Category Archives for "Technology"
BBC Click’s Paul Carter looks at some of the best technology news stories of the week including:
Misleading and harmful online content about Covid-19 has spread “virulently” because the UK still lacks a law to regulate social media, an influential group of MPs has said.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee urged the government to publish a draft copy of promised legislation by the autumn.
It follows suggestions the Online Harms Bill might not be in force until 2024.
The group’s chairman said tech firms could not be left to self-regulate.
“We still haven’t seen correct legislative architecture put in place, and we are still relying on social media companies’ consciences,” said Julian Knight.
“This just is not good enough. Our legislation is not in any way fit for purpose, and we’re still waiting. What I’ve seen so far has just been quite a lot of delay.”
Google and Facebook have said they have invested in measures to tackle posts that breach their guidelines.
But the report has already been welcomed by the children’s charity NSPCC.
“The committee is right to be concerned about the pace of legislation and whether the regulator will have the teeth it needs,” said Andy Burrows, its head of child safety online policy.
The committee report specifically calls for recommendations set out in the Online Harms Paper published in April of last year to be made into law.
The paper suggested a legal “duty of care” should be created to force tech companies to protect their users, and that a regulatory body be set up to enforce the law.
The government has said legislation will be introduced “as soon as possible”.
But last month, a House of Lords committee that looked into the same issue reported that the law might not come into effect until three or four years’ time.
In its own report, the DCMS committee said it was concerned that the delayed legislation would not address the harms caused by misinformation and disinformation spread about fake coronavirus cures, 5G technology and other conspiracy theories related to the pandemic.
It also claimed social media firms’ advertising-focused business models had encouraged the spread of misinformation and allowed “bad actors” to make money from emotional content, regardless of the truth.
“As a result the public is reliant on the good will of tech companies or the ‘bad press’ they attract to compel them to act,” the report said.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Knight said the major players – Facebook, Twitter and Google owner YouTube – now had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to do more to regulate their platforms.
“We need social media companies to actually be ahead of the game and we need government as well to be very clear to them,” he added.
“This is not a freedom of speech issue. This is a public health issue.”
Facebook has responded: “We don’t allow harmful misinformation and have removed hundreds of thousands of posts including false cures, claims that coronavirus doesn’t exist, that it’s caused by 5G or that social distancing is ineffective.
“In addition to what we remove, we’ve placed warning labels on around 90 million pieces of content related to Covid-19 on Facebook during March and April.”
YouTube said: “We have clear policies around promoting misinformation on YouTube, and updated our policies to ensure that content on the platform aligns with NHS and WHO [World Health Organization] guidance.
“When videos are flagged to us, we work quickly to review them in line with these policies and take appropriate action.”
Twitter told the BBC its top priority was “protecting the health of the public conversation – this means surfacing authoritative public health information and the highest quality and most relevant content and context first”.
The report also lists some of the main groups responsible for spreading online misinformation.
For various reasons, individuals had also contributed by spreading false information and ideas about fake cures to others online during the pandemic, the MPs said.
Mr Knight also expressed concern that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories might frustrate efforts to tackle Covid-19 once a suitable preventative treatment became available.
Social media companies, he added, “need to ensure that they aren’t just neutral in this – they absolutely must take an active part in ensuring that our society, our neighbours, our friends and our loved ones are safe”.
The report also criticised the government for setting up its own Counter Disinformation Unit in March.
It suggested this was late, since fake news about coronavirus had begun spreading online in January, adding that in any case the unit had largely duplicated the work of other organisations.
Google’s AI can now identify food in the supermarket, in a move designed to help the visually impaired.
It is part of Google’s Lookout app, which aims to help those with low or no vision identify things around them.
A new update has added the ability for a computer voice to say aloud what food it thinks a person is holding based on its visual appearance.
One UK blindness charity welcomed the move, saying it could help boost blind people’s independence.
Google says the feature will “be able to distinguish between a can of corn and a can of green beans”.
Many apps, such as calorie trackers, have long used product barcodes to identify what you’re eating. Google says Lookout is also using image recognition to identify the product from its packaging.
The app, for Android phones, has some two million “popular products” in a database it stores on the phone – and this catalogue changes depending on where the user is in the world, a post on Google’s AI blog said.
In a kitchen cupboard test by a BBC reporter, the app had no difficulty in recognising a popular brand of American hot sauce, or another similar product from Thailand. It could also correctly read spices, jars and tins from British supermarkets – as well as imported Australian favourite Vegemite.
But it fared less well on fresh produce or containers with irregular shapes, such as onions, potatoes, tubes of tomato paste and bags of flour.
If it had trouble, the app’s voice asked the user to twist the package to another angle – but still failed on several items.
The UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) gave a cautious welcome to the new feature.
“Food labels can be challenging for anyone with a visual impairment, as they are often designed to be eye-catching rather than easy to read,” said Robin Spinks from the charity.
“Ideally, we would like to see accessibility built into the design process for labels so that they are easier to navigate for partially sighted people.”
But along with other similar apps – such as Be My Eyes and NaviLens, which are also available on iPhones – it “can help boost independence for people with sight loss by identifying products quickly and easily”.
Lookout uses similar technology to Google Lens, the app that can identify what a smartphone camera is looking at and show the user more information. It already had a mode that would read any text it was pointed at, and an “explore mode” that identifies objects and text.
Launching the app last year, Google recommended placing a smartphone in a front shirt pocket or on a lanyard around the neck so the camera could identify things directly in front of it.
Another new function added in the update is a scan document feature, which takes a photo of letters and other documents and sends it to a screen reader to be read aloud.
Google also says it has made improvements to the app based on feedback from visually impaired users.
Imagine the US is under attack. An enemy aircraft, loaded with warheads, is heading towards the coast, dipping in and out of radar. Fighter jets have been scrambled and there’s a frantic effort to pinpoint the target.
But the nation’s best defence is not an aircraft carrier or a missile system. It’s a box of incredibly cold atoms.
“Use the quantum computer,” yells a general. The atoms inside the computer can solve complex problems and, almost instantly, spit out an instruction for how to reconfigure a radar array so that the enemy aircraft can be tracked and targeted.
One firm already getting to grips with a scenario like this is ColdQuanta. It recently signed a contract with US defence research agency Darpa to build a quantum computer that can rapidly work out how best to reposition radar equipment in the event of a defence system partially failing.
The project relies on being able to gather together enough atoms as qubits – the building blocks of a quantum computer, which allow it to perform calculations.
To do this, the atoms have to be extremely cold, making such computers the coldest in the world.
Quantum computing is much-hyped but the technology is very much in its infancy. Firms are just beginning to build systems that they claim will one day outperform traditional, digital computers at certain useful tasks.
“What we’re asked to do over the next 40 months is be able to have a machine that has thousands of qubits to solve a real-world defence-related problem and the one that we’re working on is a version of this radar coverage problem,” explains Bo Ewald, chief executive of ColdQuanta, based in Colorado.
The example above is an optimisation problem, a scenario to which there may be thousands or millions of possible solutions. The key is to choose the best one.
Besides military applications, quantum computers could have uses in drug design, investment strategies, encryption-cracking and complex scheduling problems for large fleets of vehicles.
Mr Ewald says this is where quantum computers will have their initial impact – in finding optimal solutions to problems that would take existing computers, even the fastest supercomputers, many hours or days to resolve.
There are various types of quantum computer in development but the approach using ultra-cold neutral atoms as qubits is unusual – it’s different from the superconducting quantum computers being developed by big firms such as IBM and Google, or other projects that use charged atoms, also known as ions, instead.
Superconducting quantum computers don’t use individual atoms as qubits, and while those systems rely on low temperatures they are not as low as those needed for ColdQuanta’s neutral atoms.
“The superconducting folks are running at millikelvin… we’re down to microkelvin,” he explains, proudly.
Kelvin is a measurement of temperature. Zero kelvin, absolute zero (-273.15C) is the coldest anything could ever be.
And while millikelvin is cold, at 0.001 kelvin, ColdQuanta’s microkelvin atoms are much colder – at roughly 0.000001 kelvin. Both are significantly colder, indeed, than anywhere we know about in the natural universe.
In ColdQuanta’s case rubidium atoms are gathered together inside a vacuum within a tiny, hexagonal or rectangular glass box, about an inch wide, an inch deep and two inches high. The atoms are held aloft purely by lasers.
But why is temperature so important? Prof Andrew Daley at the University of Strathclyde and his colleagues are also working on ultra-cold neutral atom quantum computers. He says it is crucial to be able to manipulate the atoms and hold them in place.
Shining lasers onto the atoms prompts them to release some energy and slow down. That makes it possible to hold them almost perfectly still, which is the real point here. They’re not cold in the sense that you or I would conceive of cold – rather, they are just greatly slowed down.
Once you’ve got your ducks – atoms – in a row, you can arrange them just how you want, says Prof Daley. This fine-grained control over the atoms means they can be placed in two- or three-dimensional formations, packed near to one another at the heart of a quantum computer. That’s important because with every additional atom, the computer’s capabilities are doubled.
Prodding each neutral atom with yet another laser excites them, greatly increasing their size. These adjustments encode information or link the atoms together via a weird phenomenon called entanglement. Now you have a collection of qubits functioning together as a system that you can tweak in order to represent a mathematical model or problem of some kind.
Amazingly, the user of a quantum computer could in theory programme this system to simulate a huge number of possibilities at once. It’s not quite like a traditional computer processing lots of calculations in parallel, it’s stranger and less predictable than that and getting a useful answer out at the end is tricky.
“What you want is that the quantum state at the end represents the answer to the problem you’re trying to solve,” says Jonathan Pritchard, Prof Daley’s colleague at Strathclyde. The quantum computer should end up favouring a particular state, or, one particular answer to a problem.
For the right problem, it could get us a lot closer to an optimal answer, both more quickly and more efficiently, than a traditional computer.
“We are really still waiting for a demonstration of a computing task where we can prove that these machines have done something beyond what you can do on a classical computer – for something that’s actually useful,” says Prof Daley.
French company Pasqal is building a prototype system, based on similar principles as ColdQuanta.
Pasqal’s system is for energy giant EDF, which, if it works, will come up with super-efficient schedules for charging electric vehicles. Specifically, the goal is to minimise the total time needed to complete charging for all vehicles while also prioritising certain more important vehicles over others.
This sort of problem could be tackled by a traditional computer, admits Christophe Jurczak, chairman, but he argues a quantum system will end up being significantly quicker, doing it in an hour rather than 24 hours for example.
“It doesn’t seem that big but if you want to update your strategy every hour, that’s a big difference,” he says. And it might use 100 times less electricity than a supercomputer in the process.
At the moment, all of this remains to be demonstrated for real. But there are signs that in the next few years – faster than some expected – we will find out just how useful this breed of bewilderingly cold computer really is.
The US justice department has accused China of sponsoring hackers who are targeting labs developing Covid-19 vaccines.
Officials have charged two Chinese men who allegedly spied on US companies doing coronavirus research and got help from state agents for other thefts.
The indictment comes amid a US crackdown on Chinese cyber espionage.
The UK, US and Canada last week accused Russia of seeking to steal research related to Covid-19.
The accusations against former electrical engineering students Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi released on Tuesday include charges of trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy.
Prosecutors said the two men spied on a Massachusetts biotech firm in January which was known to be researching possible cures for Covid-19. They also hacked a Maryland company less than a week after it said it was researching Covid-19.
Officials called the men private hackers who occasionally received support from Chinese intelligence agents, including an officer from the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS).
They previously stole “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of trade secrets, intellectual property, and other valuable business information” beginning in 2009, prosecutors alleged.
The indictment unsealed in Washington state said the two men – who reside in China – recently “researched vulnerabilities in the networks of biotech and other firms publicly known for work on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and testing technology”.
Countries where firms were targeted include Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
According to the indictment, the hackers were able to infiltrate a British artificial intelligence firm, a Spanish defence contractor, and a Australian solar energy company.
Prosecutors said the men at times acted in their own self-interest – including one occasion when they demanded a ransom from a company in exchange for not releasing its private information – but at other times “were stealing information of obvious interest” to the Chinese government.
According to the indictment, the hackers “worked with, were assisted by, and operated with the acquiescence of” the MSS.
They allegedly stole military data and provided the Chinese government with the passwords of a democracy activist in Hong Kong and a former Tiananmen Square protester.
“China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cybercriminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on-call’ to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including Covid-19 research,” John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said on Tuesday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed the idea that the country is waging cyber attacks to steal US Covid-19 research as “absurd”.
Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray accused China of a “whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary”.
“We’ve now reached a point where the FBI is now opening a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours,” Mr Wray said. “Of the nearly 5,000 active counterintelligence cases currently under way across the country, almost half are related to China.”
BBC Click’s LJ Rich looks at the best of the week’s technology stories including:
Dominic Raab has insisted the UK was not “strong-armed” by the US into excluding Huawei from its 5G network.
While US sanctions against the Chinese firm had affected the UK’s decision, the foreign secretary said the allies’ interests “overlapped” on the issue.
He said diversifying the UK’s telecoms supply chain was a priority to fill the gap once Huawei’s role ended in 2027.
US counterpart Mike Pompeo said the UK had made the right “sovereign” call and Chinese “bullying” must be resisted.
Speaking at a news conference in London during a two-day visit to the UK, he praised the UK’s recent actions on Hong Kong and suggested it and other allies must stand up to China’s threatening behaviour “in every dimension”.
The US had lobbied the UK to reverse its decision earlier this year to give Huawei a lead role in building the infrastructure for the next-generation mobile communications network.
Last week, the government announced that it would ban domestic mobile providers from buying new Huawei 5G equipment after the end of this year and force them to remove all of its 5G kit from their networks by 2027.
Last week, Mr Pompeo signalled that he hoped the UK would act more swiftly but, speaking in London, he thanked the government for its decision and its actions more broadly against China, saying “well done”.
Mr Raab was asked by journalists whether the UK had effectively been forced into the u-turn by Washington’s decision to sanction both US and foreign firm supplying technology to the Chinese company.
“As a result of US sanctions we have to look with a clear-sighted perspective…and we have taken a decision based on that,” he replied. “But I don’t think there is any question of strong-arming.
“Mike and I always have constructive discussions and, in the vast majority of cases, our views overlap.”
Mr Pompeo acknowledged the two countries had not always agreed over the issue but that the UK had ultimately acted in its own national interests.
“I think the UK made a good decision,” he said.
“But I think that decision was made not because the US said it was a good decision but because the leadership in the UK concluded the right thing to do was to make that decision for the people of the UK.”
Asked whether the US wanted to “crush” the Chinese firm, which Washington has accused of state-sponsored espionage, Mr Pompeo said the US would vigorously defend its national security and stop its citizens’ personal data from ending up “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”.
Earlier, Mr Pompeo met Boris Johnson in Downing Street for “candid” talks on a range of security and economic issues, including current US-UK trade negotiations.
No 10 said Boris Johnson had also raised the death of Harry Dunn and the need for “justice” for his family.
The UK continues to seek the extradition of Anne Sacoolas in connection with the 19 year-old’s death in a road traffic collision outside a US military base in Northamptonshire last year.
The US has said it cannot allow Ms Sacoolas, who has been accused of causing Harry Dunn’s death by dangerous driving, to return to the UK to be questioned, insisting she has diplomatic immunity.
In a statement, Downing Street said the PM had made Mr Pompeo aware of the “strong feeling among the people of the UK that justice must be delivered”.
“The prime minister reiterated the need for justice to be done for Harry Dunn and his family,” it said.
Downing Street said the two men also spoke about “shared global security and foreign policy issues, including China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the situation in Iran and the Middle East peace process”.
The two-day visit is likely to be Mr Pompeo’s last to the UK before November’s presidential election.
Accusations from the US and UK that Russia recently tested anti-satellite weaponry in space are “distorted”, Russia’s defence ministry says.
“Tests carried out [on 15 July] did not create a threat for other spacecraft,” the ministry said, adding that it had not violated international law.
Moscow said earlier that it had been using new technology to perform checks on Russian space equipment.
But the US and UK said they were concerned about the satellite activity.
“We are concerned by the manner in which Russia tested one of its satellites by launching a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon,” the head of the UK’s space directorate, Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, said on Thursday.
It is the first time that the UK has made accusations about Russian test-firing in space, and comes just days after an inquiry said the UK government “badly underestimated” the threat posed by Russia.
The US State Department also said it had observed the use by Russia of “what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry”.
The US and Russia are to hold bilateral talks on space security in Vienna next week, the first since 2013.
The talks could be an opportunity to emphasise that “outer space is not a lawless and ungoverned territory”, US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation Christopher Ford said.
In a statement on Friday, Russia’s foreign ministry said that one of the country’s “inspector” satellites had “carried out a check of a Russian spacecraft at close range with the use of specialised small spacecraft apparatus”.
It said the operation “did not violate any norms or principles of international law”.
The ministry accused the US and UK of “again attempting to present the situation in a distorted manner in order to… justify their steps to deploy weapons in space and achieve funding to that end”.
“We consider this latest anti-Russian attack as part of an information campaign initiated by Washington focused on discrediting Russian space activities,” the statement, quoted by the Interfax news agency, added.
Moscow earlier said that last week’s satellite test had resulted in “valuable information about the technical condition of the object under investigation” being recorded.
In a statement on Thursday, Gen Jay Raymond, who heads US space command, said there was evidence Russia had “conducted a test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon”.
“This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems and [is] consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk,” he said.
US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation, Christopher Ford, accused Moscow of hypocrisy after it said it wanted arms control to be extended to space.
“Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting its own counter-space programme,” he said.
The US said the Russian satellite system was the same one it raised concerns about in 2018 and earlier this year, when the US accused it of manoeuvring close to an American satellite.
Air Vice Marshal Smyth added: “Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends.”
Russia, the UK, the US and China are among more than 100 nations to have committed to a space treaty that stipulates that outer space is to be explored by all and purely for peaceful purposes.
The treaty adds that weapons should not be placed in orbit or in space.
BBC Click’s Jen Copestake looks at the best of the week’s technology stories including:
BBC Click’s Jen Copestake looks at the best of the week’s technology stories including: