’t have made up that story better.’”

Emily Calandrelli on politics:

“Fewer than seven percent of people in Congress and the Senate—fewer than seven percent, basically, of our representatives—have a formal background in STEM, have a formal background in science and engineering. … If we’re not electing people who have a background in STEM, then we should be emboldening ourselves with this knowledge. Because if those people don’t, we definitely have to. We need to hold them accountable, because they are making laws that are affecting the internet, that are affecting climate change, that are affecting the safety of our foods, and various regulations that affect the foods and the drugs and the environment, and all these things that affect all of us. If they don’t have that knowledge, then we must.”

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  • The vehicle of the future has two wheels, handlebars, and is a bike

Venmo Privacy, Ransomware Attacks, and More Security News This Week

This week started with a controversial, widely derided meeting between President Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and ended with… an invite for round two! And yes, all manner of craziness managed to happen in between.

That includes yet more denials on Trump’s part that Russia interfered—and continues to—with US democracy, a stance that has serious repercussions, however many times he walks it back. The Putin press conference performance also prompted concern across the aisle, as senators Marco Rubio and Mark Warner cast it as a major setback in efforts to safeguard the election. For what it’s worth, here’s what special counsel Robert Mueller’s been up to lately, and where he’ll likely go next.

The week wasn’t a total Trumpapalooza. RealNetworks offered a new facial recognition tool to schools for free, introducing a host of privacy-related concerns. And a company called Elucd is helping police better gauge how their precincts feel about them by pushing surveys out through apps.

Good news could be found as well! We talked to the Google engineers who built Secure Browsing, a suite of technologies that underpin security for a huge amount of the modern web. We profiled Jonathan Albright, the academic who has shined the brightest spotlight on Russian influence campaigns in the 2016 election and beyond. And we took a look at two tools Amazon has tested that could help its leaky cloud problem.

There’s more! As always, we’ve rounded up all the news we didn’t break or cover in depth this week. Click on the headlines to read the full stories. And stay safe out there.

Venmo’s Public Defaults Start to Cause Problems

Privacy advocate and designer Hang Do Thi Duc this week brought attention to payment app Venmo’s lack of built-in privacy. Her site, Public by Default, taps into Venmo’s API to show the latest transactions taking place on the platform. In fact, the nearly 208 million public Venmo transactions that took place in 2017 can all be viewed at this URL. But while Public by Default explores the inherent privacy issues with Venmo’s opt-in privacy in largely anonymized fashion, a bot emerged Thursday that tweets the usernames and photos of any users that appear to be buying drugs. Not ideal!

Ideally, Venmo would go ahead and make transactions private by default. But because it’s structured as something of a social network—peeping other people’s emoji transaction descriptions is part of the appeal—that’s unfortunately unlikely. Instead, to better protect yourself, open the app, tap the hamburger menu in the upper left corner, tap Privacy, and select Private. You’re welcome!

The DOJ Will Make Foreign Interference Public

In a departure from current policy, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein Thursday said that the government will let American groups and individuals know when they are the subject of an effort to subvert US democracy. The Obama administration notably didn’t do so in 2016, fearing that going public with Russia’s actions would appear politically motivated. It’s unclear exactly how the new policy will play out in practice, given that those sorts of disclosures will require a “high confidence” in attribution—tricky, especially in the digital sphere—and that the DOJ presumably won’t make any disclosures that would threaten ongoing investigations. Still, it would at least presumably prevent the current administration from trying to downplay or cover up any intrusions in the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential campaigns.

Ransomware Attacks Plague Medical Companies

A pair of high-profile attacks hit sensitive health care targets this week. Ontario-based CarePartners got hit with ransomware that locked out medical histories and contact info for as many as tens of thousands of patients, and apparently credit card numbers and other sensitive information as well. And the same SamSam malware that hobbled Atlanta struck LabCorp, a major lab services provider. Hackers apparently demanded $52,500 to free up the affected machines, but LabCorp appears inclined to simply replace them instead. Either way, it’s a good reminder that ransomware targets hospitals and other health care targets disproportionally, precisely because the stakes are so much higher.

A Robocall Firm Exposed Data of Thousands of US Voters

As if the scourge of robocalls weren’t bad enough already, a company called Robocent left hundreds of thousands of voter records, spread across 2,600 files, exposed on the open web. The data appears to have comprised mostly addresses and demographic information, but if nothing else it’s a reminder that the cloud needs better tools to keep this sort of thing from happening basically every week.

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A Comprehensive Guide to the Physics of Running on the Moon

One day humans will have a permanent presence on the moon. Right? One day it’s going to happen. So, how are we going to live on the moon? And maybe a more important question—how are we going to move around there? In preparation for our lunar colony, let me look at three motions that we could do on the moon: jumping, running, and turning.

Let me note that this analysis is inspired by Andy Weir’s recent novel Artemis. I’m not going to spoil the plot except to say there is a girl that moves around on the moon. Weir does a pretty nice job describing what would be different about moving on the moon as compared to the Earth.

What is different about the moon compared to the Earth? The biggest difference is the gravitational field on the surface. On the Earth, the field has a strength of 9.8 Newtons per kilogram (we use the symbol g for this). This means that a free falling object (no air resistance) would have a downward acceleration of 9.8 m/s2. On the moon, the gravitational field is about 1.6 N/kg, so that the vertical acceleration of an moon-object would be much less than one on Earth.

There is another important difference with the moon: It doesn’t have any air. If you are a human jumping, that might not be a big deal; an Earth-bound jumping human doesn’t move fast enough for air resistance to play a significant role. However, on the moon that same human would probably want to wear a spacesuit. This suit would both increase the effective mass and decrease the range of motion for a moving human. Oh, if there is a moon base there would probably be air inside of it so that you wouldn’t have to wear a spacesuit unless you just thought it looked cool (it would).

Jumping on the moon

I will start with the easiest motion—jumping straight up. Let’s say that during a normal human jump, a human pushes on the ground with some maximum force over some set distance. This distance is from the lowest position in pre-jump squat, up until the feet are no longer in contact with the ground.

Now for some starting values (you can change these if you like). I’m going to say this maximum jump force is three times the weight of the person (the weight on Earth) and the jump distance is 15 centimeters—that’s just a guess. With these values, I cannot model the motion of a jumping human on Earth. I’ll just calculate the total force as either the upward pushing force plus gravity while “in contact” with the ground or just gravity after that. It should be a fairly straightforward numerical calculation.

For a jumping human on the moon, I am going to make a few changes. Obviously the gravitational field will change—but also some other things. I’m going to assume the human is wearing a spacesuit, so this will increase the total mass (but not the max jumping force). Also, since a spacesuit is bulky, the jumping distance will also be smaller. OK, let’s get to it. Here are two jumpers (moon and Earth). If you want the code for this calculation—here you go.

Here is what it would look like (using spherical humans for simplicity).

Also, here is a plot of the vertical position of both jumpers.

A few things to notice. First, the Earth jumper starts off with a faster speed. Why? Because the moon jumper has more mass (spacesuit and stuff). Second, the moon jumper both goes higher and stays off the ground for a much longer time because of the lower vertical acceleration.

But wait! How about a real video of a moon jump? Here is a video of John Young’s famous “jump salute” during the Apollo 16 mission.

Pretty cool—but without a spacesuit, a human could probably jump even higher. Here is an old NASA film of a jumping human in simulated moon-gravity. NASA’s method (very creative) to simulate moon-gravity is to have the a human suspended mostly horizontal by strings and then move on a mostly vertical surface.

Running on the moon

It’s not really a spoiler, but one of the first scenes in the book Artemis has the main character (Jazz) out on the surface of the moon. For some reason (read the book), she starts running quite fast in her spacesuit. So, what would it be like to run on the moon?

Yes, there exists video of actual astronauts moving in a manner that could be considered “running”—but I still want to model this motion. I previously built a model of a running human and now I can just change some stuff to adapt it for the moon. Here is my previous post on a running human model. Some key points aspect of this model (remember, it’s still just a model).

  • A human is like a ball bouncing along the ground. It consists of two parts: contact with the ground and motion through the air.
  • The part where the human is not in contact with the ground must last a minimum amount of time so that the human can switch feet from front to back.
  • During the contact with the ground, the human can only exert some maximum force.
  • The contact time with the ground decreases with linear running speed.

All of this together means that as the runner moves faster, a greater component of the pushing force must be applied in the vertical direction to get the human off the ground, since the contact time decreases. Eventually, the human reaches some maximum speed where all of the force is used in the vertical direction. You can check out my model running code here.

But what about running on the moon? The big difference is time. Since the gravitational field is small, the human will be in the air for a much larger time with a smaller vertical push force. This means that more of the max force can be used in the horizontal direction to increase the horizontal speed.

OK, but what about a plot? Here is my running model on both the Earth and the moon. I increased the mass of the moon-human to simulate a spacesuit and I also increased the “stride time” the human is off the ground to account for a bulky suit that would require more leg swinging time.

Here is a plot of the velocity as a function of time for these two runners.

The Earth-human gets to a speed of almost 10 m/s, but the moon-human easily can go over 15 m/s. But wait! It’s even better. This is assuming the same kind of running style for both gravitational fields. However, on the moon it’s very possible that there are more efficient running styles that take advantage of the low gravitational field.

It’s probably not very surprising that people have already explored the idea of running in low gravity. Just check out this NASA test using the same “horizontal running” rig as in the jumping video.

Oh, there’s also this interesting paper looking at theoretical and simulated running speeds on the moon—“The preferred walk to run transition speed in actual lunar gravity”, from the Journal of Experimental Biology. For that study, they put actual humans on treadmills while in a plane flying in parabolic paths to create lower apparent weight. But really, who knows how it will really work until we get serious about being on the moon.

Running and turning

Running in a straight line might be fun for some short amount of time—but if you want to really maneuver around you are going to have to turn at some point. Would turning on the moon be different than on Earth? Of course. Let’s consider a human running in a circle on the surface of the Earth. Here is a top and side view with a force diagram.

The key idea here is that you need a “sideways” force in order to make a turn. The direction of this turning force is towards the center of the circle you are turning in. Also, the magnitude of this force depends on the running speed and the size of the circle in the following manner.

So, faster running speed means a bigger force and a smaller radius (sharper turn) also means a bigger force. The force that pushes the human into a circular path is the frictional force between the feet and the ground. But of course you already know that—if you try taking a turn on low friction ice it doesn’t work so well, does it?

Here’s the last important point—the magnitude of the friction force is proportional to the force with which the ground pushes up on the human. In the case of maximum friction, the magnitude would be:

But what about the moon? What changes? The first thing is the gravitational force. With a lower gravitational force on the moon, there will also be a lower force of the ground pushing up on the human. This of course means that there will be a lower frictional force used for turning. Oh, add to this the fact that the human might be running faster and you get a big turning problem.

So, running on the moon is going to be different than running on the Earth. I’m sort of excited to see what cool tricks we can come up with to move around in this lower gravity environment. Oh, being on the moon would be cool too.

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Dive Under the Ice With the Brave Robots of Antarctica

The lava fields of Hawaii. The peaks of the Himalayas. The crowds of a Justin Bieber concert. These are among the most perilous of environments on planet Earth, places where few humans dare tread. They ain’t got nothin’, though, on waters of our planet’s polar regions, where frigid temperatures and considerable pressures would snuff a puny human like you in a heartbeat.

Robots, though? This is the stuff their tough-as-hell bodies were made for. This is the domain of Seabed, the sensor-packed machine that dives over a mile deep into the polar seas—autonomously—collecting invaluable data. But it comes at a price: Getting the bot back to its icebreaking boat alive can be more challenging than communicating with a Mars rover millions of miles away.

Seabed doesn’t swim like your typical autonomous underwater vehicle. Most are shaped like torpedoes, which allows them to efficiently cut through the water like jets. Seabed instead can use its propellers to hover in the water column like a helicopter. This allows it to hang over the seafloor and map it with sonar, or cozy up next to ice to measure its thickness.

The robot can’t be tethered for hardwired communication, on account of the ice, and radio waves don’t work underwater. So instead, Seabed sends signals of sound (like MIT’s hypnotic fish robot). Even then, the robot isn’t always a reliable communicator. “If we are lucky, we get a 256 byte packet once every minute,” says Northeastern University roboticist Hanumant Singh, who developed Seabed. “And there are no guarantees that we can get it.” Compare that to how NASA scientists communicate with Mars rovers: The signal takes an average of 20 minutes to get from the robots to Earth, but at least it’s consistent. If Singh needs to ping Seabed, the signal might not get there.

To account for the dropped signals, Singh gives the robot a course to, say, run along a particular stretch of the seafloor and map it with sonar. If something appears to be going awry, like colder weather blows in and starts freezing over the ice hole Seabed’s supposed to surface in, Singh can send a signal to cut the mission short. Ideally, it reaches the recipient quickly. (He’s only lost one of these robots, by the way, not because of a communication breakdown but because an intense current swept it away.)

If Seabed comes up in the wrong spot under thick ice, there’s also no guarantee its operators can get it out of the water. It may come up near the icebreaker, like on one mission in 2010. You can’t go breaking ice willy-nilly near a $500,000 robot, so the researchers had to dig a small hole in the ice. This gave them access to the vehicle, to which they attached weights to sink it a bit, but also a float to keep it from plummeting to the bottom of the sea. Then the ship could crack open up the ice further—carefully still, of course—and pull the robot out. On another nearly ill-fated mission, the researchers had to deploy a smaller tethered ROV to grab Seabed and tow it safely to open water.

Generally, though, Seabed returns to within just a few meters of where operators expect it to surface. Again, if the robot weren’t reliably autonomous, this environment would eat it alive.

And once Seabed is in the water, it’s happy as a fish in … water. It’s sealed up nice and tight to keep freezing water from infiltrating the electronics. So if you bring it out of a warm ship hangar and drop it in the sea quickly, it’ll be alright. Where things get problematic is when you have to pull the robot out of the water, then expect to use it again right away.

“You put the vehicle in the water and you’re doing a test and you realize, oh, we forgot something,” says Singh. The water itself is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air drops to zero degrees. “You bring the vehicle back up and now it’s completely encased in ice.”

But enough about problems. Seabed is one tenacious science machine, whose job is more important than ever in these times of climate change. In addition to mapping the seafloor with sonar, it can do the same with ice to measure its thickness.

Which, sure, you could do by drilling lots of holes and dropping tape measures through. But sea ice turns out to be beautifully complicated. “In the Arctic and the Antarctic, ice isn’t just sitting there and thickening as it freezes on a lake,” says sea ice physicist Ted Maksym of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who has worked with Seabed. “It’s moving around and all the flows are crashing into each other, and when they do they form these huge piles of ice.”

These features develop not only above the surface, but as much as 60 feet deep, which Seabed can map with sonar, swimming back and forth across the face of the ice. “It’s just like mowing your lawn from below,” says Maksym.

What Maksym wants to understand is how ice thickens and thins in polar regions. In the arctic, for instance, old ice is disappearing, and ice in general is becoming more seasonal. “So understanding how the processes that govern the thickness of ice change as the arctic changes helps us understand how the arctic is going to respond to climate change,” says Maksym.

That means putting Seabed in danger, sure, but also means taking human divers out of danger. The robot may get stuck under the ice from time to time, but the data it’s gathering is vital to science’s understanding of Earth’s most brutal environments not affiliated with Justin Bieber.

Spectre variant gives buffer overflow a new twist

Security researchers Vladimir Kiriansky and Carl Waldspurger have uncovered two buffer-overflow derivatives of the Spectre microprocessor bug.

In a paper describing the flaws – dubbed Spectre 1.1 and Spectre 1.2 – the researchers wrote: “We have explored new speculative-execution attacks and defences, focusing primarily on the use of speculative stores to create speculative buffer overflows. The ability to perform arbitrary speculative writes presents significant new risks, including arbitrary speculative execution. Unfortunately, this enables both local and remote attacks.”

The researchers warned that the new attack can impact systems even if they have already been patched against the original Spectre flaw. Kiriansky and Waldspurger said an exploit of the new flaw would enable attackers to bypass recommended software mitigations for previous speculative-execution attacks.

They called on the IT community to develop generic fixes for the flaw. “Given the heightened public awareness due to Spectre and related attacks, there is higher consumer and business acceptance of previously unthinkable performance overheads for security protections,” said the researchers. “We hope this opportunity will be used to raise the bar for strong generic mitigations against both speculative and classic buffer overflows.”

Rather than adding to the classic buffer overflow patch burden, the researchers said: “We are confident that future secure hardware and software will be able to retain the performance benefits of speculative-execution processors.”

Cyber security firm eSentire said that because Spectre variant 1.2 enables would-be attackers to run code in pieces of memory that were meant to be read-only protected, the newly discovered bug opens up areas for attack that have not been seen before.

Given that Spectre variants affect a huge number of devices, Spectre variants 1.1 and 1.2 affect both Intel and ARM processors. AMD processors may be affected too, said eSentire. “This means that most modern operating systems are susceptible,” it added. “Security patches have not yet been released for either new Spectre variant.”

Why You Can't Trust More Cryptocurrency White Papers

In 2008, a mysterious figure named Satoshi Nakamoto uploaded a PDF to the internet outlining a digital framework for spending money without centralized banks. He sent the paper to a cryptography mailing list, and thus bitcoin—and the blockchain—were born. Ten years later, an entire cryptocurrency industry valued at $300 billion has bloomed from those nine pages.

To many in the cryptography world, this was unexpected. “When we heard about bitcoin for the first time, many of us cryptographers—myself included—did not think it was going to work,” says computer scientist Alejandro Hevia of the University of Chile. Nakamoto didn’t include detailed analysis on the bitcoin architecture, as is customary in peer-reviewed computer science papers. And he hadn’t publicized his ideas via the customary channels: not at crypto conferences or on arXiv, the loosely-moderated site where computer scientists upload their newest ideas in advance of peer review.

“It set the stage for people afterward—that it’s OK to write stuff on your own, put it on your website, and let the world see it,” says computer scientist Emin Gün Sirer of Cornell University. Some 1,600 cryptocurrencies exist today, each of their releases accompanied by a paper explaining the need for its existence. Their inventors write these so-called white papers to communicate how their cryptocurrency is better than the last—and to attract investors.

But without formal vetting, it’s rare for a white paper to achieve Nakamoto-level quality. Some papers are outright scams, veiled in pseudo-technical language that might not even be logically sound. “Maybe they’ll call the person they have beers with to read it on a Saturday, and they call that peer review,” says Sirer. “These papers would not pass scrutiny by any sort of scientist.”

In a widely publicized example this year, the platform Tron, currently the eleventh largest cryptocurrency, released a white paper that seemed to plagiarize two other ones. In some cases, Tron duplicated phrases word for word, without any citations. In response to the accusations, Tron took down the white paper, and its founder wrote on Twitter that the seemingly copied text was due to a translation error. (Tron’s original paper was written in Chinese.)

Tron isn’t the only example. Bad white papers are so plentiful that experts have identified recurring red flags, like when a white paper doesn’t cite any prior work. It’s just not possible that your brilliant new idea didn’t build on any existing concepts, says Chris Wilmer of the University of Pittsburgh, who edits Ledger, an academic journal dedicated to blockchain developments.

“The problem is that people are too eager to claim they’ve done something new,” says Hevia. Many of the underlying cryptography concepts in blockchain originated from academic research in the 80’s and 90’s, says computer scientist Arvind Narayanan of Princeton University; even Nakamoto’s white paper had a reference section.

In other words, crypto-developers—ironically, a community devoted to eliminating centralized authority—could use more traditional vetting structures. To that end, in 2016, Wilmer helped start Ledger, the first blockchain-dedicated academic journal, after canvassing the cryptocurrency community in both industry and academia. “There was resounding enthusiasm for it,” says Wilmer. These days, Ledger receives two to four paper submissions a week, although most don’t pass peer review. “Occasionally we get submissions with no citations,” he says.

Peer review also comes with other safeguards. Reviewers have to funnel their critiques through an editor, so it’s more difficult for people to express opinions without sound logical reasoning. Academic journals also usually require authors to declare potential conflicts of interest.

But peer review isn’t a panacea. It has its own share of problems: Academics are typically slow to accept new ideas, which can potentially kill promising innovations, says Hevia. The process takes months, sometimes years. “It took a long time to have bitcoin analyzed by very good researchers,” he says. “Had Satoshi Nakamoto waited for the analysis before submitting his or her paper, it probably wouldn’t have been published until four years later.” So it’s still can be useful to have informal places to publish ideas quickly—though places like arXiv and other online academic servers could serve as a middle ground.

The solution won’t be simple. Generally, people should be more transparent about their conflicts of interest, says Wilmer. He also thinks researchers shouldn’t develop and sell ideas at the same time. “When you tell somebody you have this great idea, you already cast suspicion on yourself if you might have financial gain,” he says. Sirer also thinks that investors could benefit from hiring technical consultants—graduate students, maybe, to vet whether the cryptocurrencies are based on sound computer science. For a community that prides itself on cutting out the middlemen—they may need them after all.

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U.S. lawmakers urge Google, Facebook to resist Vietnam cybersecurity law

HANOI (Reuters) – Seventeen U.S. lawmakers have urged the CEOs of Facebook and Google to resist changes stipulated by a new cybersecurity law in Vietnam, which critics say gives the Communist-ruled state more power to crackdown on dissent.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of laptop and mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Google logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

The law, which was approved by Vietnamese legislators last month and takes effect on Jan. 1, 2019, requires Facebook, Google and other global technology firms to store locally personal data on users in Vietnam and open offices there.

“If the Vietnamese government is coercing your companies to aid and abet censorship, this is an issue of concern that needs to be raised diplomatically and at the highest levels,” the Congressional Vietnam Caucus said in a letter seen by Reuters.

“We urge you to live up to your stated missions to promote openness and connectivity,” said the letter dated July 12 and signed by 17 caucus members.

Global technology firms have pushed back against provisions that would require them to store user data locally, but they have not taken the same tough stance on the parts of the law which bolster the government’s crackdown on online political activism.

Company officials have, however, privately expressed concerns that local data centers and offices could make it easier for the authorities to seize customer data and expose local employees to the threat of arrest.

Jeff Paine, Managing Director of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry group that led efforts to soften the legislation before it was passed, said the law had created “great uncertainty” for Vietnam’s reputation as an investment destination.

FILE PHOTO: A 3D-printed Facebook like button is seen in front of the Facebook logo in this illustration taken October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

“Vietnam will need a more progressive approach and smart regulations on internet technology and digital services to benefit its economy and people in the long term,” Paine said in a statement responding to the letter on behalf of AIC’s eleven members, which include Facebook and Google.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite sweeping economic reforms and growing openness to social change, the ruling Communist Party tolerates little dissent and exercises strict controls over media in Vietnam.

Tuoi Tre, a popular newspaper in the Southeast Asian country, was given a three-month ban on publishing news to its website on Monday, Vietnam’s information ministry said.

The paper published “false information” and allowed inappropriate comments to be made on its website, the ministry said.

Tuoi Tre apologized on Monday and blamed a technical error for the lack of moderation in its comment section. The paper was fined 220 million dong ($9,544.47).

Concerns over information control in Vietnam, underpinned by the passing of the cybersecurity law, have driven some Vietnamese activists to seek alternative social media platforms.

Bill Ottman, founder of Minds.com, a U.S.-based social media platform which promotes internet freedom, said his website had seen a spike of 150,000 new users from Vietnam since the cybersecurity law was passed.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Weber in SINGAPORE; Editing by Darren Schuettler

Exclusive: Kenya's Safaricom in 'advanced talks' to take M-Pesa to Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Kenya’s Safaricom (SCOM.NR) is in “advanced talks” with the Ethiopian government to introduce its popular M-Pesa mobile money service, a major step towards establishing a toe-hold in the market of 100 million people, two sources said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Pedestrians walk past a mobile phone care centre operated by Kenyan’s telecom operator Safaricom in the central business district of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Britain’s Vodafone (VOD.L), Safaricom’s ultimate parent company, will license the use of the M-Pesa trade name to an Ethiopia-based bank while Safaricom will host the servers in Nairobi, one Kenyan telecoms industry source told Reuters.

Ethiopia’s state telecommunications monopoly, Ethio Telecom, will carry the service, the source added.

Started in 2007, M-Pesa has nearly 30 million users in Kenya and has become the principal driver of profit growth for the dominant telecoms provider in East Africa as revenues from traditional voice and data services have flattened off.

M-Pesa’s move also suggests Kenyan businesses, from telecoms to banking to farming, are well-placed to take advantage of the wave of political and economic liberalization unleashed in the last three months by new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Nairobi-based firms have had their eye on Ethiopia for years due to its huge population and lack of economic development. However, until Abiy’s arrival this year, Addis has kept foreign involvement in the economy at arms’ length.

The head of Kenya’s biggest bank by assets, KCB Group (KCB.NR), told Reuters last week the lender could seek a partner in Addis after Abiy announced his intention to liberalize key parts of the economy.

Ethiopia’s banking sector is currently state-controlled and dominated by Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, which holds around of 70 percent of assets in the sector, according to analyst estimates.

Safaricom declined to comment.

Reporting by Maggie Fick and Duncan Miriri; Editing by Ed Cropley

Elon Musk Signed A 350-Year-Old Book With DeepMind's Demis Hassabis

Business magnate Elon Musk enters the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum on May 07, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images)

Google DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis and Tesla CEO Elon Musk were invited to sign a 350-year-old book in London last Friday.

Hassabis and Musk (one of DeepMind’s earliest investors) pencilled their names in the Royal Society’s prestigious Charter Book.

The Royal Society, which aims to promote excellence in science, is the world’s oldest independent scientific academy. The Charter Book dates back to 1663 and contains the signature of every Royal Society fellow and member. Over the years, the book has been signed by scientists such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, David Attenborough, and Tim Berners-Lee.

The Royal Society said Musk was elected a fellow for his contributions to space travel, sustainable electric transportation, solar power, low-cost internet satellites and hypersonic ground transportation. Hassabis was elected a fellow “thanks to his pioneering work merging cognitive neuroscience and machine learning to produce breakthroughs in deep learning that helped master the game of Go with AlphaGo.”

Hassabis wrote on Twitter: “Wonderful day at the @royalsociety! Amazing to sign the 350-year old charter book with all my heroes including Alan Turing. The ultimate honour for a scientist. Was fun to do it with @elonmusk, my postdoc advisor Peter Dayan, and all the other great scientists elected this year.” 

Hassabis graduated from The University of Cambridge with a double first class honours degree in computer science when he was just 20-years-old before going on to work in the video games industry.

Musk was one of the first investors in DeepMind’s artificial intelligence lab so he has known Hassabis for several years. He believes that machines will become superintelligent and has warned they could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said: “Our Fellows are key to the Royal Society’s fundamental purpose of using science for the benefit of humanity. From Norwich to Melbourne to Ethiopia, this year’s newly elected Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society are testament that science is a global endeavour and excellent ideas transcend borders.

“We also recognise the cutting edge innovation taking place across industry, with many of this year’s Fellows coming from the thriving tech industry. For their outstanding contributions to research and innovation, both now and in the future, it gives me great pleasure to welcome the world’s best scientists into the ranks of the Royal Society.”

Musk is currently being criticised for calling a British diver in the Thai cave rescue operation a ‘pedo’ in what is being described as a baseless attack