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Chatty AI, collab tools, TPU v4 chips, quantum computing • The Register

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Google IO Google today opened its developer conference, the aptly named Google IO, with a somber nod to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic from Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

“In some places, people are beginning to live their lives again as cases decline. Other places like Brazil and my home country of India are going through their most difficult moments yet. We are thinking of you and hoping for better days ahead,” Pichai said, speaking outdoors at the Chocolate Factory’s Mountain View campus.

Last year, the coronavirus outbreak prompted Google to cancel its IO show entirely.

Pichai detailed a new collaborative features in Google Workspace and several advancements in AI software and hardware, including a promising conversational technology called Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA).

Google is using the term Smart Canvas to refer to the dozen enhancements added to Workspace that aim to improve collaboration and connect distinct apps like Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Meet.

“With Smart Canvas, we’re bringing together the content and connections that transform collaboration, into a richer, better experience,” explained Javier Soltero, VP and general management of Google Workspace. “For over a decade, we’ve been pushing documents away from being just digital pieces of paper, and toward collaborative linked content inspired by the web. Smart Canvas is our next big step.”

As an example Soltero describes a scenario in which a team is collaborating on a shared Doc file and the assisted writing feature suggests changing the word “Chairman” to “Chairperson” to “avoid a gendered term.”

A related effort discussed toward the end of the opening keynote is Google’s effort to revise its digital image processing algorithms to better photograph diverse skin tones in the Android Camera app and elsewhere.

Other Smart Canvas enhancements include: @-mentions of team members in Docs and (soon) Sheets, through which additional information like job title, location, and contact information can be made available; table templates in Docs; the ability to present Docs, Sheets, and Slides content in Meet events; and a pageless format in Docs for better viewing across multiple screen sizes, among others.

AI better at chatting back

Pichai then reviewed Google’s advances in AI over its past 22 years, focusing on language translation and image recognition innovations. He described how work on how natural language advances like the Transformer neural network architecture in 2017 and BERT in 2019 have made computers more capable of understanding natural language queries.

“Today I’m excited to share our latest breakthrough in natural language understanding, LaMDA, it’s a language model for dialogue applications,” he explained. “And it’s open domain, which means it’s designed to converse on any topic.”

Pichai then illustrated LaMDA’s conversational skills by presenting a conversation about Pluto between a person and LaMDA, with the AI model responding as if it were the dwarf planet. Missing from the sample dialog were any of the nonsensical statements or misunderstandings that anyone who has engaged with conversational AI inevitably encounters, though LaMDA is still capable of messing up.

“It’s really impressive to see how LaMDA can carry on a conversation about any topic,” said Pichai. “It’s amazing how sensible and interesting the conversation is yet. It’s still early research, so it doesn’t get everything right. Sometimes it can give nonsensical responses.”

Pichai said further work is being done to ensure LaMDA, which builds on research described in a 2020 paper, meets Google’s standards for fairness, accuracy, safety and privacy. Clearly, Google is keen to avoid a Microsoft Tay-grade fiasco whenever it gets around to integrating LaMDA into its own services, such as Search and Assistant.

Pichai also announced revised AI hardware, Google’s Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) v4. More than twice as fast as TPU v3, TPU v4 chips can be connected into supercomputers called pods that consist of 4,096 processors capable of delivering one exaflop, or 10^18 floating point operations per second.

“Think about it this way, if 10 million people were on their laptops right now, then all of those laptops put together would almost match the computing power of one exaflop,” said Pichai.

“This is the fastest system we’ve ever deployed at Google, and a historic milestone for us. Previously to get an exaflop, you needed to build a custom supercomputer, but we already have many of these deployed today.”

Pichai said soon there will be dozens of TPU v4 pods in its data centers and these will be made available to Google Cloud customers later this year.

Going quantum

Google is also opening a Quantum AI Campus in Santa Barbara, California, which incorporates the company’s first quantum data center, a quantum hardware research lab, and a quantum chip fab.

Before ceding the stage to more esoteric, developer-specific presentations, Pichai also previewed a novel 3D video conferencing system called Project Starline.

“Using high resolution cameras and custom built depth sensors, we capture your shape and appearance from multiple perspectives, and then fuse them together to create an extremely detailed real time 3d model,” Pichai explained, noting that the company developed novel compression and streaming technology to reduce the massive amount of data, send it over the network, and display it on a novel light-field display that makes it looks like you’re taking to a real person.

Pichai said Google intends to expand access to Project Starline to healthcare and media partners. ®

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Bridie Connell: the 10 funniest things I have ever seen (on the internet) | Comedy

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Ah, the internet. My reliable friend. I turn to it when I need to smile (cute pet videos), when I need to cry (war veterans being reunited with their kids), and when I need to destroy what’s left of my self-esteem (Instagram). There are plenty of arguments about why life would be better without it, and honestly? It probably would be. But it also wouldn’t be as funny. Here’s a bunch of things from the world wide web that never fail to make me laugh.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than people trying to make the world a better place. Particularly when they make the world better in a way they’d never intended. I can just imagine the conversations that took place in the drafting process for this campaign:

“We need a catchy and educational campaign to tackle the horrors of addiction.”

“Yes, one that shows we’re in this together, as a community.”

“One that doesn’t stereotype addicts.”

“I’ve got it!”

The result is what I believe they call a “swing and a miss.” A+ for effort, though.

If there was an award for best award acceptance speech, this would win. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is brilliantly funny (while accepting an award for being brilliantly funny) and she remains my hero.

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Here’s one for my fellow theatre kids. This pitch perfect sketch is from comedian and writer Jacob Kaplan. Does it make me laugh? Yes. Does it make me tense every single muscle in my body and hold my breath while I try not to think about the time that 14-year-old Bridie wrote a play about the dangers of DRINK-DRIVING and also DRUGS, which inexplicably culminated in a peppy dance routine? … No comment.

Amber Ruffin is one of the most versatile and talented comedians around. I love a lot of what she does, but this song is a special favourite. Hilarious, a little creepy and downright catchy: a winning combo!

This sketch from the late 1990s sketch group Big Train still delights me. Short, sharp, silly. Please and thank you!

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Adrian Bliss, Certified Internet Star™, is a go-to for inventive sketches (and a seemingly endless supply of costumes). Many of his skits feature historical characters, like this one about a Greek soldier inside the Trojan horse. That layer of awkwardness that the Brits do well drives this skit, and now that I’ve seen it I can only hear The Aeneid being read in Bliss’s voice: “I sing of arms and a man, innit.”

Now this, THIS is some relatable content. Don’t pretend you’ve never tied one on and woken up on a golf course/boat/gold lame suit, because I won’t believe you. Perfectly encapsulating the delight of a great night-turned great story, I give you this hungover Scotsman who woke up in the wrong house. Of course, it’s made all the better by the Glaswegian accent.

*Assumes elderly wizard voice* I have been studying and performing improv since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, so the Whose Line crew are some of my longtime heroes. This game is one of my faves, not just because it’s so funny and clever, but because the “mistake” that happens around the 2:20 mark encapsulates the joy and collaboration that good improv is all about. Oh dear, this got more earnest than I intended. Just watch it!

A masterclass in physical comedy, from one of the greats.

Last but not least, here’s a video to save for a day where you need a bit of a pick-me-up. This is my favourite of all “laughing baby” videos, a classic in a crowded genre. And sure, if we’re measuring “funny” by incisive satirical commentary or well crafted punchlines, then this is a fail – but no other video fires up my mirror neurons and makes me laugh as much as this one.

Seriously, if you watch this and don’t feel at least a little bit better, then call a cardiologist because you have NO HEART.



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North Korean ransomware dubbed Maui active since May 2021 • The Register

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For the past year, state-sponsored hackers operating on behalf of North Korea have been using ransomware called Maui to attack healthcare organizations, US cybersecurity authorities said on Wednesday.

Uncle Sam’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the FBI, and the Treasury Department issued a joint advisory outlining a Pyongyang-orchestrated ransomware campaign that has been underway at least since May, 2021.

The initial access vector – the way these threat actors break into organizations – is not known. Even so, the FBI says it has worked with multiple organizations in the healthcare and public health (HPH) sector infected by Maui ransomware.

“North Korean state-sponsored cyber actors used Maui ransomware in these incidents to encrypt servers responsible for healthcare services – including electronic health records services, diagnostics services, imaging services, and intranet services,” the joint security advisory [PDF] reads. “In some cases, these incidents disrupted the services provided by the targeted HPH Sector organizations for prolonged periods.”

The Feds assume the reason HPH sector organizations have been targeted is that they will pay ransoms rather than risk being locked out of systems, being denied data, or having critical services interrupted.

Maui, according to Silas Cutler, principal reverse engineer at security outfit Stairwell, is one of the lesser known families of ransomware. He says it stands out for its lack of service-oriented tooling, such as an embedded ransom note with recovery instructions. That leads him to believe Maui is operated manually by individuals who specify which files should be encrypted and exfiltrated.

The advisory, based on Stairwell’s research [PDF], indicates that the Maui ransomware is an encryption binary that a remote operator manually executes through command line interaction. The ransomware deploys AES, RSA, and XOR encryption to lock up target files. Thereafter, the victim can expect a ransom payment demand.

According to SonicWall, there were 304.7 million ransomware attacks in 2021, an increase of 151 percent. In healthcare, the percentage increase was 594 percent.

CrowdStrike, another security firm, in its 2022 Global Threat Report said North Korea has shifted its focus to cryptocurrency entities “in an effort to maintain illicit revenue generation during economic disruptions caused by the pandemic.” For example, consider the recent theft of $100 million of cryptocurrency assets from Harmony by the North Korea-based cybercrime group Lazarus. But organizations that typically transact with fiat currencies aren’t off the hook.

Sophos, yet another security firm, said in its State of Ransomware Report 2022 that the average ransom payment last year was $812,360, a 4.8X increase from the 2020 when the average payment was $170,000. The company also said more victims are paying ransoms: 11 percent in 2021 compared to 4 percent in 2020.

The advisory discourages the payment of ransoms. Nonetheless, the FBI is asking any affected organization to share information related to ransomware attacks, such as communication with foreign IP addresses, Bitcoin wallet details, and file samples. The advisory goes on to suggest ways to mitigate ransomware attacks and minimize damage.

Last month, the US Justice Department outlined its Strategic Plan for the next four years and cited enhancing cybersecurity and fighting cybercrime among its objectives. One of its key metrics for success will be the “percent of reported ransomware incidents from which cases are opened, added to existing cases, or resolved or investigative actions are conducted within 72 hours.” ®

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Revolut banks on Stripe tech to expand payments globally

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Soon to launch in Mexico and Brazil, Revolut joins a long list of Stripe users including N26, Ford and Spotify.

Revolut will now use Stripe’s financial infrastructure platform to power its payments in the UK and Europe.

Stripe’s international reach is also expected to accelerate the global expansion of Revolut, helping it enter and grow in new markets. The UK neobank is soon planning to launch in Mexico and Brazil.

With this latest partnership, Revolut joins a long list of tech companies that have turned to Irish-founded Stripe to power payments, including German neobank N26, Swedish fintech Klarna, US carmaker Ford and streaming giant Spotify.

“Revolut builds seamless solutions for its customers. That means access to quick and easy payments and our collaboration with Stripe facilitates that,” said David Tirado, vice-president of business development at Revolut.

“We share a common vision and are excited to collaborate across multiple areas, from leveraging Stripe’s infrastructure to accelerate our global expansion, to exploring innovative new products for Revolut’s more than 18m customers.”

Founded in 2015, Revolut has become one of Europe’s biggest fintech start-ups. The London-headquartered company now offers payments and bankings services to 18m customers and 500,000 businesses in more than 200 countries and territories.

Last month, the fintech made its debut in the highly competitive buy now, pay later market in Europe, with roll-out starting in Ireland. It also revealed this week that it is moving into in-person payments, launching a card reader for businesses in the UK and Ireland.

“Revolut and Stripe share an ambition to upgrade financial services globally. We’re thrilled to be powering Revolut as it builds, scales and helps people around the world get more from their money,” said Eileen O’Mara, EMEA revenue and growth lead at Stripe.

Even though Revolut has 1.7m customers in Ireland and is rolling out banking services here, the fintech is set to face stiff competition from Synch Payments, a mobile payments app venture from some of Ireland’s pillar banks. Synch recently took another step towards launch by picking a technology partner for its app.

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