New Tech Targets Human Creativity

images-5Microsoft made a slew of announcements at its New York City event Wednesday, focusing on the idea of user as creator.

Among its new offerings:

  • The Surface Studio, an all-in-one desktop computer with a touchscreen that’s 12.5mm thick;
  • The Surface Dial, a new input device that provides haptic feedback;
  • The Surface Book i7;
  • VR headsets for Windows 10 that use the same Windows Holographic platform as its HoloLens;
  • A revamped Paint app with 3D capability; and
  • Creator’s Update, an upcoming Windows 10 refresh providing 3D creation tools, live streaming, and custom Xbox app tournaments.

“Ultimately, technology is just a tool in the hands of humanity,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the event. It’s “a tool that helps amplify our ingenuity and creativity. New computing medias do not take shape by technology alone.”

The Surface Studio took center stage at the event.

“The Surface Studio is my favorite simply based on looks and the way it’s aimed at graphical productivity,” said Michael Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

“It would be ideal for desktop publishing integrating graphics,” he told TechNewsWorld. “This makes productivity through graphical manipulation practical.”

The Surface Studio’s 4.5K ultra HD touchscreen stood out for Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“All the OEMs buy screens based on price and yield,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Microsoft specified a screen that was matched to what Windows can do, which means this one product will work better with Windows than anything currently in, or coming to, market.”

The only other firm that has done that is Apple, Enderle noted.

Surface Studio Specs

The Surface Studio’s screen delivers 63 percent more pixels than a state-of-the-art 4K TV, said Terry Myerson, EVP of Microsoft’s Windows and Devices Group.

It works beautifully with a stylus pen, touch and the new Surface Dial, he noted.

Media Analytics

The American Civil Liberties Union recently uncovered evidence that led Twitter, Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary to stop sharing data with Geofeedia, a firm accused of improperly collecting social media data on protest groups, and sharing that information with numerous law enforcement agencies.

Geofeedia, a developer of location-based analytics, had been marketing its technology to law enforcement agencies. It was used for such purposes as monitoring Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU of Northern California uncovered the practice after requesting public records information from 63 law enforcement agencies in California.

The documents revealed that Instagram had provided Geofeedia access to streams of user posts, called the “Instagram API,” until that practice was terminated last month, according to Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties policy attorney for the ACLU of Northern California.

The data also shows that Facebook provided Geofeedia access to its Topic Feed API, which is supposed to be used for media and branding purposes, according to the ACLU. The API gave the firm access to a ranked feed of public posts that mention a specific topic.

API Access

Geofeedia had access to the Facebook’s API source information, said Facebook spokesperson Jodi Seth.

Using APIs the way Geofeedia did is a “violation of our platform policies, which prohibit the sale or transfer of data,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“This developer only had access to data that people chose to make public,” Facebook said in a statement. “Its access was subject to the limitations in our Platform Policy, which outlines what we expect from developers that receive data using the Facebook Platform. If a developer uses our APIs in a way that has not been authorized, we will take swift action to stop them and we will end our relationship altogether if necessary.”

Facebook terminated Geofeedia’s access to its APIs last month, after learning about the infractions, Seth said.

While not providing access to its Firehose technology, Twitter did allow a subsidiary to provide Geofeedia with searchable access to public tweets, the ACLU said.

Twitter earlier this year added contract language designed to protect users against further surveillance techniques, the organization noted.

Based on information in the ACLU report, Twitter suspended @Geofeedia’s commercial access to Twitter data.

The ACLU’s Cagle acknowledges in a post on the organization’s site that “neither Facebook nor Instagram has a public policy specifically prohibiting developers from exploiting user data for surveillance purposes,” Twitter spokesperson Nu Wexler pointed out to TechNewsWorld.

The ACLU post goes on to say that “Twitter does have a ‘longstanding rule’ prohibiting the sale of user data for surveillance as well as a developer policy that bans the use of Twitter data to ‘investigate, track or surveil Twitter users.'”

Twitter this spring cut off U.S. intelligence agencies from access to Dataminr, a firm that scans social media activity for information on potential terrorist attacks and political unrest, Wexler noted, pointing to a Wall Street Journalstory published in May.

Targeted Protesters

Facebook severed its agreement with Geofeedia because it violated Facebook’s data-sharing policies, noted Brandi Collins, campaign director ofColor of Change, which had joined the ACLU and the Center for Justice in making the document request.

Facebook’s decision to abandon the agreement suggests that the methods Geofeedia was employing were illegal, Collins told TechNewsWorld.

“More broadly, we should be concerned that police departments are wasting critical public resources on monitoring the social media profiles of the people in their communities, they’re supposed to be protecting,” she said.

Touch to MacBook Event

Apple on Thursday unveiled two new MacBook Pro laptops, adding a touch more power to the line.

Both the new 13-inch and 15-inch models will be offered in silver and space gray. They have a Touch Bar that replaces the row of function keys found on laptops, as well as a Touch ID fingerprint scanner incorporated into the power button. They sport a Force Touch trackpad that’s twice the size of the trackpad in previous models.

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro is 14.9 millimeters thick, 17 percent thinner than its predecessor. It’s also smaller — 23 percent by volume — and at 3 pounds, it weighs half a pound less than the previous version.

The 15-inch unit is 15.5mm thick, 14 percent thinner than previous models. It too has a smaller footprint than its previous generation, 20 percent by volume, and it tilts the scales at 4 pounds, also a half pound lighter than its predecessor.

Both units have an improved version of the “butterfly” keyboard introduced in Apple’s 12-inch MacBook, as well as a key dedicated to Apple’s digital assistant Siri. They also have four Thunderbolt USB-C ports that can be used for a variety of tasks, including charging the units.

“Four Thunderbolt ports are a tremendous amount of bandwidth,” said Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“You can support two 4K displays, a 4K camera and an external storage array all at the same time with the 15-inch MacBook Pro,” he told TechNewsWorld. “That’s a lot of power.”

Brighter, Faster, Louder

The MacBook displays also have been upgraded. For example, the screen on the new 15-inch model is 67 percent brighter, with a 67 percent greater contrast ratio and 25 percent more colors.

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro runs on a 6th generation Intel Core i7 quad processor with 2133 MHz memory. It has Radeon Pro graphics based on AMD’s Polaris architecture. It can deliver graphics 2.3 times faster than the previous generation of the laptop.

The unit now supports up to 2 terabytes of solid state storage, and it’s faster — 50 percent faster than the previous model.

The speakers also are better. They not only produce greater volume, but also have two times the dynamic range of previous models.

The new 13-inch model runs on 6th generation i5 or i7 Intel chips, also mated to 2133 MHz system memory. It has Intel Iris graphics, as well as storage speeds twice those of its predecessor.

Touch Bar

The Touch Bar feature on the new MacBook Pros definitely was the star of the Apple’s Thursday show.

The bar is a high-resolution touch display that replaces the function keys on the laptop. The display is context aware, so it can change its content based on the application running in the foreground of the computer.

“It’s a disruptive new implementation,” said Werner Goertz, a research director at Gartner.

“It’s not new to see a dynamically adaptable bar,” he told TechNewsWorld, “but as usual, Apple has taken something that’s already out there and perfected it.”

The bar acts almost as a second monitor. Items can be dragged from the main display to the bar.

“That’s something that will capture the user’s imagination and will be a great differentiator for Apple going forward,” Goertz said.

The Touch Bar is a game changer for Apple, according to Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

“It allows not only Apple, but also developers to create custom connections to their applications, and make those applications more interactive and easier to access,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Apple emphasized the role of the MacBook Pro for creativity,” Bajarin continued, “but that Touch Bar will be extremely attractive to even mainstream consumers, because it changes how they interact with applications.”

Apple TV

Along with the new MacBook Pro announcements, Apple revealed a new app for Apple TV and iOS aimed at unifying a user’s TV experience.

Called “TV,” the free app displays an aggregate view of all shows and movies the user currently is watching through other apps. It also recommends programming based on the user’s tastes. It provides access to a library of iTunes purchases and rentals, and a store for buying more content.

“We want Apple TV to be the one place to access all of your television,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Thursday event.

With 1600 apps available for Apple TV, it’s become necessary for someone to step in and make it easier to discover and organize content, explained Bajarin.

“The new TV app is designed specifically for that purpose,” he said.

Revenue Driver

Apple TV will be a growth area for the company in 2017, noted Trip Chowdhry, managing director for equity research at Global Equities Research.

“Service revenues this quarter grew 24 percent, probably because of Apple TV,” he told TechNewsWorld. “That growth could accelerate in 2017 with the new Apple TV app.”

Although Apple believes its TV app will completely change how people will watch TV, Gartner’s Goertz maintained the app will be less disruptive than Apple expects it will be.

“If you look at what Amazon and others are doing with TV, it’s what Apple is doing now,” he said. “For that reason, I didn’t see the TV app that disruptive.”

The absence of any mention of Apple TV’s potential as a smart home hub was disappointing, Goertz added.

“Apple is still lagging behind the Amazons of this world when it comes to the smart home,” he said.

There was no hint of restraint in Apple CEO Tim Cook’s enthusiasm, however.

“We couldn’t be more excited about having our best product lineup ever heading into the holiday season,” he said at the close of the event.

The new 13-inch MacBook with function keys sells for US$1,499 and is available immediately. The Touch Bar models are available for preorder and will go on sale in two to three weeks, with the 13-inch version selling for $1,799 and the 15-incher for $2,399.

President Cyberagenda

When the new president takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., cybersecurity will be on the shortlist for action. What’s a president to do?

TechNewsWorld asked more than a dozen experts what should be at the top of the new leader of the free world’s cyberagenda. Following are some of their responses.

“The president has to set the tone early on cybersecurity — within the first 100 days — and say right off the bat that this matters,” said Sam Curry, chief product officer at Cybereason.

The first priority should be protecting government systems, he explained.

“New cabinet secretaries have to understand that their mission can’t be done without secure systems,” said Curry. “Far too often, cybersecurity is not even on the list of priorities for initiatives and agencies and staffing.”

All government agencies should be required to adopt a formal assumption of breach framework, recommended Jeffrey Carr, CEO of Taia Global.

“This means that they acknowledge that they are currently in a state of breach,” he explained, “and must immediately act to identify and secure their critical assets as well as build in resiliency.”

Share the Wealth

Information sharing is another issue that needs executive attention.

Some progress has been made in sharing cyberintelligence between public and private sectors during the current administration, but the next administration should ramp up those efforts, recommended Scott J. White, director of the cybersecurity program at The George Washington University.

“The United States has the largest intelligence-gathering apparatus in the world,” he pointed out.

“Who is it gathering that intelligence for? If it’s gathering intelligence just for its own internal consumers in government, then we’re making a mistake,” White continued. “We have to be able to get real-time, threat-based cyberintelligence to the private sector.”

Public-private cooperation is important in organizing the nation’s cybersecurity efforts, maintained Damien Van Puyvelde, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at El Paso.

“This is something that President Obama has been focusing on, and it’s something I’d expect the next president to focus on,” he said. “If the president wants a strong economy, then the president needs to make efforts to make sure the private sector is protected from cybercrime and cyberthreats.”

Do No Harm

The new president should concentrate on initiatives that strengthen cybersecurity and not weaken it, maintained James Scott, a senior fellow at theInstitute for Critical Infrastructure Technology.

Critical infrastructure organizations protect their sensitive data through strict access controls and data encryption, he explained, yet legislation has been introduced in Congress to undermine those protections.

“Legislation that would weaken those controls by imposing nonessential access, such as backdoors, or that would weaken consumer protections such as encryption, are demonstratively harmful to the cybersecurity of the nation,” Scott said.

“Legislators would better spend their time, attention and resources focusing on correcting or mitigating the fundamental root faults in systems and processes that enable attackers to compromise systems, and that prevent public and private sector organizations from mitigating the risk before harm is realized,” he added.

Sources AI Toolkit On Microsoft

Microsoft this week released an updated version of its Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit as an open source Beta.

The deep learning system is used to speed advances in areas such as speech and image recognition and search relevance on CPUs and Nvidia GPUs. It also works with Microsoft’s Azure GPU offering.

The Microsoft computer scientists who developed the toolkit initially were looking for a tool to speed up and improve their own research. Initially called “Microsoft/CNTK,” it morphed into an offering that Microsoft customers and flagship product groups depend on for a wide variety of deep learning tasks, the company said.

Deep learning is an artificial intelligence technique developers and researchers use to process large amounts of data, called “training sets.” The software teaches computer systems to recognize patterns from inputs such as images and sounds.

The toolkit is available on GitHub via an open source license.

“The toolkit’s scalability and availability as an open source project are both pluses that should spur interest and use,” noted Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

What It Does

With the update, Microsoft changed the name from “CNTK” to “Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit” to reflect an offering that is more broadly based and has new capabilities, said Microsoft spokesperson Casey Johnson.

“Our vision is to democratize artificial intelligence for every person and organization. We made Cognitive Toolkit open source so it is easily available to every developer who wants to build great AI applications,” she told LinuxInsider.

The latest version of the toolkit includes new functionality that lets developers use Python or C++ programming languages in working with the toolkit. With the new version, researchers also can do a type of artificial intelligence work called “reinforcement learning.”

Who It Targets

Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit is designed for researchers and developers who need machine learning and neural network tools to create artificial intelligence applications, Microsoft said. The toolkit provides users with greater flexibility and extensibility.

The upgrade delivers better performance than previous versions. The improvements focus on speed when working on big datasets across multiple machines. That speed boost is needed to support the deep learning process across multiple GPUs used to develop consumer products and professional offerings.

The toolkit’s ability to work across multiple servers is a key advantage over other deep learning toolkits, according to Microsoft. When used on bigger datasets, other software products are subject to performance degradation. Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit has built-in algorithms to minimize that computational slowdown.

The toolkit helped the Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Research team create a technology that recognizes words in a conversation as well as a person does, according to Microsoft.

Mixed Bag

It appears that Microsoft has made substantial progress in speech recognition accuracy, Pund-IT’s King told LinuxInsider.

On the minus side, it is a fairly narrow solution in and of itself, he suggested. Other cognitive ecosystems, such as IBM’s Watson, offer far richer and deeper resources for developers.

However, “the toolkit is another expression of the support for open source that has really blossomed at Microsoft since Satya Nadella become CEO,” said King.

Boost Candidates on Twitter

Internet bots have many useful online purposes, but they have a dark side, too, as three researchers demonstrated in their analysis of Twitter traffic during the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Bots are used to automate functions on the Net. For example, if you belong to several social networks, you could use a bot to post a photo to all of them at once, saving the time of logging onto each network and posting the pic individually.

What the researchers found was that bots also can be used to amplify support on Twitter.

Manufactured Support

The researchers tracked how automated accounts were tweeting messages with hashtags associated with the candidates. For example, #makeamericagreatagain or #draintheswamp for Trump; #imwithher for Clinton. They found that one-third of all tweets using pro-Trump hashtags were created by bots and one-fifth of all Clinton hashtags were generated by automated accounts.

How might that affect public opinion?

“They act as a prosthesis for small groups of people to affect conversation on social media,” said Samuel Woolley, director of research at Political Bots, a project to assess the effect of automated advocacy on public life. Woolley coauthored the report on debate bots with Bence Kollanyi of Corvinus University and Philip N. Howard of Oxford University

The effect of that prosthesis can be multiplied by news media.

“A lot of conversations on social media, especially those followed by journalists, are about what’s trending and what candidate has a lot of support online,” Woolley told TechNewsWorld, “but what we found was that a lot of traffic surrounding Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is actually manufactured.”

The researchers do not know who is behind the bots, but the practice isn’t new.

“We know that in the past, Republican and Democratic candidates in the United States have been connected to either social media management or content management firms or ‘astroturf’ activists that have built bots for the candidates,” Woolley said.

Gravy for Nation-States

Such bots were used in the 2008 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Massachuetts Senate seat in 2008, according to a 2010 study by two researchers at Wellesley College, Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj.

A conservative group in Iowa, the American Future Fund, set up nine Twitter accounts that sent 929 tweets and reached more than 60,000 people with messages accusing the Democratic candidate in the race, Martha Coakley, of being anti-Catholic, the researchers found.

Nation-states aren’t above using such tactics either.

“Political actors and governments worldwide have begun using bots to manipulate public opinion, choke off debate, and muddy political issues. Political bots tend to be developed and deployed in sensitive political moments when public opinion is polarized,” Woolley and his colleagues wrote in their report.

“We know for a fact that Russia, as a state, has sponsored the use of bots for attacking transnational targets,” Wooley pointed out.

“Other governments do it, too. We’ve had cases in Mexico, Turkey, South Korea and Australia,” he added. “The problem is that a lot of people don’t know bots exist, and that trends on social media or even online polls can be gamed by bots very easily.”

Distorting Democracy

Bots aren’t just a Twitter problem — they’re an Internet problem.

“The proportion of bots to humans on the Internet is about 50-50,” said Tim Matthews, vice president of marketing at Imperva.

“Any task that is repetitive or mundane or can be simply automated is a likely candidate for a bot to take over,” he told TechNewsWorld, “so it’s not surprising to see more and more bots being used in social media for that reason.”

Bots have many good uses. For example, Web spiders are bots used by search engines to keep their indexes current. However, in a political context, they can have undesirable effects.

“These sorts things can distort democracy if used for purposes of propaganda, but they can be used to support democracy if they’re used for beneficial reasons,” Woolley said.

That said, “there has to be some kind of regulation of this — whether by the platforms themselves or government or advertisers,” he added. “At the moment, there’s a lot of fake political speech online, and it can definitely affect the way that people perceive politics and democracy.”