AI

Dadbot: How a Son Made a Chatbot of His Dying Dad (www.cbc.ca) 107

theodp writes: In A Son's Race to Give His Dying Father Artificial Immortality (Warning: may be paywalled; alternate source), James Vlahos recounts his efforts to turn the story of his father's life -- as told by his 80-year-old Dad in his final months after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer -- into what Vlahos calls "a Dadbot -- a chatbot that emulates not a children's toy but the very real man who is my father." Given the limits of tech at the time (2016) and his own inexperience as a programmer, Vlahos recognized that the bot would never be more than a shadow of his real dad, but hoped to get the bot to communicate in his father's distinctive manner and convey at least some sense of his personality. Of the first time he demoed the bot for his parents, Vlahos writes: "Emboldened, I bring up something that has preoccupied me for months. 'This is a leading question, but answer it honestly,' I say, fumbling for words. 'Does it give you any comfort, or perhaps none -- the idea that whenever it is that you shed this mortal coil, that there is something that can help tell your stories and knows your history?' My dad looks off. When he answers, he sounds wearier than he did moments before. 'I know all of this shit,' he says, dismissing the compendium of facts stored in the Dadbot with a little wave. But he does take comfort in knowing that the Dadbot will share them with others. 'My family, particularly. And the grandkids, who won't know any of this stuff.' He's got seven of them, including my sons, Jonah and Zeke, all of whom call him Papou, the Greek term for grandfather. 'So this is great,' my dad says. 'I very much appreciate it.'"
Government

Russia Is Investigating Fidget Spinners After Reports Claim They 'Zombify' Youth (theverge.com) 168

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: In a recent report, Russia-24, a state-owned news channel, suggests that fidget spinners are being used by Russian opposition parties in order to recruit young people. As reported by The New York Times, the reporters in Russia-24's initial story say, "It is a mystery why it has become so popular in Russia right now. Who is promoting this to the masses so actively?" The video segment says the toys were being distributed at a rally for opposition leader Alexei Navalny and in online ads that direct viewers to YouTube channels that promote opposition politicians. The reporters said that while the toy's popularity was declining in the West, fidget spinners are more popular than ever in Russia. "As you can see here there is only writing in English, on the other side there is not a word in Russian," says one of the show's anchors during the report, presenting a new spinner in its packaging to the camera. According to Newsweek, a second report on Russia-24 also aired on July 12th, directly saying fidget spinners were an "object for zombifying" and a form of "hypnosis." The program featured a report from psychologist Svetlana Filatova, claiming that the spinners could help dexterity in children but otherwise "dulls" people's minds. The reports spurred Russia's consumer protection agency, Rospotrebnadzor, into action, saying on Tuesday they would launch an investigation into the toy.
Toys

New Fidget Spinners Are Catching On Fire (newsweek.com) 110

An anonymous reader quotes Newsweek's latest story about fidget spinners: In a development that now seems like it was inevitable, the three-pronged toys are starting to catch on fire. Gizmodo on Thursday pointed to two recent instances of Bluetooth-enabled fidget spinners going up in flames while they were charging. In Alabama, a fidget spinner owned by the son of Gardendale woman Kimberly Allums caught fire after being plugged in for less than 45 minutes. In Fenton, Michigan, Michelle Carr said her spinner started smoking after charging for less than half an hour. "He noticed that it burst into flames and he just started screaming," said Allums of her son and his spinner. "I was downstairs and all I heard was 'fire...fire,' and the fidget spinner had literally, It wasn't smoking, It was in flames"... The fidget spinners in question were Bluetooth-enabled so that they could light up and play music as they spun.
Friday CNET ran a column titled "Fidget spinners exploding? Of course they are." It concludes with a warning that "if you choose a powered off-brand tech item, you better pay close attention when you plug it in."
Businesses

Fidget Spinners Are Over (fivethirtyeight.com) 175

Walt Hickey, writing for Five Thirty Eight: The toy craze that has swept the nation -- cheaply manufactured fidget spinners of dubious metallic constitution -- is probably on the way out, with the high-water mark of fidget obsession appearing to be about a month behind us and the interest in the glorified ball bearings plateauing or declining. [...] Even if there's a long tail on this trend, it's very likely that peak fidget spinner is behind us. The kind of content now doing well on YouTube is either fidget-adjacent stunt videos or videos that have taken a particularly weird turn. This doesn't mean the ball-bearing business is doomed, just maybe don't go long on the spinner industrial complex or quit your job to live off a fidget-related Kickstarter idea at this point.
Debian

Debian 9 (Stretch) Will Be Released Today (twitter.com) 196

The Debian Project has been liveblogging today's release of Debian 9 (Stretch) using the Twitter hashtag #releasingstretch. Some of the announcements:
  • The oldstable suite (wheezy) has now been renamed to oldoldstable
  • Debian jessie now been renamed to oldstable!
  • The Debian stretch suites have now been renamed to stable!
  • The draft debian-devel-announce post is ready, archive docs are being cleaned up

This release is named after that purple octopus in Toy Story 3, and more tantalizing tidbits of information keep appearing on Debian's micronews site:

  • At least 1436 people and 18 teams contributed to Debian in 2017
  • Stretch has 25,357 source packages with 9,808,465 source files
  • There were 13 different themes proposed to be the official Debian stretch theme
  • Debian Stretch ships with the free mathematical software SageMath, you can install it with apt
  • During the stretch development, 101 contributors became Debian Developers, and 94 more become Debian Maintainers
  • Debian Stretch will ship with the first release of the Debian Astro Pure Blend [for astronomers]
  • Debian Popularity Contest gathers anonymous statistics about Debian packages usage from about 195,000 reports

Toys

How Lego Clicked: The Super Brand That Reinvented Itself (theguardian.com) 191

managerialslime shared an article about how Lego executed "the greatest turnaround in corporate history." The Guardian reports: By 2003 Lego was in big trouble. Sales were down 30% year-on-year and it was $800m in debt. An internal report revealed it hadn't added anything of value to its portfolio for a decade... In 2015, the still privately owned, family controlled Lego Group overtook Ferrari to become the world's most powerful brand. It announced profits of £660m, making it the number one toy company in Europe and Asia, and number three in North America, where sales topped $1bn for the first time. From 2008 to 2010 its profits quadrupled, outstripping Apple's. Indeed, it has been called the Apple of toys: a profit-generating, design-driven miracle built around premium, intuitive, covetable hardware that fans can't get enough of. Last year Lego sold 75bn bricks. Lego people -- "Minifigures" -- the 4cm-tall yellow characters with dotty eyes, permanent grins, hooks for hands and pegs for legs -- outnumber humans. The British Toy Retailers Association voted Lego the toy of the century.
It's a good read. The article describes how CEO Vig Knudstorp curtailed the company's over-expansion -- at one point, Lego had "built its own video games company from scratch, the largest installation of Silicon Graphics supercomputers in northern Europe, despite having no experience in the field." And he also encouraged the company to interact with its fans on the internet -- for example, the crowdsourcing of Ninjago content -- while the company enjoyed new popularity with Mindstorms kits for building programmable Lego robots.
AI

Ask Slashdot: How Can Programmers Move Into AI Jobs? 121

"I have the seriously growing suspicion that AI is coming for us programmers and IT experts faster than we might want to admit," writes long-time Slashdot reader Qbertino. So he's contemplating a career change -- and wondering what AI work is out there now, and how can he move into it? Is anything popping up in the industry and AI hype? (And what are these positions called, what do they precisely do, and what are the skills needed to do them?) I suspect something like an "AI Architect", planning AI setups and clearly defining the boundaries of what the AI is supposed to do and explore.

Then I presume the requirements for something like an "AI Maintainer" and/or "AI Trainer" which would probably resemble something like an admin of a big data storage, looking at statistics and making educated decisions on which "AI Training Paths" the AI should continue to explore to gain the skill required and deciding when the "AI" is ready to be let go on to the task... And what about Tensor Flow? Should I toy around with it or are we past that stage already and will others do AI setup and installation better than me before I know how this thing really works...?

Is there a degree program, or other paths to skill and knowledge, for a programmer who's convinced that "AI is today what the web was in 1993"? And if AI of the future ends up tied to specific providers -- AI as a service -- then are there specific vendors he should be focusing on (besides Google?) Leave your best suggestions in the comments. How can programmers move into AI jobs?
AI

Ask Slashdot: What Types of Jobs Are Opening Up In the New Field of AI? 133

Qbertino writes: I'm about to move on in my career after having a "short rethink and regroup break" and was for quite some time now thinking about getting into perhaps a new programming language and technology, like NodeJS or Java/Kotlin or something. But I have the seriously growing suspicion that artificial intelligence is coming for us programmers and IT experts faster than we might want to admit. Just last weekend I heard myself saying to a friend who was a pioneer on the web, "AI is today what the web was in 1993" -- I think that to be very true. So just 20 minutes ago I started thinking and wondering about what types of jobs there are in AI. Is anything popping up in the industry from the AI hype and what are these positions called, what do they precisely do and what are the skills needed to do them? I suspect something like an "AI Architect" for planning AI setups and clearly defining the boundaries of what the AI is supposed to do and explore. Then I presume the requirements for something like an "AI Maintainer" and/or "AI Trainer," which would probably resemble something like an admin of a big data storage, looking at statistics and making educated decisions on which "AI Training Paths" the AI should continue to explore to gain the skill required and deciding when the "AI" is ready to be let go on to the task. You're seeing we -- AFAIK -- don't even have names for these positions yet, but I suspect, just as in the internet/web boom 20 years ago, that is about to change *very* fast.

And what about Tensor Flow? Should I toy around with it or are we past that stage already and will others do AI setup and installation better than me before I know how this thing really works? Because I also suspect most of the AI work for humans will closely be tied to services and providers such as Google. You know, renting "AI" as you rent webspace or subscribe to bandwidth today. Any services and industry vendors I should look into -- besides the obvious Google that is? In a nutshell, what work is there in the field of AI that can be done and how do I move into that? Like now. And what should I maybe get a degree in if I want to be on top of this AI thing? And how would you go about gaining skill and knowledge on AI today, and I mean literally, today. I know, tons of questions but insightful advice is requested from an educated slashdot crowd. And I bet I'm not the only one interested in this topic. Thanks.
Earth

Remote Pacific Island Is the Most Plastic-Contaminated Spot Yet Surveyed (arstechnica.com) 132

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Plastic is durable -- very, very durable -- which is why we like it. Since it started being mass-produced in the 1950s, annual production has increased 300-fold. Because plastic is so durable, when our kids grow up and we purge our toy chests, or even just when we finish a bottle of laundry detergent or shampoo, it doesn't actually go away. While we're recycling increasing amounts of plastic, a lot of it still ends up in the oceans. Floating garbage patches have brought some attention to the issue of our contamination of the seas. But it's not just the waters themselves that have ended up cluttered with plastic. A recent survey shows that a staggering amount of our stuff is coming ashore on the extremely remote Henderson Island. Henderson Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Pitcairn Group of Islands in the South Pacific, roughly half way between New Zealand and Peru. According to UNESCO, Henderson is one of the best examples we have of an elevated coral atoll ecosystem. It was colonized by Polynesians between the 12th and 15th centuries but has been uninhabited by humans since then. It is of interest to evolutionary biologists because it has 10 plant species and four bird species that are only found there. Despite its uninhabited status and its extremely remote location, a recent survey of beach plastic on Henderson Island revealed that the island has the highest density of debris reported anywhere in the world: an estimated minimum of 37.7 million items weighing 17.6 tons. This represents the total amount of plastic that is produced in the world every 1.98 seconds. Further reading: Here And Now
China

China Is On Track To Fully Phase Out Cash (vice.com) 212

An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from a report via Motherboard: Experts believe it won't be long before China, the first country to introduce paper money, becomes the first to go totally cashless. In a poky sex toy shop in Sanlitun shopping district in central Beijing, a placard with a QR code is strategically placed next to a pink, vein-knobbled dildo called the Super Emperor, and a clitoral pump. Just scan your phone, and walk out with your purchase. The cigarette vendor across the street accepts smartphone payments too. A fast-moving queue of customers purchase smokes by scanning their phones over a tatty cardboard QR code. All the bars in Sanlitun, equal parts seedy and swish, still take cash, but have likewise implemented cashless pay, largely through the ubiquitous WeChat and Alipay app, as primary payment platforms. Beijing taxi drivers accept smartphone payments too. No one in the area uses physical money, for sex toys or otherwise. Largely due to China's vibrant fintech landscape, the recent rise of phone payments in the country has shunted cash onto the endangered list, perhaps somewhere alongside the pangolin. Many experts believe it won't be long before China, the first country to introduce paper money, also becomes the first to phase it out to become fully cashless. But when will this moment come?
Privacy

Vibrator Maker To Pay Millions Over Claims It Secretly Tracked Use (npr.org) 113

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: The makers of the We-Vibe, a line of vibrators that can be paired with an app for remote-controlled use, have reached a $3.75 million class action settlement with users following allegations that the company was collecting data on when and how the sex toy was used. The We-Vibe product line includes a number of Bluetooth-enabled vibrators that, when linked to the "We-Connect" app, can be controlled from a smartphone. It allows a user to vary rhythms, patterns and settings -- or give a partner, in the room or anywhere in the world, control of the device. Since the app was released in 2014, some observers have raised concerns that Internet-connected sex toys could be vulnerable to hacking. But the lawsuit doesn't involve any outside meddling -- instead, it centers on concerns that the company itself was tracking users' sex lives. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Illinois in September. It alleges that -- without customers' knowledge -- the app was designed to collect information about how often, and with what settings, the vibrator was used. The lawyers for the anonymous plaintiffs contended that the app, "incredibly," collected users' email addresses, allowing the company "to link the usage information to specific customer accounts." Customers' email addresses and usage data were transmitted to the company's Canadian servers, the lawsuit alleges. When a We-Vibe was remotely linked to a partner, the connection was described as "secure," but some information was also routed through We-Connect and collected, the lawsuit says.
Security

It's Possible To Hack a Smartphone With Sound Waves, Researchers Show (cnbc.com) 41

A security loophole that would allow someone to add extra steps to the counter on your Fitbit monitor might seem harmless. But researchers say it points to the broader risks that come with technology's embedding into the nooks of our lives. John Markoff, writes for the NYTimes: On Tuesday, a group of computer security researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of South Carolina will demonstrate that they have found a vulnerability that allows them to take control of or surreptitiously influence devices through the tiny accelerometers that are standard components in consumer products like smartphones, fitness monitors and even automobiles. In their paper, the researchers describe how they added fake steps to a Fitbit fitness monitor and played a "malicious" music file from the speaker of a smartphone to control the phone's accelerometer. That allowed them to interfere with software that relies on the smartphone, like an app used to pilot a radio-controlled toy car. "It's like the opera singer who hits the note to break a wine glass, only in our case, we can spell out words" and enter commands rather than just shut down the phone, said Kevin Fu, an author of the paper, who is also an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan and the chief executive of Virta Labs, a company that focuses on cybersecurity in health care. "You can think of it as a musical virus."
Databases

CloudPets IoT Toys Leaked and Ransomed, Exposing Kids' Voice Messages (androidpolice.com) 64

"According to security researcher Troy Hunt, a series of web-connected, app-enabled toys called CloudPets have been hacked," reports Android Police. "The manufacturer's central database was reportedly compromised over several months after stunningly poor security, despite the attempts of many researchers and journalists to inform the manufacturer of the potential danger. Several ransom notes were left, demanding Bitcoin payments for the implied deletion of stolen data." From the report: CloudPets allow parents to record a message for their children on their phones, which then arrives on the Bluetooth connected stuffed toy and is played back. Kids can squeeze the stuffed animal's paw to record a message of their own, which is sent back to the phone app. The Android app has been downloaded over 100,000 times, though user reviews are poor, citing a difficult interface, frequent bugs, and annoying advertising. Hunt and the researchers he collaborated with found that the central database for CloudPets' voice messages and user info was stored on a public-facing MongoDB server, with only basic hashes protecting user addresses and passwords. The same database apparently connected to the stored voice messages that could be retrieved by the apps and toys. Easy access and poor password requirements may have resulted in unauthorized access to a large number of accounts. The database was finally removed from the publicly accessible server in January, but not before demands for ransom were left.
Toys

German Government Tells Parents: Destroy This WiFi-Connected Doll (theverge.com) 142

It's illegal in Germany now to sell a talking doll named "My Friend Cayla," according to a story shared by Slashdot reader Bruce66423. And that's just the beginning. The Verge reports: A German government watchdog has ordered parents to "destroy" an internet-connected doll for fear it could be used as a surveillance device. According to a report from BBC News, the German Federal Network Agency said the doll (which contains a microphone and speaker) was equivalent to a "concealed transmitting device" and therefore prohibited under German telecom law... In December last year, privacy advocates said the toy recorded kids' conversations without proper consent, violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Cayla uses a microphone to listen to questions, sending this audio over Wi-Fi to a third-party company that converts it to text. This is then used to search the internet, allowing the doll to answer basic questions, like "What's a baby kangaroo called?" as well as play games. In addition to privacy concerns over data collection, security researchers found that Cayla can be easily hacked. The doll's insecure Bluetooth connection can be compromised, letting a third party record audio via the toy, or even speak to children using its voice.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has said toys like this "subject young children to ongoing surveillance...without any meaningful data protection standards." One researcher pointed out that the doll was accessible from up to 33 feet away -- even through walls -- using a bluetooth-enabled device.
Toys

Ask Slashdot: What's The Most Useful 'Nerd Watch' Today? 232

He's worn the same watch for two decades, but now Slashdot reader students wants a new one. For about 20 years I've used Casio Databank 150 watches. They were handy because they kept track of my schedule and the current time. They were very cheap. They required very little maintenance, since the battery lasts more than a year and the bands last even longer. Since they were waterproof, I don't even have to take them off (or remember where I put them!) They were completely immune to malicious software, surveillance, and advertising. However, their waterproof gaskets have worn out so they no longer work for me. Casio no longer makes them or any comparable product (their website is out of date).
Today's watches include everything from heart rate monitors to TV remote controls, and Casio even plans to release a new version of their Android Wear watch with a low-power GPS chip and mapping software. But what's your best suggestion? "I don't want a watch that duplicates the function of my cell phone or computer," adds the original submission -- so leave your best answers in the comments. What's the most useful nerd watch today?
Christmas Cheer

Ask Slashdot: What's The Best Geeky Gift For Children? 204

Everyone's suggesting gifts to teach the next generation of geeks about science, technology, engineering, and math. Slashdot reader theodp writes: In "My Guide to Holiday Gifts," Melinda Gates presents "a STEM gift guide" [which] pales by comparison to Amazon's "STEM picks". Back in 2009, Slashdot discussed science gifts for kids. So, how about a 2016 update?
I've always wanted to ask what geeky gifts Slashdot's readers remember from when they were kids. (And what geeky gifts do you still bitterly wish some enlightened person would've given you?) But more importantly, what modern-day tech toys can best encourage the budding young geeks of today? Leave your best answers in the comments. What's the best geeky gift for children?
Privacy

Watchdog Group Claims Smart Toys Are Spying On Kids (mashable.com) 70

The Center for Digital Democracy has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission warning of security and privacy holes associated with a pair of smart toys designed for children. Mashable reports: "This complaint concerns toys that spy," reads the complaint, which claims the Genesis Toys' My Friend Cayla and i-QUE Intelligent Robot can record and collect private conversations and offer no limitations on the collection and use of personal information. Both toys use voice recognition, internet connectivity and Bluetooth to engage with children in conversational manner and answer questions. The CDD claims they do all of this in wildly insecure and invasive ways. Both My Friend Cayla and i-QUE use Nuance Communications' voice-recognition platform to listen and respond to queries. On the Genesis Toy site, the manufacturer notes that while "most of Cayla's conversational features can be accessed offline," searching for information may require an internet connection. The promotional video for Cayla encourages children to "ask Cayla almost anything." The dolls work in concert with mobile apps. Some questions can be asked directly, but the toys maintain a constant Bluetooth connection to the dolls so they can also react to actions in the app and even appear to identify objects the child taps on on screen. While some of the questions children ask the dolls are apparently recorded and sent to Nuance's servers for parsing, it's unclear how much of the information is personal in nature. The Genesis Privacy Policy promises to anonymize information. The CDD also claims, however, that My Friend Cayla and i-Que employ Bluetooth in the least secure way possible. Instead of requiring a PIN code to complete pairing between the toy and a smartphone or iPad, "Cayla and i-Que do not employ... authentication mechanisms to establish a Bluetooth connection between the doll and a smartphone or tablet. The dolls do not implement any other security measure to prevent unauthorized Bluetooth pairing." Without a pairing notification on the toy or any authentication strategy, anyone with a Bluetooth device could connect to the toys' open Bluetooth networks, according to the complaint.
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Humble Bundle Supports The EFF With A LEGO eBook Sale (humblebundle.com) 17

The EFF is describing it as "a break for your brain." An anonymous reader writes: Humble Bundle has announced a special "pay what you want" sale for four ebooks about LEGO from No Starch Press, with proceeds going to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or to the charity of your choice. The ebooks include Beautiful LEGO (a compendium of creations by dozens of artists) and Medieval LEGO, which describes and recreates English history in the Middle Ages using LEGO blocks. Contributors who pay more than $8 also receive six more books, including "Forbidden LEGO" a more free-style building guide that one reviewer called "The Anarchist Cookbook of the nursery," as well as "The Cult of LEGO", a tour of the block-building community. And for a $15 donation, contributors receive six more ebooks -- bringing the total to 16 -- including The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book and Steampunk LEGO.
Software

Dungeons & Dragons Inducted Into Toy Hall of Fame (npr.org) 51

Snowgen writes: NPR reports that Dungeons and Dragons has been inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY: "The nomination process for the Toy Hall of Fame is open to the public -- but to get in, a toy has to be approved by 'historians, educators, and other individuals who exemplify learning, creativity, and discovery through their lives and careers.'" "More than any other game, Dungeons and Dragons paved the way for older children and adults to experience imaginative play," says Curator Nic Ricketts. "It was groundbreaking. And it opened the door for other kinds of table games that borrow many of its unique mechanics. But most importantly, Dungeons and Dragons' mechanics lent themselves to computer applications, and it had a direct impact on hugely successful electronic games like World of Warcraft." The report adds: "The list of 12 finalists for this year's honors had included bubble wrap, Care Bears, Clue, the coloring book, Nerf ball, pinball, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Transformers and Uno. When it emerged in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons was groundbreaking, says curator Nic Ricketts of The Strong. In addition to its own merits, the game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson established a pattern for how similar role-playing games might work -- both on table-tops and, eventually, on computers and other devices."

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