A Hacking Group Has Been Undermining Anti-Virus Software, but It’s Not Who You Think
Security companies may be moving away from the anti-virus model of cataloging and scanning for threats, but if that's all you have on your computer, it's still better than nothing. Unless the security program you're running has been compromised by the National Security Agency, in which case it's time to hurl your computer against a brick wall and go to Dairy Queen.
Surfacing new documents from the Snowden trove, the Intercept reports that the NSA and the British surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, have had initiatives to undermine anti-virus software to facilitate government tracking, data surveillance, and assorted intelligence-gathering.
The documents indicate that the agencies reverse-engineered numerous anti-virus offerings, especially products from Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab, which has a holding in the United Kingdom. The company says it has 270,000 corporate clients and protects a total of 400 million people worldwide.
Monitoring anti-virus software is valuable for intelligence agencies because it identifies new malware and can reveal trends in cyberattacks. By undermining these security measures, the NSA can get information about new threats and even prevent monitoring software from detecting its own surveillance malware.
Additionally, operating systems tend to give anti-virus trusted status, making it a valuable jumping-off point for network surveillance. Security software has increasingly come under scrutiny for being vulnerable to attack, so it makes sense that the NSA worked on infiltrating various products. For example, when researchers in Singapore tested 17 popular anti-virus offerings last year, they were able to find vulnerabilities in 14.
The good news for many American consumers is that the Intercept did not find mention of McAfee or Symantec (Norton) products in the documents. But it's just another example of how thorough surveillance agencies have been in finding ways to get the data they want, even if it means compromising the cybersecurity of millions of people.
How OK Cupid-Style Algorithms Can Increase Gender Diversity in Tech
Tech has a diversity problem—and many justifications for why things are the way they are. There’s the pipeline problem, the revolving door for women, the lack of female role models, and issues of subtle bias, not to mention the steadfast belief in the idea that the industry is a meritocracy—that is, managers hire only the best and most qualified candidates, independent of other factors.
Lately, however, a growing number of people are starting to view “the way things are” as unacceptable. Research has shown that decision-making groups with gender and racial diversity outperform more homogeneous groups—both in coming up with more creative ideas and in making more money. (If your “meritocracy” leads to a homogeneous workforce, you’re not maximizing your profits, it turns out.) Tech companies, as they finally start to make diversity a priority, are releasing employee demographic reports to make themselves accountable. Many are pledging millions to fix problems inside and outside their companies.
Smaller tech companies might be just as well-meaning but simply lack the resources to assess their own workforces and apply the data toward building more diversity into their businesses. That’s where a new startup called Doxa says it can step in.
Billing itself as a data company that matches women with the right tech companies using “OKCupid-style” algorithms, according to its CEO and cofounder Nathalie Miller, Doxa uses survey responses to build a picture of what it’s like to be an employee at a given company. Doxa especially digs into “gendered work experiences”—the ways people of different genders experience their jobs and workplaces. Their surveys take into account both quantitative data (pay gaps, the composition of teams) and so-called “softer” qualitative data (for instance, how respondents feel their co-workers value their opinions). Doxa launched last week with employee data from 10 partner companies in its system, including such recognizable startups as Instacart, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and Shyp.
The one thing Doxa’s partner companies have in common is that while they’re all of a certain modest size, they’re also growing fast. These are the types of companies that are often so preoccupied with building products, dealing with investors, and ironing out a plan to go to market that it’s easy to see how a certain kind of deliberateness in hiring new employees with diversity in mind could end up taking a back seat for managers.
But Miller argues that there doesn’t have to be a trade-off. “Part of our message is you don’t have to wait until you’re enormous and then have this afterthought about thinking about inclusion,” says Miller. “You can start early.”
Miller knows about working for a company in high-growth mode firsthand. Joining the grocery-delivery startup Instacart as its 20th hire, she experienced the exhilaration that comes with having an important role in a business that was expanding right before her eyes.
In the year that she worked at the company, Miller remembers, Instacart raised more than $260 million in funding, and the team ballooned from 20 people to about 120 people by the time she decided to leave in the fall. When Miller started at Instacart, the company had about 200 independent contractors working as shoppers. When she left, Instacart had signed up 4,000 shoppers. “It was just this insane growth spurt, and we were hiring like crazy,” Miller says.
But the problem with growing that fast, Miller eventually realized, was the incredible pressure not only to find the right match for each of the many positions that needed to be filled but to find those people as quickly as possible.
“It was this situation where you ended up having coffee with a lot of people, and you just had to rely on your gut, that first impression,” Miller says. “But when you’re hiring hundreds of people at a time, it’s really hard to make the right choices. It’s like feeling the regular pain of hiring, but on steroids.”
After the company had brought on several batches of people, Miller says she found herself in a precarious situation with a new hire. “A guy, a recent hire, approached me at one point and said something to me that I think he meant as a compliment,” Miller says. “He told me he had organized a group of guys to rank the sexiness of the women at the company, and he said to me, ‘You’re No. 1 on my list.’”
Miller was indignant. “I was like, ‘Excuse me—this is not a frat house, this is not how we are,’ ” she says. “And it’s true—that’s not how the men at Instacart are. He just had this total misconception about what would be appropriate.”
Luckily, Miller says, the company dealt with the situation swiftly. “There’s no tolerance for that type of thing at Instacart,” she says. But while Miller says she’s proud that the managers came to her defense and took a stance to make things more comfortable for all women at the company, the incident stayed with her.
“I thought to myself, Does it matter that we did it right at this one company with this one person? It was great, but I decided I wanted to build a whole company around this problem and solve it at the high level.” And so Doxa started to come together.
In the fall of 2014, Miller, working with University of California, Berkeley, statisticians, developed a questionnaire that she could hand out to companies to help them build their profiles as well as a system that could be used to analyze the employees’ answers. After Miller had identified several companies interested in the tool, she worked out an arrangement by which the companies internally distributed the survey to enough employees—that is, a statistically significant number—to make the company profiles valid.
The survey includes about 40 questions and takes about three minutes to fill out, Miller says. Most of the questions are multiple choice, though a few questions are open-ended, which Miller says are designed to elicit candid testimony about what it’s like to work at a particular company. The questions themselves ask respondents about themselves in a way that gets at certain traits that might describe the employee or the company or the culture as a whole. For instance, Miller explains, the survey wouldn’t ask a respondent, “Are you competitive?” Instead it might ask if a respondent viewed competition as healthy in working relationships.
After enough responses are gathered, Doxa builds a company profile. The profile might include details on what percentage of people are happy at the company, the average age and length of employment, regular hours, if people tend to work on the nights or weekends, and how many hours are spent on meetings per week, among others. Users can also peruse personal testimonies to get a sense of how people feel about working for the company. Right now, Doxa has made a “window” of data linked to their partner companies available to the public, but more details are shared internally. It’s also taking sign-ups so that employees can petition their companies to work with Doxa.
Miller acknowledges that Doxa’s methods are somewhat limited in scope, since the questions are targeted and not every employee has to answer the survey. But she thinks of Doxa more as a useful tool than the definitive picture of where a company stands in terms of diversity. There’s also potential, she says, for Doxa to supplement top-down efforts by companies who often dig into existing human resources data to come up with their employee demographic reports. Or—since analysis of existing data can take time—if companies want results faster, Doxa provides an alternative.
“Companies want to become places that are great, supportive systems for women, men, and everybody,” Miller says. “We hope we can be a tool they can use to figure out how to get there, and point out the places where they’re doing well and where they need some improvement.”
Also in Wired:
Designing the Future: A Future Tense Event Recap
Nearly 2 million people in the United States use wheelchairs. Users can spend an enormous amount of time in their chairs, navigating city streets, taking public transportation, working on computers, eating dinner, watching movies—all the normal things that people do on a daily basis. The problem? Powered wheelchairs are uncomfortable, difficult to use, ugly, and ridiculously expensive. They can cost as much as a decent automobile (high-end models can be upward of $30,000), but come with none of the conveniences that you expect from a car. This is an important health care issue, an access issue, an equity issue, maybe even a safety issue—and it’s also a design issue.
Design is about making beautiful and efficient objects like smartphones and skyscrapers, about shaping the environment to suit our manifold needs and preferences. But good design is also about creating a world that is safer, more equitable, and sustainable. If the things we make can influence our world and how we live in it, how do we ensure that we are creating a better future? Purposeful design tackles that challenge, identifying and creatively solving problems—like bringing the design of the powered wheelchair into the 21st century.
At a Future Tense event on June 17, Prasad Boradkar, the director of InnovationSpace at Arizona State University and author of Designing Things, illuminated the design process for the Washington, D.C., audience—how designers approach problems, develop solutions, and produce successful outcomes. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) He also discussed where design as a discipline might be headed. Boradkar was joined by his former student Mark Chichester, director of development for the vaunted Ammunition Group, to illustrate the process with a real-world case study: the creation of the best-selling Beats headphones. (Last year, design-oriented Apple purchased Beats Electronics, which makes the headphones, for $3 billion.)
When it comes to innovative design, figuring out the problem to be solved might be even more important than the solution. This initial part of the process is full of ambiguity and requires an intimate understanding of the context: the existing products, the market, the users, their environment, and how all of these interact and function in real life. Boradkar cited his early work for Vespa in India, where the uses imagined by the Italian company (think Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday) are perhaps not quite how an Indian family would utilize a scooter when negotiating the crowded streets of Mumbai. The key questions are about how to make products more responsive to the user’s needs, and the answers are where the value of good design resides.
Boradkar highlighted the ethnographic techniques used by anthropologists, such as observation, interviews, and auto-ethnography, as particularly important for coming up with useful designs. For example, the shortcomings of powered wheelchairs may not be apparent, particularly to those who don’t depend on them. Thus Boradkar’s students at ASU’s InnovationSpace worked with people who use wheelchairs to determine how they could be improved. They discovered that one way would be to integrate a smartphone or tablet into the chair’s design so that the user could operate the phone. Boradkar’s student team designed a headrest equipped with Bluetooth speakers and microphones for private phone conversations, along with a camera on the back of the chair. The video feed is sent to the phone or iPad so that the user, who may not be able to turn her neck, can see what’s behind her when backing up.
Chichester emphasized the success of this team-based, transdisciplinary approach at Ammunition Group. Part of the reason Ammunition, founded by famed designer Robert Brunner in 2007, has been so successful is the firm’s attentiveness to our interactions with the objects in our lives. With headphones, for instance, people care about not just how the music sounds in their ears, but also how the product relates to their personal style. Beats’ creators are immersed in the music world and Chichester is a DJ himself, so the team was intensely focused on the experience of listening to music through headphones—but Beats’ success is rooted in a design philosophy that values the relationship between people and things.
Good design, as Boradkar emphasized, isn’t just imagining products and hoping there’s a use for them. It should draw from a range of disciplines, including engineering, marketing, business, and sustainability in addition to design. Addressing complex problems in this transdisciplinary way is vital for a life-centered design approach: “Designers create products … [but] the meaning emerges from how those products are used.”
OPM Hackers Used Rare, Recognizable Malware to Infiltrate
The Office of Personnel Management hack affects most past and present federal employees, and the search to find out what happened is turning up increasingly unfortunate details.
Stewart Baker, a former National Security Agency general counsel, told the Post, “If you’ve got a year to map the network, to look at the file structures, to consult with experts and then go in and pack up stuff, you’re not going to miss the most valuable files.”
And though the government is still not making public statements about a suspect, official sources are consistently providing anonymous reports that the Chinese government is thought to be behind the hack. Reuters reports, though, that the OPM hack doesn't seem to have been carried out by the arm of the Chinese government hacking operation that conducts its cyberattacks for trade secrets or defense details. This department is organized differently and seems to be looking for counter-intelligence ammunition.
Reuters' sources confirm rumors that the group is the same on that hacked health insurance company Anthem. They say that the hackers used a rare type of malware called Sakula, which was also used in the Anthem breach. There are other similarities, too. The hackers seem to have registered "OPM-Learning.org" as a decoy site for tricking OPM employees into entering their credentials. The Anthem hackers used a similar tactic, registering "We11point.com" because Anthem used to be called Wellpoint. Finally, both hacks employed software which was vouched for by a stolen certificate from Korean software company DTOPTOOLZ Co.
It's a lot to investigate, but with millions of people's identities compromised by the breach, it's crucial to get more answers about what happened. And members of Congress probably aren’t joking around when they demand answers—because it seems that their data may have been compromised by the hack, too.
Google to Remove Revenge Porn from Search Results
Revenge porn is among the slimiest types of online harassment, and that's saying a lot. The images—typically private, sexually explicit photos published by an ex—aren’t just briefly humiliating; they sometimes dominate the search results for a person's name. Victims have engaged in fruitless legal maneuvers to get the images remove and have even tried to change their identities to escape the photos or videos.
Sites like Reddit and Twitter have tried to ban revenge porn on their platforms. Governments are trying to find ways to prosecute the men running these sites and the people posting the images. These are all good steps, but, as with all things online, the content can be shifted around, with new platforms popping up, often outside the U.S., making prosecution difficult. If the images can be found, the harassers achieve their purpose.
On Friday, Google took a big step toward stopping that. It announced that in the coming weeks, it will remove these images from search results when the person in the photo requests it:
Our philosophy has always been that Search should reflect the whole web. But revenge porn images are intensely personal and emotionally damaging, and serve only to degrade the victims—predominantly women. So going forward, we’ll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results.
Google plays a critical role in providing the world with access to information. If a page does not appear in Google's search results, it becomes very hard to find. Yes, there are other search engines, but Google is most popular, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the global search market. Its move here is not just effective because of their market share; it also throws down a gauntlet for other search engines, which must follow suit or make an argument that revenge porn deserves to be accessible.
Importantly, Google is recognizing the line between free speech and a right to protect one's deeply personal information. This is not the same thing as Europe’s “right to be forgotten.” Google already removes pages with other sensitive personal data, like social security numbers and credit card numbers. Removing nude photos is very much in the spirit of the existing policy. At the same time, it is affirming that people deserve control over these intensely private images of themselves.
The biggest tech companies, like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook, have a lot of control over what we can access online and how we see it. This is a new type of influence, and as a society we are still grappling with the implications. What if Facebook uses its ability to influence voters to swing an election? Or, in this case, what if a search engine refuses to give us the information we are searching for? It's easy to think up dire implications that could follow this precedent, but that doesn’t mean that we are starting down a slippery slope.
Google has made a moral decision against revenge porn and put its substantial weight behind that. It shows how tech companies can help stamp out a scourge, and this move should be part of the ongoing conversation about an open Internet and the right to control our personal information.
Google effectively summed up the policy and its impact in its public statement: "We know this won’t solve the problem of revenge porn—we aren’t able, of course, to remove these images from the websites themselves—but we hope that honoring people’s requests to remove such imagery from our search results can help." Let's hope it does.
Strawberries Used to Taste Great. Can Science Restore Them to Their Former Glory?
Think about the best strawberry you ever tasted. Sweet, with a flavor that’s a greater-than-the-sum mix of overripe peach, underripe grape, burnt caramel, and a little tang to grab the inside of your cheeks.
Of course, not every strawberry tastes that good. Odds are you’ve been let down. Supermarket berries are bred for size, color, shelf life, and disease resistance. On the agronomical trip to market, strawberries have lost some of their flavor. But a new breed of … er … breeders wants to bring glory back to the strawberry, amping up classical breeding techniques with modern genetics.
Virtually every strawberry you’ve ever eaten is a crossbreed of two species: Fragaria chiloensis, a big-fruited variety that ranges up the western side of the Americas; and F. virginiana, a smaller wild berry that grows from Florida to Alaska.
The crossbreed—called Fragaria x ananassa—used to be smaller, squishier, and more susceptible to disease. Getting them ready for supermarket shelves meant selecting for larger size, firmer flesh, and stronger immunity. Farmers wanted even more: plants that produced in larger quantities, with longer stems so they were easier to pick. Produce section stockers wanted brighter colors and shinier skins. None of those qualities necessarily detract from flavor, but the calculus of selective breeding means not every trait ends up in the final result.
Traits like size, color, disease resistance, and firmness are simple compared to flavor. “When you talk about something like flavor, there are so many components: the texture, the sugar content, the types of sugars, the aromatics,” says Steve Knapp, the new director of the University of Califonia, Davis’s six-decade-old Strawberry Breeding Program. And those sugars (fructose, glucose, sucrose), acids (citric and malic), and fragrant compounds (forget it, strawberries have over 100) come from a sprawling array of genes that interact, modify, and depend on each other to create strawberry-ness.
But that doesn’t mean isolating a flavor trait is impossible. First researchers figure out the chemical structure of the flavor they’re looking for. Then they cross plants where the flavor chemical is strongly selected with blander plants. Sequence the DNA of both parents and the progeny, and you can start sleuthing. “In every aspect of plant breeding there are traits that are highly heritable, which you have a higher probability of finding the genes for,” says Knapp. By cross-referencing the plants’s physical appearances and genomes, the researcher can start building a database of which gene codes for which trait.
That’s the key to building a new kind of strawberry. Once Knapp—or any strawberry scientist, really—has a large enough library of these gene-trait associations, he can start collecting DNA from plants before breeding them together. It’s not genetic engineering, but it does give breeders more confidence that the traits they want will manifest on the other side of the cross. It’s faster, cheaper, and more in control. The stakes are high. Strawberries are the fifth most popular fruit in the U.S.—and a $2.2 billion a year crop—but the industry is always at risk of leaving a bad taste in consumers’ mouths. “Flavor is paramount. If strawberries don’t deliver, people can eat bananas or blackberries instead,” says Mark Bolda, a strawberry expert with the UC Davis program.
Universities have an outsized influence in the strawberry world. Over 60 percent of all the strawberries consumed in the U.S. come from breeds developed at UC Davis. (California as a whole grows almost 90 percent of the U.S.’s strawberry crop.) Most of the rest are developed at the University of Florida’s breeding program, located south of Tampa. Though it’s much smaller than the California program, Florida’s breeding science is already far ahead in terms of flavor genetics. So far, researchers there have found good genetic data for two of those 100 aromatic strawberry compounds. It’s not much, but it’s an advantage. “We’re using the info on the genes to make DNA markers to stack the deck to make for seedlings long before anything goes to field,” says Vance Whitaker, a breeder at the University of Florida’s program.
Neither Knapp nor Whitaker see much of a future for gene editing techniques in enhancing the flavor profile of future strawberry breeds. Besides the complications in marketing anything with a whiff of genetic engineering, flavor is too complicated to engineer in cut-and-paste fashion. “Plant breeding really operates on the entire genome. We don’t have the luxury of working on a gene at a time,” says Knapp. In other words, even though they might be able to isolate a gene responsible for a flavor, they wouldn’t want to breed for it without pulling along all the related genes it blends with as it goes to protein to chemical to mouth-erupting flavor.
But other genetic factors play a role in flavor too. For instance, strawberries don’t ripen off the vine, but in order to ship, a lot of times they have to be picked when they are still firm. “One of the things we have to do is make strawberries that can be picked a little more ripe and still have a shelf life,” says Whitaker. Which means no amount of genetic engineering will ever make a strawberry that tastes better than one picked at peak ripeness and eaten in the sunshine.
Also in Wired:
Newt Gingrich Wrote an Apple Watch Review. It Was Actually Pretty Refreshing.
When the Verge ran its Apple Watch review in April, the site called it the "definitive" review. And it basically was. Other sites did extensive testing of the watch and contributed important insights, but the Verge piece was plenty. The only people it didn't serve were those who don't particularly give a crap about the Apple Watch. For that group, Newt Gingrich's treatment on Mashable is the one to read.
"It feels sort of watchlike I think," Gingrich says in the beginning of the accompanying video review. And he's totally right. For someone who has never seen, held, or tried on an Apple Watch, the first question is probably going to be: What's it like to wear it?
Gingrich's central thesis is "it's not as seamless as you'd think but it's a big step toward the future." He also feels that "the Apple Watch isn’t a necessity for anyone" at this point. But he is clearly delighted by the opportunity to test it and try his hand at tech writing. He even uses the two phrases that are guaranteed to make you sound knowledgeable about tech: “form factor” and “beta product.”
The review conditions weren't perfect, because Gingrich didn't like the aesthetics of the powder blue sport band he was given to try. “I know Mashable, you guys like blue, but you know for a guy my age this is a weird band. This is clearly a sign I’m either 12 or I’m a hobbyist.” But he still wore the watch for a day and tested it in a bunch of travel scenarios.
What's nice about the review is that it's by a layman for the laymen. Gingrich talks about how nice it is to use the watch as his plane ticket, but how confusing it was to call the ticket up in the first place. He says he likes the calendar and the reminder taps. He can see the value of being able to call an Uber at the end of a meeting without taking out his phone.
These are the kinds of things real people look for in a product. Perez Hilton's headline is, "Newt Gingrich Reviewing The Apple Watch Is Just As Painful & Wondrous As It Sounds!" But the review isn't actually cringe-worthy. It's just a series of observations laid out in a straightforward way. Gingrich admits to having a Tamagotchi on his watch and says, “I keep sending my heart rate to friends in Washington, but nobody’s responding.” (Later Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers tells him she actually has been getting his heartbeats.)
There's just something really refreshing about hearing a nontechnophile talk about a big new product. Sure, it's stunt journalism, and his celebrity as a pundit and former Speaker of the House helps us care about what he thinks, but it's also just useful! To be clear, though, no one is saying he's not an old: “One of the ones I will confess I have not been able to figure out: pictures and Instagram. You would think it wouldn’t be that hard to do.”
Snapchat Is Better At Protecting Your Data From the Government Than Verizon or WhatsApp
Facebook has often stood accused of violating users’ privacy. But it seems the social network is doing better than a lot of other tech companies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, released a 74-page report Wednesday that analyzed the data disclosure policies of 24 major tech companies and rated them based on how well they defended user data from government access. It’s the fifth year that the EFF has released the annual report, titled “Who Has Your Back? Protecting Your Data From Government Requests.”
This year, the organization kicked its expectations up a notch, tightening criteria and adding new categories to reflect new transparency and user rights issues that have cropped up in recent years. “We think it’s time to expect more from Silicon Valley,” the authors wrote.
Facebook and Amazon, two of the world’s biggest and most data-steeped tech companies, performed reasonably well in the EFF’s ratings. (Take a breath: Your online crush-stalking and middle-of-the-night guilty-pleasure Prime orders are safe.) Out of a maximum five stars, Facebook received four and Amazon received three. Other popular online service providers such as LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, Slack, and Snapchat also came in with either three or four stars. Apple, Adobe, Dropbox, and Yahoo were among the companies decorated with shining five-star acclaim, meaning that they satisfied every one of the EFF’s standards.
But three big companies were given astonishingly poor marks: Verizon got a measly two-star rating, and AT&T and the popular messaging app WhatsApp both clocked in with a single star.
The EFF’s five stars correspond to a company’s aptitude in the following areas: keeping in line with industry-accepted best practices, such as publishing a transparency report; telling users about government data requests; disclosing data retention and release policies; disclosing how often the company complies with government requests to remove content; and taking a public stance against deliberate security weaknesses or other government-compelled back doors. Verizon, AT&T, and WhatsApp each managed to fulfill only one or two of these measures.
Given the size of these three online companies—Verizon and AT&T are the largest mobile wireless providers in the country, and the CEO of WhatsApp bragged earlier this year about his app’s 700 million monthly active users—these ratings are pretty alarming. The EFF politely told Verizon in its report that it has “room for improvement” in its data privacy practices. It was much less polite to WhatsApp, noting that it gave the company a “full year to prepare for its inclusion in the report,” in which it “has adopted none of the best practices we’ve identified as part of this report.” WhatsApp received its lone star only because of the public position of its parent company Facebook, which opposes the government use of back doors. The company is also “notably lagging behind” in the adoption of industry-accepted best practices: It was the only one out of the 24 companies not to receive that star.
It’s not all bad, though. According to the report, the overwhelming majority of tech companies stand strong against having government-mandated backdoor security weaknesses. Also, tech companies as a whole have steadily stepped up their game since the EFF first began issuing its report in 2011, improving their data policies to benefit users more and more each year.
There may be a long way to go before we can be completely assured that none of our embarrassing online activity is being logged by the government, but perhaps it’s still comforting to know that we’re (mostly) on the right path.
You Can Buy an Emotional Robot to Live at Your House. Want One?
Beginning on Saturday, Japanese telecom SoftBank will begin selling its Pepper robot for 198,000 yen (about $1,600). Pepper first debuted last year and was developed by robotics group Aldebaran. The robot interacts with humans verbally but is also meant to put people at ease in a more subtle way.
"Pepper is much more than a robot, he’s a companion able to communicate with you through the most intuitive interface we know: voice, touch and emotions," Aldebaran writes. "If you burst out laughing, he will know you are in a good mood. If you frown, Pepper will understand that something is bothering you."
Pepper can also mirror emotions and even express its own—like loneliness if you don't interact with it. This emotional awareness is meant to make Pepper a better companion, because it is supposed to be fluent in the subtle forms of human communication.
Pepper weighs 61 pounds, is almost 4 feet tall, and has 14 hours of battery life (or so Aldebaran says). All the Pepper software is open-source, and so far there are about 200 apps available for the robot, including language-learning and photography apps. Pepper gets to "know" the people it interacts with and can be programmed to do tasks or act as an assistant. But the primary goal is interaction. Aldebaran writes that its goal is "to create robots for the well being of humans, kind robots living with humans as a new artificial species."
Bloomberg Business reports that SoftBank will market a version of Pepper to businesses starting this fall. Peppers are also available to rent for 1,500 yen (about $12) per hour. Japanese bank Mizuho Financial Group has already said that it will put Peppers in some of its stores and branches. And this isn't just a fringe project. Forbes reports that Alibaba and Foxconn are each investing 14.5 billion yen (about $118 million each) in SoftBank's robotics division.
Robot emotions are still just simulations of human feelings. But at least robot roommates don't leave dishes in the sink or lose the remote.
There Are Finally Ice Hockey, Burrito, and Unicorn Emojis. But You Can’t Use Them.
Language is a living thing, forever evolving to meet the needs of new generations and contexts. Some languages, however, need a little more help than most. French, for example, is regulated by the notoriously conservative Académie française, which has pushed back against loanwords such as software and email. And then there’s the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit corporation that maintains a wide range of international software standards, including that most modern of linguistic forms—emoji.
This week, the Consortium approved 37 new emoji, including several that are sure to delight passionate users of the pictographic character system. This development comes as part of Unicode 8.0, which adds 7,716 characters in all. Arriving just a year after Unicode 7.0—which included more than 200 emoji—this new set incorporates a handful of popularly requested symbols, including a hot dog, popcorn, and a cheese wedge. They’re not all food-related, though: For some reason, users also demanded a unicorn face. With this update, the largely benevolent Unicode Consortium has given the people what they wanted.
Other additions include previously unavailable sports symbols, such as an ice hockey stick and puck, and a handful of zodiac symbols, including a crab and a scorpion. The most charming additions may also be the most horrifying, depending on what you make of them: The face with its mouth literally zippered shut might serve as a cutesy promise to keep a secret, but it also might promise a hellish torment for those who fail to maintain that silence.
And that’s both the fun and the power of emoji: Their meanings are always subject to interpretation, reappropriation, and even debate. Unicode can name the symbols they offer up—“hugging face” or “sign of the horns”—but they can’t guarantee what those symbols will suggest.
As Slate’s Amanda Hess recently learned, for example, the eggplant emoji has come to stand in for male genitalia. With the latest Unicode update, a host of new phallic contenders present themselves. Could the burrito unseat the eggplant? Should it? I, for one, can imagine some suggestive uses for the newly added “table tennis paddle and ball.”
Ultimately, though, there’s an important limit on this interpretative plasticity. Ars Technica’s Andrew Cunnigham notes that we won’t be able to use these new symbols until “companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft … add support for them to their operating systems.” Cunningham points out that Apple still hasn’t adopted many of the Unicode 7.0 symbols into their admittedly sizable library. While I’m no native speaker of the form, I’ll be ready to send out a celebratory “bottle with popping cork” when they finally do.