An Open-Source (and Cute) Alternative to Amazon Echo

Mark 1 is no Amazon Echo: it looks like an ’80s clock radio mashed up with WALL-E, and speaks with a robotic, bass-heavy British accent. But the startup behind it, Mycroft, hopes it has similar appeal to hackers, students, and companies who want a voice-enabled assistant that they can run on all kinds of devices and alter at will.

When it comes to voice-enabled digital assistants, there are plenty of them available these days—in addition to the Echo, which runs Amazon’s Alexa assistant, there’s Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s assistant. None of these is open-source, though, so even if developers can use it on various devices (like Amazon’s Alexa), they can’t go under the hood and change its code—ostensibly, to help improve it.

Mycroft—whose voice assistant, which runs on Mark 1, is also called Mycroft—isn’t trying to rival any of these big companies’ digital helpers, says CEO Joshua Montgomery. Rather, he says, the idea is to democratize the voice assistant—making it available and adaptable for everyone from kids working on school projects to companies that want to use open-source voice-enabled technology for a call center. While Mycroft will be free to individual users like consumers and developers, who can download it to run on things like computers and other devices, the company plans to charge enterprise users.

Mark 1’s LED face has a friendly look.

Mark 1, which is for sale online for $180, is a physical manifestation of what that can look like.

“We decided to give it a face and to make it cute and personable so people would use it,” Montgomery says.

So far, there are about 90 skills users can activate for Mycroft; the company came up with about 16 of them and developers contributed the rest. They include things like setting reminders, playing music, making Facebook posts, and controlling lights and other connected devices at home. The device comes with some skills already installed, Montgomery says, and users can then add more.

Montgomery showed off some of Mark 1’s capabilities for me, alerting it by saying “Hey, Mycroft”—to which a wavy LED line showed up on its face, as a sort of mouth—and then asking it a range of questions like “Who won the 1959 World Series?” and “How’s the weather in San Francisco?”

Mark 1 uses Mycroft’s open-source voice-enabled assistant software to do things like check the weather and get the news.

Most of the time, it answered correctly, using sources like Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha to gather information. It was a little sluggish to respond, though, and it didn’t always do as it was told. The company tries to make it clear that it’s still a work in progress, and a more consumer-friendly version of Mycroft with greater capabilities is slated for next February. It can be set to use one of several different speech-to-text systems, including that of Google or IBM—and Mycroft is building its own open-source version, called OpenSTT.

The company hopes Mycroft will fit in outside of the home, too. Car maker Jaguar Land Rover made a strategic investment in the company and plans to get its technology into vehicles within several years, Montgomery says.

Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst covering consumer technology for tech market researcher Creative Strategies, thinks bringing Mycroft to the car or using it to imbue various home gadgets with voice interactions could be a good tactic, rather than trying to compete with much bigger players in the digital-assistant realm.

There are a number of important issues to consider, though, such as how secure the data is that Mycroft is able to access.

“For a lot of these interfaces, you’re starting to control very important parts of your life, from the home to the car, and these things need to be secure,” she notes.

Montgomery says that user data sent to Mycroft will only be used by the company for improving its technology if users give permission to do so. This could make it tricky for Mycroft’s software to get better over time, though, as the more data it can draw on, the smarter it can get.

from Technology Review Feed – Tech Review Top Stories

Conch shells hold the secret to impact-resistant armor

The conch shell is made of the same material as chalk, but unlike the crumbly rock, it’s one of the toughest materials out there. If we can understand why it’s so tough, we can mimic it to create nearly unbreakable materials that can be used for safety gear, and in construction, aerospace and other industries. Now, a team of researchers from MIT have developed a 3D printing technology that allowed them to duplicate the conch shell’s structure and to test it more closely in the lab.

Conch shells have a complex, three-tiered structure with a zigzag matrix that makes them resistant to breakage. Small cracks don’t typically lead to big ones, since they have to go through a maze to become bigger. However, to be able to replicate that quality, scientists need more data on how exactly cracks appear and spread.

That’s why the team used the samples they printed to perform a series of drop tests. Since these samples are identical, unlike conch shells that have variations in quality, they gave the scientists a way to collect more accurate data. By the end of the testing period, the researchers were able to conclude that the shell’s structure is 85 percent better at preventing cracks than the strongest base material and 70 percent better than a traditional fiber composite arrangement.

The material, the researchers find, is perfect for impact-resistant gear, since it’s capable of resisting damage and dissipating energy before it hits your body. Team member Markus Buehler says it has "stiffness, like glass or ceramics," but it’s not brittle and doesn’t easily break. Before it’s used for any safety gear, though, scientists still need to conduct even more rigorous testing, including making sure that the material is just as tough when used to design curved surfaces like helmets.

Source: MIT

from Engadget

Windows on Snapdragon is key to making PCs more connected

Looks like Microsoft isn’t done with its world tour. After a series of events in New York, Seattle and Shanghai, the company has yet another big announcement to make in Taiwan here at Computex 2017. And in keeping with the theme of bringing Windows everywhere, Microsoft is working with Qualcomm and Intel to deliver "Always Connected PCs" that are constantly online, have long-lasting batteries and portable designs.

Today’s announcement sheds more light on the concept of Windows 10 on mobile Qualcomm processors that Microsoft had teased at its WinHEC event last December. Now, we’re learning that the chipset that makes this possible is the Snapdragon 835, which currently powers high-end flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the Sony Xperia XZ Premium.

Don’t confuse Windows on Snapdragon with the Windows RT strategy, though. Microsoft says the new devices will run the full desktop version of Windows 10 — not a tweaked interface for mobile, though this may eventually include Windows 10 S. That means you’ll get x86 app compatibility, Cortana, Windows Ink, Hello, among other features. Since no actual machines have been announced yet, it’s not clear if they’ll be laptops, convertibles, tablets, or phones, but Microsoft doesn’t appear to be limiting this concept to a product category. You can at least expect devices from traditional laptop makers ASUS, Lenovo and HP, who have said they’ll be developing products for this new initiative.

In general, Always Connected PCs won’t have to use Qualcomm’s chips (Intel-powered devices can qualify as well), but the ones that do will see several benefits from Snapdragon 835. The most important advantage is gigabit LTE connectivity, which will allow these devices to download videos or webpages at blazing speeds. In fact, during a demo here in Taiwan, a Qualcomm rep downloaded a 1.9GB movie over a custom gigabit LTE network on to a prototype device in less than 30 seconds. The connection speed was tweaked to match anticipated real-world rates of about 300Mbps, not the 1Gbps it can technically achieve, but what’s impressive is Qualcomm anticipates it will be able to sustain that throughput instead of hitting it in bursts.

Speaking of, Windows devices on Snapdragon will come with embedded e-SIM support to make it easier to get online without having to fiddle with a SIM tray or a tiny card. Devices with SIM trays can also get connected with e-SIM adapters. It also enables the idea of snackable data consumption, which lets consumers buy data in bite-sized portions (say, 1GB or 2GB) when they need it from the Windows Store. This could actually encourage more people to use mobile data without having to subscribe to a new data plan.

During our demo, our rep also created PowerPoint slides, scrolled rapidly up and down the Start menu, created a Pivot Table from a large Excel spreadsheet and copied and pasted text between Word and PowerPoint windows — all without lag. He even jumped across three virtual desktops with ease. Sure, these demos sound kind of boring, but they’re important basics to get right if you actually want to get work done on these PCs. The performance we witnessed is similar to that of an Intel Compute Stick, based on our experience, and this responsiveness is key to making Snapdragon PCs feel like they are full Windows devices and not watered down versions.

A 14nm chip versus the 10nm Snapdragon 835 (right)

Another bonus is Snapdragon 835’s smaller physical size compared to its predecessor and competition. That not only lets device makers create slimmer products and experiment with different forms, but also leaves more room for parts like larger batteries. Combined with the chipset’s power efficiency, this could lead to longer-lasting machines that will stick around for more than a day. You’ll also get more endurance in standby mode, and the new devices will feature something called Connected Standby. With this mode, your PCs can wake from sleep faster than before, and remain connected to your WiFi or cellular network to keep syncing your data in the background while idle. It also enables Cortana to actively listen for your commands even when the machine is locked.

These details for Microsoft and Qualcomm’s vision for the Windows on Snapdragon seem well thought-out and feasible, but because we haven’t seen consumer-ready versions yet, we can only be cautiously optimistic. Many of the promises being made around speed and battery life are dependent on external factors like network coverage, gigabit deployment and individual device specs. But based on the demo we saw, Microsoft may have finally found a way to make Windows truly mobile.

Click here to catch up on the latest news from Computex 2017!

from Engadget

10 Recent Board Games Worth A Look

One of the benefits of a regular gaming group is that as well as playing through the classics and revisiting personal favorites, you’ll often have members who bring along the latest big releases or lesser-known titles they’ve backed on Kickstarter. Here are 10 notable titles from the past couple of years that have hit the tables at my group.

Terraforming Mars is arguably the most hyped game of 2017 that I’ve played. You play as one of several competing corporations trying to develop Mars, represented by a hex board. As a group you work together to raise the temperature, oxygen levels and sea coverage (and once all three are maxed out, the game ends), but you also work on private projects that act as individual objectives. It brings together a wide range of game mechanics in a smooth manner, though it’s just about at the top end of bearable game times and wouldn’t be one to play with people prone to analysis paralysis. The big downside is the poor player boards on which cubes (which confusingly fulfill multiple rolls) are far too easy to knock out of place.

Sagrada is almost a puzzle. It’s based on a theme of building stained glass windows, but in reality you are trying to draft colored dice that fit into a five by five grid with several constraints (a new die must be placed adjacent to an existing die; you can’t have the same color or number on two adjacent squares; some squares are labelled and can only carry a particular number or color.) The beauty of the game is that you score in four ways: while you will always get the face value of all the dice you place of a particular (secret) individual color, there’ll be three common scoring criteria that are randomly selected each game, along with three randomly selected common tools that you can use such as adjusting a die value, so any one game will be very different to another. It plays quickly as you can easily plan what your next move will be (assuming the relevant die is still available) and there’s some scope for screwing over opponents once you figure out what they are planning.

Raiders of the North Sea is a worker placement game with a twist. Based around developing fighting hordes before heading out to loot overseas, players take two actions each round: once by placing a token on a free space and the second by removing a token from a space. It’s a little jarring at first until you realize the effect is that you will nearly always be able to take the actions you want but won’t necessarily be able to take them in your preferred order. That leaves plenty of room for thinking ahead and developing a strategy, though I can report from bitter experience that the name of the game is indeed a clue and that deciding not to go on any raids will not work out well.

Clank is a deckbuilder/dungeon crawl board game that’s somewhere between “push your luck” and “test your nerve against your opponents.” The more ambitious the actions you take, the more noise you make, which is represented by your color of cubes going into a bag. Awaken the dragon and random cubes are drawn, which translate to depleting health for the player of that color. To win you have to get out of the dungeon alive with the most treasure, but once you’re out, you’re out. It’s a fun set of mechanisms, but it can be hard to adjust to the fact that the whole game is based around making one big timing decision.

Mechs vs Minions is another much-hyped game and for good reason. It’s a co-operative based around a basic mechanism for programming mechs (think Robo Rally), with damage not being a health issue, but rather disrupting and even randomizing your programming. The campaign format means each mission feels very different to one another, with varying challenges and goals meaning you have to adapt to the tactics. While your mileage may vary, my group has found the difficulty just right as almost every game starts out feeling like a hopeless mission only to end in a narrow victory. While it’s a very expensive game (driven by the huge number of components), it could have some serious longevity with the easy scope for both formal expansions and unofficial missions.

Captain Sonar is a party game that takes the concept of BattleShips and splits it into multiple roles on two teams who must coordinate their actions. The challenge is that it can be played in real time which inevitably breaks down into frantic shouting and cross-talk. While I enjoyed it, the main drawback is that to play at its best it really needs not just exactly eight players, but eight players who enjoy frantic communication-based gaming, which isn’t always going to be easy to arrange.

Family Plot is a filler card game that draws much of its pleasure from the character illustrations and names, but is still enjoyable. The idea is simply to collect and play a particular set of seven family members (for example grandfather, mother, aunt, uncle, son, baby, pet) with the aid of modifiers to change gender and age if you don’t have the cards you need. The trouble of course is that opponents can mess up your plans with action cards such as child protection services taking away one of your kids, or even a full on Grim Reaper to wipe out the family (though it’s worth taking some of the Reaper cards out of the deck to tweak the game’s length and frustration level). It’s a fun experience, though not really suited to those who hate luck in games.

Isles of Skye is a simple tile auction and laying game where you are expanding a Scottish clan land. What makes it work well is that any particular game will have five randomly selected scoring criteria, but only a particular combination will apply each round. This makes for a good mix of tactics and strategy as you have to think ahead as to how you will score on future rounds. One big downside is that you can choose the orientation of the tile placement for best effect so, unless you have very tolerant and patient opponents, you may struggle to make decisions during the auction phases unless you have a visual mind that can quickly assess the different options for how you would place the tile after buying it.

Viceroy is another auction and placement game, this time playing cards to build a “pyramid of power,” though the theme is somewhat arbitrary. It’s not an auction in the true sense of the word: instead players blind bid to select one of four cards: if two or more people go for the same card, they all lose and don’t get a refund, so it’s as much about trying to figure out what others will be going for as it is getting the best card for you. It’s not a bad game as such but rather doesn’t justify its play length. The good news is that the scoring and cards scale well, so it should be possible to simply play fewer rounds without unbalancing the gameplay.

Finally, Sunrise City is a city building game with one rule that gives it the edge. The gameplay itself is fairly simple: over three rounds, players select and play ‘zone’ cards that define permissible building types in a location, then bid for the rights to use a particular zone, then construct buildings in line with the rules. In principle that’s a straightforward game of planning and execution, with opportunities to block opponents. The edge comes from the fact that as you amass points, if you even reach a multiple of ten exactly, you’ll get a ten-point bonus. As these can be enough to swing a game, the emphasis is as much on when you score points as how much you score, so you’ll need to be constantly rethinking your plans, particularly as other players may deliberately take actions that give you bonus points.

The post 10 Recent Board Games Worth A Look appeared first on Geeks are Sexy Technology News.

from [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News

Exxon loses key climate change battle

ExxonMobil just lost a critical climate change battle even as the fate of the Paris accord remains in serious doubt.

Over 63% of Exxon shareholders voted in favor of a proposal on Wednesday calling on the world’s biggest public oil company to do more to disclose the risk it faces from the global crackdown on carbon emissions.

The proposal asks Exxon (XOM) to stress test its assets for climate risks each year. The test would include scenarios such as declining demand for oil as a result of new technologies like electric cars and regulations, stemming from the Paris climate accord. The vote occurred just hours after CNN and other news outlets reported that President Trump is expected to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

It’s rare for such campaigns to get such a high percentage of votes, especially in the face of the kinds of intense lobbying efforts Exxon launched against this resolution. Last year, a similar proposal was backed by 38% of shareholders.

“This is an unprecedented victory for investors in the fight to ensure a smooth transition to a low carbon economy,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who spearheaded the proposal, said in a statement.

Related: There is no boom in coal jobs

The Exxon proposal is nonbinding, meaning the company is not required to follow it. But given the strong support, it will be difficult for Exxon to ignore it will likely force the company to make significant changes.

“The burden is now on ExxonMobil to respond swiftly and demonstrate that it takes shareholder concerns about climate risk seriously,” DiNapoli said.

After the vote, Exxon CEO Darren Woods said shareholder resolutions that received a majority of support “will be reconsidered by the board.”

While Exxon rejected the need to stress test its climate risk, the oil giant did not back away from its support for the Paris deal despite reports Trump may be about to dump the climate accord.

“I stand by our position,” Woods said in response to a question from a shareholder about the White House’s deliberations.

“We think the advantage of the Paris framework is it engages and involves countries from all around the world, irrespective of their economic development,” Woods said.

The Exxon boss added that it’s a “global challenge which requires global participation.”

from Business and financial news –

Activist investigating Ivanka supplier detained in China

An activist investigating a company that manufactures shoes for Ivanka Trump and other Western brands has been detained by police in China — and two of his colleagues remain unaccounted for.

The activists were working undercover at two factories in southern China, according to China Labor Watch, the New York-based advocacy group for which they were carrying out the investigation. It lost contact with them on Saturday.

The news comes amid a broader crackdown in China on independent groups pushing for better labor rights in the world’s second-largest economy.

One of the activists, Hua Haifeng, was detained by local police in Jiangxi province for “illegal surveillance,” said Li Qiang, the head of China Labor Watch. The other two activists, Li Zhao and Su Heng, are missing, he said.

The activists took jobs between March and May at two factories run by Chinese shoe manufacturer Huajian Group — one in Jiangxi and the other in Guangdong — in order to investigate labor practices at the company, Li said.

Su, who was working at the factory in Jiangxi, found evidence of violations of workers’ rights during the production of Ivanka Trump shoes, according to Li. They included employees working for as many as 18 hours a day for pay below the minimum wage, he said.

Huajian didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Ivanka Trump’s company declined to comment.

Related: Chinese shoe manufacturer: Ivanka Trump ‘is a very good client’

A spokeswoman for Marc Fisher Footwear, which licenses the Ivanka Trump brand for shoes, said the firm was unaware of the allegations and would look into them immediately. Two other shoe brands under the company’s umbrella — Marc Fisher and Kylie + Kendall — were also being made at the Huaijian factories, according to China Labor Watch.

Huajian makes millions of shoes for Western brands every year.

Other customers supplied by the two factories under investigation by China Labor Watch include Coach, Alain Delon, Nine West and Karl Lagerfeld, the advocacy group said. The companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Li said he is sending video footage shot by Su at the Jiangxi factory to Ivanka Trump’s company.

“We appeal to President Trump, Ivanka Trump herself, and to her related brand company to advocate and press for the release our activists,” he said.

There’s nothing to suggest that Ivanka Trump has any connection to what happened to the China Labor Watch investigators. She resigned from her management role at the clothing and accessories company when she took a job in her father’s administration, but she still owns part of the business.

Related: China OKs trademarks for Ivanka Trump’s company

Hua’s wife, Deng Guilian, told CNN that she received a call Tuesday from police in Jiangxi telling her that her husband has been detained for conducting illegal surveillance and that she should expect to receive a formal notice in the mail soon.

Deng said the news came as a shock. And with family’s only breadwinner now in police detention, she said she’s worried about their financial situation.

Hua Haifeng Hua Haifeng, 36, has been detained by police in Jiangxi province since Saturday, his wife said.

The families of Li and Su couldn’t be reached for comment.

Officials at the local police department in Jiangxi said they weren’t aware of any cases involving China Labor Watch activists.

The detention and disappearances of the activists were first reported by The Associated Press.

The Chinese government has stepped up its clamping down on independent labor groups in recent years. Since 2015, dozens of activists and lawyers have been detained, arrested and harassed.

Related: On the front lines of China’s record-level labor unrest

“The government is taking a harsher line towards activists, especially those working for overseas organizations,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International. “With the tightening economic situation, authorities could be looking to protect local manufacturing industries at all costs, even if that includes detaining activists bringing up labor issues.”

But Li said it’s the first time in 17 years of investigating labor rights violations in China that any of China Labor Watch’s investigators had been detained by police.

“The accusation from Jiangxi police has no factual basis,” he said.

— Serenitie Wang, Serena Dong, Juila Horowitz, Yazhou Sun, Jethro Mullen and Felicia Wong contributed to this report.

from Business and financial news –

Watch Kitty Hawk’s test pilots learn to love the flying machine

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Pilots describe the moment when it all comes together and they ‘get it’ in terms of how to fly the machine.

Continue reading Watch Kitty Hawk’s test pilots learn to love the flying machine

Watch Kitty Hawk’s test pilots learn to love the flying machine originally appeared on Autoblog on Tue, 30 May 2017 10:30:00 EDT. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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