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DARPA prepares for the next cyber-war (and how it impacts your life)

DARPA is preparing for cyber war, and while it sounds like an issue for experts, it is a problem that does AND WILL impact all of us. Here’s why you need to be up to date on the topic.

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cybersecurity

DARPA is preparing for the threat

You might not know this, but the Internet wasn’t built for you and me. Back in the 1960’s, which somehow seems like an eternity ago, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) envisioned a network of computers that could collaborate on scientific and technological research projects from coast to coast. The name given to this proto-Internet was ARPANET, and by 1969, it represented the framework and series of standards that would later become the Internet as we know it today.

These days, DARPA is still developing breakthrough technology to answer the increasingly complicated demands of global security and defense. One of those demands, inevitably, is the ever-greater risk of cyber-attacks — both from within the United States and from without. To speak plainly, the amount of stuff on the Internet makes it more and more difficult with each passing day to keep our personal information — to say nothing of state secrets — safe from prying eyes.

This tug-of-war has become something of a full-time job over at DARPA. Here’s how they’re preparing themselves — and the country at large — for the newest threats to cyber-sovereignty.

There’s no “unhackable” code

DARPA’s Arati Prabhakar and Steve Walker will be the first to tell you: “There’s no unhackable code.” That’s a bit of a mood-killer, really, but it’s also old news — the best the tech community can hope for is to make “less hackable” code, and to try to stay ahead of the cyber-criminal (“hacker,” if you prefer) community and their ever-larger bag of tricks.

In answer to rising concerns over data breaches and cyber-terrorism, DARPA has spun off a new project called High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems, or HACMS. DARPA’s formal description of HACMS and its mandate is full of not-so-helpful jargon, so let’s break it down what they’re trying to accomplish in terms that will be familiar to anybody who studied sixth-grade math.

One can think of the HACMS approach to cyber-security in terms of basic mathematics. Everybody knows the Pythagorean Theorem: a2 + b2 = c2. This theorem is accepted because it works every time it’s put to the test. This is an effective metaphor for the long-sought unicorn that is unhackable code. Think about it like this: A right triangle is “unhackable” because a2 + b2 will never equal anything other than c2. The code being developed by the HACMS works a little bit like this — not literally, mind you, but the metaphor is a good stand-in for the kind of mathematics-based algorithms they’re trying to develop.

It works because it simply cannot work any other way.

And so far, they seem to be meeting with preliminary success. When the HACMS team unearthed an effective piece of code that works along the lines described above, they gave it to a team of “professional hackers” to try out. The HACMS team stored the code on a real-life, unmanned attack helicopter to see if their team could retrieve it.

The results were extremely promising: Even after the hackers were handed access to the actual source code of the helicopter, they were unable to penetrate the main systems and retrieve the code.

The implications of these preliminary tests are enormous. Americans are a fearful lot (Why else do we have more guns than people in this country?), and right now, cyber-attacks are at the top of the list in a recent Survey of American Fears. It’s encouraging to know that the institution that brought us the Internet in the first place is making significant progress toward discovering ways to make it hack-proof. We’re not there yet, but HACMS has delivered a promising proof-of-concept.

DARPA has also recently chosen to enlist the help of the public with the Grand Cyber Challenge — a competition (with a $2 million grand prize) that encourages self-styled hackers to build software that can compromise encrypted data faster than the competition. Think of it as a digital capture the flag game: The team that manages to retrieve a particular piece of data from a closed system gets the prize money and significant bragging rights in the hacker community.

It might sound counter-intuitive, encouraging people to break encryption. But DARPA considers challenges like these to be invaluable recruiting tools. They’re always looking for the next generation of government technologists.

Security is EVERYBODY’s problem

Like much of what DARPA gets up to, HACMS feels a little bit abstract, and perhaps difficult to apply to our everyday lives. The truth, though, is a bit more complicated. With huge battles brewing between corporate America and the government, emerging forms of encryption and new approaches to cyber-security are more important for the “average consumer” than ever before. Battle lines are being drawn between companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft and the would-be surveillance state envisioned by some of the more fearful statesmen serving in Washington, D.C.

And they’re also becoming important for modern entrepreneurs.

We’ve seen egregious lapses in cyber-security before, write large across national headlines. Remember Target’s data breach? Or the Sony hack that compromised some 102 million company records in 2011? The list of “unprecedented” data breaches is a long one, and becomes more precedented with each passing day.

Two reasons a business owner should care about cyber security

First: Modern entrepreneurs have to fight an uphill battle against market fluctuations and competition alike. Knowing your proprietary company secrets are under lock and key is hugely important if you want to make it.

But there’s a second reason, and it sometimes gets overlooked. To speak plainly, your customers take it for granted that you’re looking out for them. Almost every business stores a great deal of personal information about the people they sell to: Names, credit card numbers, addresses, and on it goes. People want to be able to count on their favorite businesses to make sure criminals can’t get their compromising data without a fight.

So — yes. This is a struggle that affects all of us. The world has turned downright Orwellian while our backs were turned. There are now eyes and ears everywhere. H

ow we go about answering this challenge in the coming years will reveal quite a bit about who we are and what we really value.

#CyberWar

Megan Ray Nichols is an editorialist at The American Genius, and is a technical writer who's passionate about technology and the science. She also regularly writes at Smart Data Collective, IoT Times, and ReadWrite. Megan publishes easy to understand articles on her blog, Schooled By Science - subscribe today for weekly updates!

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Tired of Zoom? NVIDIA announces AI-powered contender

(TECH NEWS) NVIDIA’s AI-based video technology offers helpful features like face alignment, gaze correction, and noise cancellation to optimize video calls.

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Woman on video call with coffee, NVIDIA video conference tech coming soon

For the most part, Zoom has dominated video conferencing, but it might soon face competition thanks to NVIDIA. Recently, NVIDIA announced its new GPU-Accelerated AI Platform, NVIDIA Maxine, that it says will “vastly improve streaming quality” and offer incredible AI-powered features.

NVIDIA Maxine is a cloud-native video-streaming AI platform so data doesn’t need to be processed on local servers. Instead, NVIDIA’s servers process the information so users can use the cool AI features without having to purchase any new specialized hardware.

“NVIDIA Maxine integrates our most advanced video, audio, and conversational AI capabilities to bring breakthrough efficiency and new capabilities to the platforms that are keeping us all connected,” said Ian Buck, vice president and general manager of Accelerated Computing at NVIDIA, in a press release.

Maxine’s “breakthrough efficiency” can be seen in its AI-based video compression technology. The AI tech reduces the bandwidth used on a call to one-tenth of the H.264 video compression standard without compromising video quality. In doing so, less data is transmitted back and forth so slow internet connection and limited bandwidth won’t be a problem anymore. Hopefully, this helps bring an end to the dreaded “you have a poor connection, blah, blah, blah” message.

Some of the features that make NVIDIA Maxine standout are face alignment and gaze correction. These two features allow for a better face-to-face conversation. For instance, people will no longer appear to be staring off into outer space. With face alignment, the software will automatically adjust people so it looks like they are facing each other. And, with gaze correction, it will help simulate eye contact. According to NVIDIA, “These features help people stay engaged in the conversation rather than looking at their camera.”

Also, if developers choose to do so, they can allow users to choose an animated avatar. These avatars offer a realistic feel because they are driven by a person’s “voice and emotional tone in real-time.” Plus, the auto frame feature automatically follows the person in the frame so they are always in view. This is great when you’re doing a presentation or demo.

The feature that stands out to me is the noise cancellation filter that removes background noise. Anyone with a toddler or dog will be a big fan of that one! Continually pressing the mute and unmute button could finally become a thing of the past.

Maxine also has a “conversational AI”. With NVIDIA Jarvis (not to be confused with Iron Man’s Just A Rather Very Intelligent System), developers can integrate virtual assistants to take notes, set action items, and answer questions in human-like voices. Additionally, this AI offers translations and closed captions all in real-time.

By taking a look at what NVIDIA Maxine has to offer, there is no denying Zoom has a lot of work to do if it wants to stay on top. Although it did dabble with real-time captioning back in June, Zoom’s offering was very limited. And, Maxine is on its way up.

Early access to the NVIDIA Maxine platform is available to Computer vision AI developers, software partners, startups, and computer manufacturers creating audio and video apps and services.

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How psychologists are using VR to profile your personality

(TECH NEWS) VR isn’t just for gamers. Psychologists are using it to research how people emotionally respond to threats. But does it come at the cost of privacy?

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Man using VR in personality test.

When you put on a VR headset for the first time, most people have that ‘whoa’ moment. You’ve entered an enchanting otherworldly place that seems real, but you know it isn’t. You slowly tilt your head up to see a nicely lit blue sky. You turn your head around to see mountains and trees that weren’t there before. And, you finally look down to stare at your hands. Replaced by bright-colored gloves, you flex your hands to form a fist, then jazz hands, and back.

Playing VR games is exciting and interesting for a lot of gamers, and you would (or maybe wouldn’t) be surprised to know that psychologists think so, too. According to The Conversation, psychologists have started researching how people emotionally respond to potential threats using VR.

Do you think this is weird or cool? I’ll let the following help you decide.

So, why did psychologists think using VR would help them in their research?

In earlier studies, psychologists tested “human approach-avoidance behavior”. By mixing real and virtual world elements, they “observed participants’ anxiety on a behavioral, physiological, and subjective level.” Through their research, they found that anxiety could be measured, and “VR provokes strong feelings of fear and anxiety”.

In this case, how did they test emotional responses to potential threats?

For the study, 34 participants were recruited to assess how people have a “tendency to respond strongly to negative stimuli.” Using a room-scaled virtual environment, participants were asked to walk across a grid of translucent ice blocks suspended 200 meters above the ground. Participants wore head-mounted VR displays and used handheld controllers.

Also, sensors placed on the participants’ feet would allow them to interact with the ice blocks in 2 ways. By using one foot, they could test the block and decide if they wanted to step on it. This tested risk assessment. By using both feet, the participants would commit to standing on that block. This tested the risk decision.

The study used 3 types of ice blocks. Solid blocks could support the participant’s weight and would not change in appearance. Crack blocks could also support the participant’s weight, but interacting with it would change its color. Lastly, Fall blocks would behave like Crack blocks, but would shatter completely when stepped on with 2 feet. And, it would lead to a “virtual fall”.

So what did they find?

After looking at the data, researchers found out that by increasing how likely an ice block would disintegrate, the “threat” for the participant also increased. And, of course, participants’ behavior was more calculated as more cracks appeared along the way. As a result, participants opted to test more blocks before stepping on the next block completely.

But, what else did they find?

They found that data about a person’s personality trait could also be determined. Before the study, each participant completed a personality questionnaire. Based on the questionnaire and the participants’ behavior displayed in the study researchers were able to profile personality.

During the study, their main focus was neuroticism. And, neuroticism is one of the five major personality traits used to profile people. In other words, someone’s personality could now also be profiled in a virtual world.

So, it all comes down to data and privacy. And yes, this isn’t anything new. Data collection through VR has been a concern for a long while. Starting this month, Facebook is requiring all new Oculus VR owners to link their Facebook account to the hardware. Existing users will be grandfathered in until 2023.

All in all, VR in the medical field isn’t new, and it has come a long way. The question is whether the risk of our personality privacy is worth the cost.

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Failure to launch: Quibi’s short-form platform is short-lived

(TECH NEWS) Despite receiving major funding from big players, Quibi is shutting down only 6 months after launch. What led to their downfall?

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A mobile phone open to Quibi in feminine hands with decorated nails.

Only 6 short months after launching its platform, Quibi has decided to pull the plug.

The mobile-only streaming service’s vision was to create short-form videos with higher production value than that of competitors like YouTube or TikTok. Having enlisted big names such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Jennifer Lopez, and Lebron James, Quibi had high hopes for what the service could accomplish. In an open letter posted to Medium, founding company executives Jeffery Katzenberg and Meg Whitman cited timing and the idea of mobile-first premium storytelling not being strong enough as the primary reasons for shuttering.

“As entrepreneurs our instinct is to always pivot, to leave no stone unturned — especially when there is some cash runway left — but we feel that we’ve exhausted all our options.” The letter stated, “As a result we have reluctantly come to the difficult decision to wind down the business, return cash to our shareholders, and say goodbye to our colleagues with grace. We want you to know we did not give up on this idea without a fight.”

The move is somewhat surprising considering that back in March the service managed to raise an additional $750 million in funding, bringing its total fundraising to $1.75 billion. At the time, Quibi CFO Ambereen Toubassy had touted that the second-round of cash had provided the organization with “a strong cash runway,” that would give Quibi “the financial wherewithal to build content and technology that consumers embrace.”

Originally called “New TV”, the initial investors of the service included Hollywood titans Disney, NBCUniversal, and Sony Pictures Entertainment just to name a few. While the amount of money raised was minuscule compared to services like Netflix, it was still an impressive start for an untested idea.

The service did itself no favors, however, in trying to gain new subscribers. Along with being mobile-only, the service started at $4.99 per month for an ad-supported subscription, only slightly cheaper from more robust offerings like Hulu and ESPN+. While you could pay $7.99 per month to get rid of ads, you were also forbidden from taking screenshots, limiting the ability of content on the service to go viral.

Quibi was also financing content, meaning that ownership would revert back to creators after just a few short years. This means building a growing library of content owned by the service was an uphill battle from the start.

“This was flawed from the start, down to the idea of financing content and then giving it back to the creators after a few years.” Said a veteran producer who refused to work with the company, “There is anger in town right now, because it just makes it harder to raise money.”

Quibi is set to be inaccessible starting around the beginning of December, according to a post on the company’s support site. While much of the service’s content will not be missed, one still wonders what might have been had the company managed to gain some traction, or the COVID-19 pandemic had not come to pass. Either way, Quibi’s business partners may want to read up on some of these tips as they discuss where things should go from here.

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