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Building Better Chatbots, Ransomware Fallout, and Skydiving From Drones—The Download, May 16, 2017

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AI that grasps language could make the Web a nicer place.
Facebook has launched a massive project to tie together several threads of conversational machine learning. The hope: huge datasets and open software will help researchers build more articulate AIs that better understand language. Ultimately that will create more convincing chatbots. Indeed, as we report today, software with a stronger grip on language could be put to use fighting harassment online, by not only seeking out problems but also casually chatting with victims.

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As ransomware dust settles, it’s time for big questions.
The WannaCry hack that crippled 200,000 computers is abating, so let's trade panic for reflection. First, who did it? Early signs point to North Korea. Second, who’s to blame for it being possible? We wonder whether the government should stop hoarding software bugs, but debate rages over whether Microsoft and affected parties should shoulder responsibility. Third, how much did it cost? Hackers scored $55,000, but analysis suggests downtime costs could reach $4 billion.

When robots take jobs, small towns may feel it most.
That’s according to a study by MIT’s Iyad Rahwan, who explains to New Scientistthat many of the easiest jobs to automate, such as checkout assistants, are proportional in number to population. Meanwhile, those that are harder to roboticize, such as brain surgeons, cluster in cities. There are outliers: Las Vegas is big but its gambling industry could be automated. Regardless, the finding reinforces the fact that we must work out how to ensure everyone benefits from automation.

Ten Fascinating Things

  1. A city can’t subsist on oil money and skyscrapers alone these days. Here’s how Dubai appears to be investing in technology to secure its future.
  2. A federal judge has told Uber to return stolen files to Waymo and have its lead engineer stop working on lidar technology as part of an unfolding lawsuit.
  3. HTC’s latest smartphone has a neat gimmick feature: a gentle squeeze lets you control it—opening the camera, say, or summoning an AI assistant.
  4. Scientists have identified a way to shut down the power source that helps sperm swim to eggs—which could help create new male contraceptives.
  5. An aside from the ransomware debacle: China was hit so hard because the nation loves bootleg software, even in universities and government.
  6. What’s 100 times thinner than a human hair and detects sound 1,000 times quieter than anything discernible by our ear? This new nano-sensor.
  7. New analysis shows that there were 38,000 more premature deaths globally in 2015 due to nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel vehicles than thought.
  8. The hardware store Lowe’s is giving its staff exoskeletons to help them safely lift heavy items.
  9. A new experimental soft gripper inspired by a gecko’s sticky pads is able to lift 300 grams using a contact area the size of a dime
  10. It is a brave person that flies beneath a huge 28-propeller drone then skydives their way to back to Earth. But that person now exists.

Quote of the Day

"Whenever I look at an appliance, I think: what could be done to it that causes maximum damage and embarrassment?"

— Scott Borg, director of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, argues that hardware engineers have a growing responsibility to design secure devices in the future.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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