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  1. Facebook Trains An AI To Navigate Without Needing a Map - A team at Facebook AI has created a reinforcement learning algorithm that lets a robot find its way in an unfamiliar environment without using a map. MIT Technology Review reports: Using just a depth-sensing camera, GPS, and compass data, the algorithm gets a robot to its goal 99.9% of the time along a route that is very close to the shortest possible path, which means no wrong turns, no backtracking, and no exploration. This is a big improvement over previous best efforts. [...] Facebook trained bots for three days inside AI Habitat, a photorealistic virtual mock-up of the interior of a building, with rooms and corridors and furniture. In that time they took 2.5 billion steps -- the equivalent of 80 years of human experience. Others have taken a month or more to train bots in a similar task, but Facebook massively sped things up by culling the slowest bots from the pool so that faster ones did not have to wait at the finish line each round. As ever, the team doesn't know exactly how the AI learned to navigate, but a best guess is that it picked up on patterns in the interior structure of the human-designed environments. Facebook is now testing its algorithm in real physical spaces using a LoCoBot robot.

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  2. Google Scientists Unveil the Biggest, Most Detailed Map of the Fly Brain Yet - An anonymous reader shares a summary from Howard Hughes Medical Institute: In a darkened room in Ashburn, Virginia, rows of scientists sit at computer screens displaying vivid 3-D shapes. With a click of a mouse, they spin each shape to examine it from all sides. The scientists are working inside a concrete building at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus, just off a street called Helix Drive. But their minds are somewhere else entirely -- inside the brain of a fly. Each shape on the scientists' screens represents part of a fruit fly neuron. These researchers and others at Janelia are tackling a goal that once seemed out of reach: outlining each of the fly brain's roughly 100,000 neurons and pinpointing the millions of places they connect. Such a wiring diagram, or connectome, reveals the complete circuitry of different brain areas and how they're linked. The work could help unlock networks involved in memory formation, for example, or neural pathways that underlie movements. Gerry Rubin, vice president of HHMI and executive director of Janelia, has championed this project for more than a decade. It's a necessary step in understanding how the brain works, he says. When the project began, Rubin estimated that with available methods, tracing the connections between every fly neuron by hand would take 250 people working for two decades -- what he refers to as "a 5,000 person-year problem." Now, a stream of advances in imaging technology and deep-learning algorithms have yanked the dream of a fly connectome out of the clouds and into the realm of probability. High-powered customized microscopes, a team of dedicated neural proofreaders and data analysts, and a partnership with Google have sped up the process by orders of magnitude. Today, a team of Janelia researchers reports hitting a critical milestone: they've traced the path of every neuron in a portion of the female fruit fly brain they've dubbed the "hemibrain." The map encompasses 25,000 neurons -- roughly a third of the fly brain, by volume -- but its impact is outsized. It includes regions of keen interest to scientists -- those that control functions like learning, memory, smell, and navigation. With more than 20 million neural connections pinpointed so far, it's the biggest and most detailed map of the fly brain ever completed. The scientists have published a pre-print paper describing their work, and have made the data they collected available to view and download.

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  3. Twitter Tells Facial Recognition Trailblazer To Stop Using Site's Photos - Kashmir Hill reporting for The New York Times: A mysterious company that has licensed its powerful facial recognition technology to hundreds of law enforcement agencies is facing attacks from Capitol Hill and from at least one Silicon Valley giant. Twitter sent a letter this week to the small start-up company, Clearview AI, demanding that it stop taking photos and any other data from the social media website "for any reason" and delete any data that it previously collected, a Twitter spokeswoman said. The cease-and-desist letter, sent on Tuesday, accused Clearview of violating Twitter's policies. The New York Times reported last week that Clearview had amassed a database of more than three billion photos from social media sites -- including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Venmo -- and elsewhere on the internet. The vast database powers an app that can match people to their online photos and link back to the sites the images came from. The app is used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies, ranging from local police departments to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security. Law enforcement officials told The Times that the app had helped them identify suspects in many criminal cases. It's unclear what social media sites can do to force Clearview to remove images from its database. "In the past, companies have sued websites that scrape information, accusing them of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, an anti-hacking law," notes the NYT. "But in September, a federal appeals court in California ruled against LinkedIn in such a case, establishing a precedent that the scraping of public data most likely doesn't violate the law."

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  4. Nintendo Doesn't Have To Refund Digital Preorders, According To European Court - A European court has sided with Nintendo's ongoing practice to not let users cancel digital preorders. The Verge reports: According to Norwegian gaming site PressFire, the consumer authorities of Norway and Germany sued Nintendo for not letting users cancel digital preorders purchased from the eShop. The case went to court at the end of last year. This week, the court ruled in favor of Nintendo, meaning it can continue the practice for now. PressFire reports that the German consumer authority has appealed the ruling. When the Norwegian Consumer Council first formally criticized Nintendo's policy in 2018, it said that Nintendo's policy conflicts with the EU's Consumer Rights Directive, which requires that consumers must be able to cancel online purchases and receive refunds. Nintendo's no-refunds policy is also in place for the U.S. -- in fact, Nintendo states that all sales of digital purchases on the Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Switch are final -- and Nintendo is the only console maker that doesn't let customers cancel a digital preorder, which the Norwegian Consumer Council noted in its 2018 complaint.

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  5. Seattle-Area Voters To Vote By Smartphone In 1st For US Elections - A district encompassing Greater Seattle is set to become the first in which every voter can cast a ballot using a smartphone. NPR reports: The King Conservation District, a state environmental agency that encompasses Seattle and more than 30 other cities, is scheduled to detail the plan at a news conference on Wednesday. About 1.2 million eligible voters could take part. The new technology will be used for a board of supervisors election, and ballots will be accepted from Wednesday through election day on Feb. 11. King County voters will be able to use their name and birthdate to log in to a Web portal through the Internet browser on their phones, says Bryan Finney, the CEO of Democracy Live, the Seattle-based voting company providing the technology. Once voters have completed their ballots, they must verify their submissions and then submit a signature on the touch screen of their device. Finney says election officials in Washington are adept at signature verification because the state votes entirely by mail. That will be the way people are caught if they log in to the system under false pretenses and try to vote as someone else. The King County elections office plans to print out the ballots submitted electronically by voters whose signatures match and count the papers alongside the votes submitted through traditional routes. "Voters who use the smartphone portal also have the option to not submit their ballots electronically," notes NPR. "They can log in, fill out the ballot and then print it to either drop off at designated drop-off locations or put in the mail."

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  6. Mozilla Wants Young People To Consider 'Ethical Issues' Before Taking Jobs In Tech - An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: The Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit arm of the company known for its privacy-friendly web browser Firefox, released a guide today for helping students navigate ethical issues in the tech industry, in particular, during the recruitment process. The guide advises students not to work for companies that build technology that harms vulnerable communities, and to educate themselves "on governance" inside companies before taking a job. It also discusses unions drives, walkouts, petitions, and other forms of worker organizing. The guide, which takes the form of a zine titled "With Great Tech Comes Great Responsibility," follows events hosted by the Mozilla Foundation last fall in partnership with six university campuses, including UC Berkeley, N.Y.U., M.I.T., Stanford, UC San Diego, and CSU Boulder. Not so subtly, it calls out Amazon, Palantir, and Google, which have faced backlash in recent months from tech workers as well as students on the campuses where they recruit. "Addressing ethical issues in tech can be overwhelming for students interested in working in tech. But change in the industry is not impossible. And it is increasingly necessary," reads the opening of the 11-page handbook -- citing military contracts, algorithmic bias, inhumane working conditions in warehouses, biased facial recognition software, and intrusive data mining as causes for concern.

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  7. Netflix Is Still Saying 'No' To Ads - "During its Q4 earnings call, Netflix shot down the idea of an ad-supported option for its service," writes Slashdot reader saccade.com. TechCrunch reports: "Google and Facebook and Amazon are tremendously powerful at online advertising because they're integrating so much data from so many sources. There's a business cost to that, but that makes the advertising more targeted and effective. So I think those three are going to get most of the online advertising business," Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said. To grow a $5 billion to $10 billion advertising business, you'd need to "rip that away" from the existing providers [such as Facebook, Amazon Google], he continued. And stealing online advertising business from [them] is "quite challenging," Hastings added, saying "there's not easy money there." "We've got a much simpler business model, which is just focused on streaming and customer pleasure," he said. The CEO also noted that Netflix's strategic decision to not enter the ad business has its upsides, in terms of the controversies that surround companies that collect personal data on their users. To compete, Netflix would have to track more data on its subscribers, including things like their location -- that's not something it's interested in doing, he said, calling it "exploiting users." "We don't collect anything. We're really focused on just making our members happy," Hastings stated. "We think with our model that we'll actually get to larger revenue, larger profits, larger market cap because we don't have the exposure to something that we're strategically disadvantaged at -- which is online advertising against those big three," he said. TechCrunch points out that Netflix does track viewership data, overall viewing trends, and users' own interactions with its service. It also recently introduced a new "chose to watch" viewership metric. "However, none of this viewership tracking is on the scale of big tech's data collection practices, which is what Hastings meant by his comment," the report says.

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  8. Microsoft Discloses Security Breach of Customer Support Database Containing 250 Million Records - An anonymous reader quotes a report from ZDNet: Microsoft disclosed today a security breach that took place last month in December 2019. In a blog post today, the OS maker said that an internal customer support database that was storing anonymized user analytics was accidentally exposed online without proper protections between December 5 and December 31. The database was spotted and reported to Microsoft by Bob Diachenko, a security researcher with Security Discovery. The leaky customer support database consisted of a cluster of five Elasticsearch servers, a technology used to simplify search operations, Diachenko told ZDNet today. All five servers stored the same data, appearing to be mirrors of each other. Diachenko said Microsoft secured the exposed database on the same day he reported the issue to the OS maker, despite being New Year's Eve. The servers contained roughly 250 million entries, with information such as email addresses, IP addresses, and support case details. Microsoft said that most of the records didn't contain any personal user information. "Microsoft blamed the accidental server exposure on misconfigured Azure security rules it deployed on December 5, which it now fixed," adds ZDNet. They went on to list several changes to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, such as "auditing the established network security rules for internal resources" and "adding additional alerting to service teams when security rule misconfigurations are detected."

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  9. Monty Python's Terry Jones Passes Away At 77 - Mogster shares a report from the BBC: Monty Python stars have led the tributes to their co-star Terry Jones, who has died at the age of 77. The Welsh actor and writer played a variety of characters in the iconic comedy group's Flying Circus TV series, and directed several of their films. He died on Tuesday, four years after contracting a rare form of dementia known as Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD). Here are some of Jones' best lines: "Now, you listen here! He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy!" -- as Brian's mother in Monty Python's Life of Brian "I'm alive, I'm alive!" -- as the naked hermit who gives away the location of a hiding Brian in Life of Brian "I shall use my largest scales" - as Sir Belvedere, who oversees a witch trial in Monty Python and the Holy Grail "What, the curtains?" -- as Prince Herbert, who is told "One day, lad, all this will be yours" in Holy Grail "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam" -- as the greasy spoon waitress in a Monty Python sketch

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  10. Apple's Privacy Software Allowed Users To Be Tracked, Says Google - Google researchers have exposed details of multiple security flaws in its rival Apple's Safari web browser that allowed users' browsing behavior to be tracked [Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source], despite the fact that the affected tool was specifically designed to protect their privacy. From a report: The flaws, which were ironically found in an anti-tracking feature known as Intelligent Tracking Prevention, were first disclosed by Google to Apple in August last year. In a soon-to-be published paper seen by the Financial Times, researchers in Google's cloud team have since identified five different types of potential attack that could have resulted from the vulnerabilities, allowing third parties to obtain "sensitive private information about the user's browsing habits." "You would not expect privacy-enhancing technologies to introduce privacy risks," said Lukasz Olejnik, an independent security researcher who has seen the paper. "If exploited or used, [these vulnerabilities] would allow unsanctioned and uncontrollable user tracking. Apple rolled out Intelligent Tracking Prevention in 2017, with the specific aim of protecting Safari browser users from being tracked around the web by advertisers' and other third-parties' cookies.

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