Scientists create ride-hailing tech that hides your travel data

When you use a ride-hailing app, you tell the company where you are and where you’re going. That’s all well and good if those firms truly will never use your data, but some of them don’t exactly have a stellar reputation when it comes to privacy. That’s why a team of scientists from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have developed a new ride-hailing technology that encrypts your travel data and hides them from the app’s developers themselves. They didn’t even patent their technology in case Uber or any of its rivals are interested in adopting it.

The researchers call their software ORide for “Oblivious Ride,” because the only people who can see the details of your transaction are you and the driver you choose. When you fire it up, it receives encrypted data of your location and of the drivers near where you are. After you choose a driver, ORide will send him your info and vice versa. The only data the ride-hailing firm will see are the distance travelled and the cost of the ride in order to calculate its cut of the fare.

A technology like ORide will prevent ride-hailing companies from creating anything that violates users’ privacy like Uber’s God View, the firm’s infamous application that employees could use to look up customer info. It first came to light after Uber’s New York general manager playfully revealed to a Buzzfeed reporter that he’s been tracking her journey. After the New York Attorney General’s office looked into the issue, Uber was required to purge users’ identifiable info as well as to limit access to the app. But that’s not all the company did: according to a more recent report by The Information, Uber also ran a program called “Hell” that spied on its drivers who were also working for Lyft.

Team member Jean-Pierre Hubaux says ORide works pretty much like any other ride-hailing app. You can still use your credit card to pay, because its “protocol was designed not to provide complete anonymity, but to make it very hard to track the passengers’ and the drivers’ movements.” Its encryption also only “adds just a few milliseconds to the search time” and doesn’t impact the experience. However, any company that chooses to adopt it will have to tweak it a bit. Based on the team’s tests using public data on New York taxis, ORide doesn’t necessarily find the closest driver. Fixing that can cut down on wait times.

As for why any company would choose to adopt the technology, Hubaux explained that ride-hailing “is a highly competitive market. He added that “confidentiality could be a selling point or a way to avoid a legal battle if a firm has to share the data it has access to with the secret services.”

This article by Mariella Moon originally appeared on Engadget, your source for this connected life.

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China Genomics Giant Drops Plans for Gene-Edited Pets

China’s largest genomics company is going public. But hold the bacon.

Starting this week, investors should be able to buy shares in BGI, China’s largest genomics company, as it completes a $251 million initial public offering. But if you were hoping to get your hands on a $1,400 pint-size pig created with gene editing, you’ll have to wait. Perhaps indefinitely.

It made headlines around the world in September 2015 when employees of BGI said at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit that they intended to sell half-sized Bama pigs and inaugurate a market for gene-edited pets available in custom colors and sizes.

But BGI officials now say they won’t be marketing the pigs to consumers at all. “We have no plans to sell micropigs,” Yong Li, a key member of BGI’s animal science program, told MIT Technology Review.

Exactly why the plan got scrapped remains murky. But distracting press coverage, negative public sentiment in China around GMOs, and uncertainty over how China plans to regulate gene-modified animals all seem to have played a role.

Gene editing is a swift way to make surgical changes to animal embryos, often disabling genes or revising DNA to import into a breed traits that are found in other members of the same species. China in particular has raced ahead with the technology, generating long-haired goats and super-muscular dogs in its labs.

Some scientists have also hoped that sales of gene-edited animals, for food or other uses, wouldn’t be regulated. That is because the technology doesn’t involve introducing DNA from one species into another.

But regulators appear cautious. The U.S. FDA said in January that it would consider such animals GMOs, meaning potentially years of paperwork and delays for scientists working on creating hornless cattle and removing diseases from dogs. BGI’s Li says the government in China takes a similar view.

That means plans for designer pets, including dogs cured of genetic problems or pigs with designer fur, appear to be on hold. “This micropig project is still under review, and they are not for commercial sale,” said Siqi Gong, of BGI’s public relations department, adding that “no more detailed information will be disclosed.”

In May, BGI filed to carry out an initial public offering on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, with plans to raise about $250 million. It’s not the company’s first effort to go public. An attempt in 2016 failed after problems arose with the paperwork.

The company, originally named Beijing Genomics Institute, started out as a gene-sequencing specialist whose factory-like lab, and staff of thousands, made news by decoding the DNA of the giant panda and by soliciting DNA from geniuses to search for the genetic roots of IQ (see “Inside China’s Genome Factory”).

It also offered to cheaply sequence human genomes for academics around the globe.

Since then, the company has turned toward applied markets, like prenatal DNA testing, which accounts for half its revenue. BGI will be the first genomics company to go public in China, according to Nature, reflecting the country’s growing role in precision medicine.

To make the mini-pigs, BGI said, its scientists used a technology called TALENs to disable a gene for a growth-hormone receptor in pig embryos. The resulting pigs weighed only around 30 pounds, about as much as a cocker spaniel.

But gene-edited pets don’t appear anywhere in BGI’s 607-page stock offering document. That may be because genetically modified anything has become a sensitive issue in China, owing partly to years of food safety scandals and general distrust of regulatory oversight.

The government wants to change such perceptions, however. In June it tapped Tsinghua University to lead a survey of public attitudes toward GMO foods like transgenic soybeans as a means to determine how far and how fast they can be pushed, especially as the government urges companies to become global innovators in biotechnology.

While the tiny pigs might not be sold as pets, BGI is continuing its research on the animals at a 200-acre facility known as the Ark, located in the tropical coastal highlands east of Shenzhen. Li said the company is expanding the population of animals and testing breeding methods that could make for more robust specimens, including crossing them with wild pigs.

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ThermoReal lets you feel heat, cold and even pain in VR and AR

While some companies are trying to make AR and VR more immersive via haptic feedback, one startup decided to focus on the thermal aspects of the experience. TEGway, a spin-off of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, has created a slim, flexible thermo-electric device (or "TED" in short) that can rapidly heat up or cool down, covering a temperature range of 4 to 40 degrees Celsius (39.2 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit). Better yet, it can simultaneously produce both heat and cold in different zones on the same surface, which enables the simulation of a pinch on one’s skin to produce pain. Now packaged as ThermoReal, the company is hoping hardware makers will integrate this solution into the likes of joysticks, gloves, haptic suits, chairs and more for a new level of immersiveness.

In a nutshell, a TED works by running an electric current through its array of thermoelectric semiconductor, which would create a heat flow between the top and bottom substrate layers and thus making it behave like a heater or cooler. But it’s actually better known for its reverse process: a temperature difference applied to the semiconductor can induce a current flow (this phenomenon is called the Seebeck effect), in which case the TED acts as a power generator and can therefore be used for harvesting waste heat.

In order to optimize the efficiency of capturing heat on non-flat surfaces, TEGway found a way to develop flexible TED. Not only does this have better energy harvesting performance than its ceramic counterpart, the company also found a new use case for it: adding realism to gaming using thermal feedback, hence "ThermoReal." It just so happened that by applying one line of heat in parallel to one line of cold, this creates the sensation of a nasty pinch, so ThermoReal also serves as a weak self-torturing device.

At TEGway’s HTC Vive X demo day booth in Shanghai, I first tried a demo where I held onto a stick partially wrapped with a TED, and the whole apparatus was linked up to a laptop which was running ThermoReal’s showcase software. For the cold simulation, I watched a video of a man slowly dipping himself into icy water, and the deeper he went, the colder the stick became — to the point where I almost felt sorry for the man. To show off its fast thermal response, the stick’s temperature also fluctuated ever so slightly to correspond with the man bobbing his head in and out of the water.

In a more impressive simulation, while I was watching a candle flame being slowly moved towards a hand in the video, I felt an intense heat spot running across my fingertips in the same manner. It was scarily real, so I was very relieved when the candle flame was replaced with an ice cube in the video. Again, the simulation was quite convincing, but I could be biased in that instance.

Then came the pinch: at first I could feel a hot line and a cold line building up in parallel, and within about a second or two it turned into a sharp pain on my palm. It was as if a bug had broken out of the stick to give me a nasty bite. It felt real but definitely not enjoyable, so it didn’t take long before I let go of the stick.

I then proceeded to TEGway’s AR demo. This time there was a smartphone attached to a battery-powered TED stick, with the former running an AR app to recognise two drawings: one showed a house on fire, while the other showed two firefighters blasting water at same scene. With the first picture, the AR app mapped a virtual flame on top of the house while the TED became hot; and with the second drawing, the app showed splashes of water on the house while the TED became cool.

Last but not least, I was given a gamepad with a TED taped around its left and right grips. The gamepad was paired with a smartphone running a mockup jet fighter game, and it’s basically the same deal: the TED instantaneously heated up whenever the aircraft sprayed fire through its exhausts, and it rapidly cooled down when it sprayed mist or whatever it was for deceleration.

All in all, ThermoReal works surprisingly well, so it’s now down to TEGway to convince manufacturers to adapt its solution. On the software side, the company will be licensing software patches to content creators. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but hopefully it won’t be too long before we see this technology featured on consumer devices.

from Engadget