Top Stories for the Week of April 11, 2018

  • Episode 551
  • April 11, 2018
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Here are the stories we're following for the week of Wednesday April 11, 2018

IBM just unveiled the “world’s smallest computer.”

If you thought the Raspberry Pi was a small computer, this will blow your mind: IBM just unveiled the “world’s smallest computer,” and it measures just 1mm by 1mm.

IBM hopes to pioneer the technologies “that could change our lives in the next five years.”

Therefore, IBM is now building the world’s smallest computer. Details are still sparse, but there’s enough info to get excited about.

The computer is 1mm x 1mm in size, smaller than a grain of rock salt, and apparently costs less than ten cents to manufacture.

Let's put that into context. Be honest—you thought it was tiny when you saw this picture—but what you need to realize is that this picture is actually of a chip that holds 64 motherboards. On each of those motherboards there are two of these tiny computers from IBM. Yes, pictured here are 128 of the computers.

Here’s an actual photo of the computer on a pile of salt to give you some scale.

The last “world’s smallest computer” to make a big splash was the Michigan Micro Mote in 2015, which was twice the size of this computer.

Feature-wise, the computer has a processor with “several hundred thousand” transistors, SRAM memory, a photo-voltaic cell for power, and a communications unit that uses an LED and a photo-detector to talk with the outside world.

IBM claims the computer has the power of an x86 chip from 1990. That puts it exactly on the edge of enough power to run the original Doom.

IBM’s actual application for this chip seems mostly centered on supply chain management and counterfeit protection—enter the “blockchain” buzz. The chip is just one of many “crypto-anchors” that IBM is developing for this purpose.

And now, we wait for more details on IBM’s plans for this, the tiniest of computers.


Sent to us by: Peter Karvai

The mind-reading AlterEgo headset interacts with Alexa . . . telephathically?

The mind-reading AlterEgo headset communicates with Alexa . . . through telepathy?

Speaking to voice assistants, no matter how helpful they can be, is still not something the majority of us do on a daily basis. Especially in public. But what if you could “speak” to a voice assistant only by thinking about the words you want to say? Considerably less embarrassing, right? That’s the basic concept behind the AlterEgo, a prototype mind-reading wearable designed by researchers at MIT.

How it works is extremely clever. OK, it doesn’t quite read your mind, but instead it reads something called subvocalization. This is the name given to tiny, almost imperceptible neurological and muscular movements made when we say words to ourselves, inside our head. Sixteen electrodes on the prototype AlterEgo headset sense these changes, and match the signals to data inside a special neural network, and eventually activate whatever task was requested.

The headset also has bone-conducting speakers—which use your skull to transmit sound into your inner ear, rather than actually putting an earbud in the canal—so you remain aware of the outside world while wearing it. At the moment the headset has 16 electrodes, and wraps around the side of the face, with a connection on the jaw and the back of the neck. However, the team has seen similar results from a model with only four electrodes; meaning it could easily become much smaller.

So far the team has conducted various experiments, including playing a game of chess while “telling” the opponent’s moves to the wearable computer, and getting potential return moves spoken back. Cheating, yes; but a clear demonstration of what it can do. Additionally, the device can do simple math.

Lead developer on the project, Arnav Kapur, said the idea behind AlterEgo was to build an internal computing platform that “feels like an internal extension of our own cognition.” Thesis adviser Pattie Maes added the headset could help us all benefit from smartphones and the internet, without being closed off from the world by looking down at a screen, or wearing earbuds.

Thad Starner, a Georgia Tech professor, pointed out how helpful “silent speech” would be in situations where voices can’t be heard—people who work in noisy environments for example—and for those, possibly including military personnel, who rely on hand gestures to communicate when sound would give away their position—or even for people who don’t have the ability to speak at all.

Currently the AlterEgo is a prototype used for research, and not available to buy; but it’s possible we could see the technology being investigated here in next-generation devices that we’ll use as regularly as we do smartphones today.


Sent to us by: Robbie Ferguson

The Linux "beep" command can be exploited.

Retro programmers may need to reconsider using the Linux beep command as an activity or progress alert.

One of the silliest bugs on record emerged late last week, when Debian project leader Chris Lamb took to the distro's security to post an advisory that the little utility had a local privilege escalation vulnerability.

The utility lets either a command line user control a PC's speaker, or—more usefully—a program can pipe the command out to the command line to tell the user something's happened.

If, of course, their machines still have a beeper-speaker; which is increasingly rare and raises the question as to why the utility still exists. Since beep isn't even installed by default, it's not hard to see why the issue went un-noticed.

German security researcher and journalist, Hanno Böck, alerted the OSS-sec list to further issues on Sunday.

Böck listed an information disclosure bug in which beep “opens arbitrary files for write as root, bypassing file permissions.”

Debian's Rhonda D'Vine wrote that this reveals the existence of files normally hidden from the user, and said: “If a file has side effects when opened, beep allows the calling user to trigger those side effects even if they are not authorised to do so. Jakub Wilk pointed out that named pipes and tape devices are affected.”

Böck's note also linked to an integer overflow and a bug in the patch that’s supposed to fix the original issue.

As a result, Böck wrote, beep should probably be discarded: it needs a proper code review, and there isn’t much point to the effort “for a tool talking to the PC speaker, which doesn't exist in most modern systems anyway.”


Sent to us by: Roy W. Nash

Apple plans to replace Intel chips and will use its own custom Mac chips beginning in 2020.

Apple plans to replace Intel chips and will use its own custom Mac chips beginning in 2020.

The new plan is part of an initiative named “Kalamata,” which is expected to help all Apple devices, including Macs, iPhones, and iPads, work more seamlessly together. The Kalamata initiative will allow Apple’s design and engineering teams to have a much greater control over the power and features they wish to implement. Apple already designs its own ARM-based chips that it uses in iPhones, iPads, Watches and Apple TV devices.

Moving away from Intel chips will allow Apple to freely release new Mac models without having to wait on new Intel chips. The company will also be able to produce new systems without having to depend on when Intel would be able to put new chips into production.

The Mac chip plans are said to be in the early stages of development and the transition to Apple chips in hardware is likely to begin with laptops such as the 12-inch MacBook as early as 2020.


Sent to us by: Robbie Ferguson


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