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Facebook launches petition feature, its next battlefield – TechCrunch

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Gather a mob and Facebook will now let you make political demands. Tomorrow Facebook will encounter a slew of fresh complexities with the launch of Community Actions, its News Feed petition feature. Community Actions could unite neighbors to request change from their local and national elected officials and government agencies. But it could also provide vocal interest groups a bully pulpit from which to pressure politicians and bureaucrats with their fringe agendas.

Community Actions embodies the central challenge facing Facebook. Every tool it designs for positive expression and connectivity can be subverted for polarization and misinformation. Facebook’s membership has swelled into such a ripe target for exploitation that it draws out the worst of humanity. You can imagine misuses like “Crack down on [minority group]” that are offensive or even dangerous but some see as legitimate. The question is whether Facebook puts in the forethought and aftercare to safeguard its new tools with proper policy and moderation. Otherwise each new feature is another liability.

Community Actions start to roll out to the US tomorrow after several weeks of testing in a couple of markets. Users can add a title, description, and image to their Community Action, and tag relevant government agencies and officials who’ll be notified. The goal is to make the Community Action go viral and get people to hit the “Support” button. Community Actions have their own discussion feed where people can leave comments, create fundraisers, and organize Facebook Events or Call Your Rep campaigns. Facebook displays the numbers of supporters behind a Community Action, but you’ll only be able to see the names of those you’re friends with or that are Pages or public figures.

Facebook is purposefully trying to focus Community Actions to be more narrowly concentrated on spurring government action than just any random cause. That means it won’t immediately replace Change.org petitions that can range from the civilian to the absurd. But one-click Support straight from the News Feed could massively reduce the friction to signing up, and thereby attract organizations and individuals seeking to maximize the size of their mob.

You can check out some examples here of Community Actions here like a non-profit Colorado Rising calling for the governor to put a moratorium on oil and gas drilling, citizens asking the a Florida’s mayor and state officials to build a performing arts center, and a Philadelphia neighborhood association requesting that the city put in crosswalks by the library. I fully expect one of the first big Community Actions will be the social network’s users asking Senators to shut down Facebook or depose Mark Zuckerberg.

The launch follows other civic-minded Facebook features like its Town Hall and Candidate Info for assessing politicians, Community Help for finding assistance after a disaster, and local news digest Today In. A Facebook spokesperson who gave us the first look at Community Actions provided this statement:

“Building informed and civically engaged communities is at the core of Facebook’s mission. Every day, people come together on Facebook to advocate for causes they care about, including by contacting their elected officials, launching a fundraiser, or starting a group. Through these and other tools, we have seen people marshal support for and get results on issues that matter to them. Community Action is another way for people to advocate for changes in their communities and partner with elected officials and government agencies on solutions.”

The question will be where Facebook’s moderators draw the line on what’s appropriate as a Community Action, and the ensuing calls of bias that line will trigger. Facebook is employing a combination of user flagging, proactive algorithmic detection, and human enforcers to manage the feature. But what the left might call harassment, the right might call free expression. If Facebook allows controversial Community Actions to persist, it could be viewed as complicit with their campaigns, but could be criticized for censorship if it takes one down. Like fake news and trending topics, the feature could become the social network’s latest can of worms.

Facebook is trying to prioritize local Actions where community members have a real stake. It lets user display “constituent” badges so their elected officials know they aren’t just a distant rabble-rouser. It’s why Facebook will not allow President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence to be tagged in Community Actions. But you’re free to tag all your state representatives demanding nude parks, apparently.

Another issue is how people can stand up against a Community Action. Only those who Support one may join in its discussion feed. That might lead trolls to falsely pledge their backing just to stir up trouble in the comments. Otherwise, Facebook tells me users will have to share a Community Action to their own feed with a message of disapproval, or launch their own in protest. My concern is that an agitated but niche group could drive a sense of false equivocacy by using Facebook Groups or message threads to make it look like there’s as much or more support for a vulgar cause or against of a just one. A politician could be backed into a corner and forced to acknowledge radicals or bad-faith actors lest they look negligent

While Facebook’s spokesperson says initial tests didn’t surface many troubles, the company is trying to balance safety with efficiency and it will consider how to evolve the feature in response to emergent behaviors. The trouble is that open access draws out the trolls and grifters seeking to fragment society. Facebook will have to assume the thorny responsibility of shepherding the product towards righteousness and defining what that even means. If it succeeds, there’s an amazing opportunity here for citizens to band together to exert consensus upon government. A chorus of voices carries much further than a single cry.

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iPhone 14 – Things we know so far

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Rumors about the iPhone 14 started popping up online before the iPhone 13 was announced — and though we don’t yet know what Apple has planned, there’s enough info floating around to speculate. The company is rumored to be working on a foldable iPhone, at least based on certain patents, but there’s no guarantee a folding model is in the pipeline at this time. In all likeliness, the next iteration of the iPhone will be called the iPhone 14 and it’ll stick to the trusted form factor from previous years.

Based on the rumors coming in, the iPhone 14 is likely to ditch the notch (which is thinner on the iPhone 13 lineup) and it may not have a camera bump on the rear. These are the two most interesting assumptions amid the other expectations that should pique your interest.

iPhone 14 display and body

Jon Prosser

The iPhone 14 is likely to share the same flat-edged design as the iPhone 13 with some changes in the display and body. The iPhone 13 brought a 120Hz ProMotion display to the iPhone Pro variants and rumors suggest that all four iPhone 14 models may come with this display tech. This isn’t guaranteed, however, as The Elec reported that ProMotion will be a Pro model exclusive and the standard iPhone 14 could feature an LTPS OLED display without the 120Hz ProMotion option.

There is a twist to the possible models the iPhone 14 could arrive in, however. Reportedly, the smaller 5.4-inch iPhone 13 mini will not have a successor in 2022; Apple may leave this size out of the equation and focus on larger-screen options. Instead of the mini, Apple may release the iPhone 14 Max with a 6.7-inch display – same as that of the iPhone 13 Pro Max – delivering a bigger screen model with a possibly larger battery, as well.

This means there would be four models in the iPhone 14 lineup but without the smaller screen option available in the iPhone 12 and 13 product lines. Based on the leaks, the upcoming product line may feature a 6.1-inch iPhone 14 and 14 Pro, as well as a larger 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Max and 14 Pro Max.

When it comes to the body design, meanwhile, prominent leaker Jon Prosser believes Apple will eliminate the camera bulge on the back of the iPhone 14 by using a thicker chassis. Some allegedly leaked images of the iPhone 14 Pro show a design resemblance to the iPhone 4 right from its front and back to the flat sides and the circular volume buttons.

Additionally, rumors also claim the iPhone 14 will feature a titanium alloy chassis, including a JP Morgan Chase report, as noted by Patently Apple. Titanium, which is stronger and more scratch-resistant than aluminum, has already been introduced on the Apple Watch and it may finally arrive on the iPhone line next year.

The notchless design

iPhone 14

Jon Prosser

If there is one thing that Apple fans want the iPhone to do away with, it’s the notch. The iPhone 13 was rumored to ditch this annoying design choice, but ultimately it remained — though its overall size was trimmed a bit from previous models.

With the launch of the iPhone 14, Apple is likely to herald the future of notch-less design, at least with the Pro models. Removal of the notch doesn’t mean a change in functionality, mind. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes Apple will ditch the notch and replace it with a hole-punch selfie camera instead.

The facial scanning tech, meanwhile, will likely find a new home. The Face ID on iPhone 14, at least according to the rumors, will be placed under the display. Apple is believed to be working on the possibility of under-display Face ID, a claim that has been substantiated by multiple analysts, including Mark Gurman of Bloomberg.

iPhone 14 camera

iPhone 14

Jon Prosser

A new iPhone is always launched with better camera technology and the iPhone 14 isn’t likely to be an exception. This model will reportedly feature a tweaked appearance with a bump-free rear camera model — it’ll be built flush into the glass body, the leaks allege.

Analyst Kuo believes the iPhone 14 Pro models could beef up the main camera to 48-megapixel. Also rumored is the possibility of a periscope zoom lens and 8K video recording. From how the other OEMs are seeing the camera space, Apple could join the league with a quad-camera for the Pro models and a triple camera on the standard iPhone 14 models.

A powerful chip

iPhone

Each new iPhone comes with a more powerful and efficient processor. With that in mind, the A16 Bionic chipset is expected to power the iPhone 14. This will reportedly be built either on a 3nm or 4nm process by TSMC. Initially, it was believed that the chip would be based on a 3nm process, but there’s reason to believe that plan may have changed.

TSMC has talked about a shortage of 3nm chips, which means the iPhone 14 could feature a chip built on the 4nm process. This would offer certain advantages over the 5nm A15 chip in the iPhone 13 (via Tom’s Guide).

Other notable possibilities

iOS 15.1

Apple

The iPhone 12 made 5G on smartphones more acceptable. With the iPhone 13, it was all about network speed. Consumers have even bigger expectations for the iPhone 14. Apple could take on the challenge by utilizing the first 10-gigabit 5G modem – Snapdragon X65 – to offer improvements in both speed and connectivity.

Though the European Union proposes mandatory USB-C on all devices – including iPhones – Apple is likely to continue without it. Instead, rumors indicate the company may eliminate the iPhone’s Lightning port in favor of MagSafe charging to get rid of the port entirely.

With user safety in mind, Apple is also reportedly working on a crash detection feature for the iPhone 14. This alleged feature would detect an accident using the phone’s sensors and accelerometer, then instantly dial emergency services for help (via WSJ).

Final thoughts

Apple made some hearts skip a beat when it launched the new MacBook Pro models at almost twice the cost of their predecessors. Something similar is likely not in the works for the new iPhone, but things could change by the time the iPhone 14 is actually launched. The iPhone 14 lineup is expected to launch in September 2022 based on Apple’s history, but that may depend heavily on the wider industry’s status at that time and whether chip shortages remain an issue.

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Microsoft’s DNA storage research just hit a huge milestone

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Microsoft has detailed a major breakthrough in its work on synthetic DNA storage, specifically on improving data throughput. The proof-of-concept is the subject of a new study from Microsoft Research and a team at the University of Washington’s Molecular Information Systems Laboratory (MISL), paving the way for a future in which the world’s data is stored on lab-made DNA, not tapes and hard drives.

Billion Photos/Shutterstock

Old tech still dominates

Microsoft has spent years working on synthetic DNA data storage, a promising technology that aims to address growing storage demands. The company paints an elaborate, if not mind-boggling, picture centered around present-day and future data needs — the huge quantity of information that already exists, the amount produced every day, and growth predictions over the next two years.

Assuming those predictions are accurate, there will be approximately 8.9 zettabytes of data in storage around the world by 2024, according to IDC. That works out to around 9 million petabytes of data, which is still more than the average person can visualize. Microsoft translates that figure into a more relatable context: a single zettabyte would be equivalent to installing Windows 11 on more than 15 billion computers.

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Multiple types of data storage are commonly used, and though they seem positively archaic at this point, tape cartridges remain the most appealing commercial option due to their density (via IBM).

Magnetic tape has been around for several decades and offers some distinct benefits for companies that produce vast amounts of data: they help keep information secured away from hackers and can pack hundreds of terabytes of data in a small form factor. IBM says one tape cartridge utilizing its latest tech has a 580TB capacity, which would require more than three-quarters of a million CDs to store.

Using tape cartridges for data archival is a practice that will stick around for years, but there’s strong demand for a modern alternative that offers even greater density while eliminating many of the old tech’s problems. That, Microsoft says, is where synthetic DNA data storage comes in.

Why DNA?

Tape cartridges need to be rewritten every three or so decades at most, which is a short period of time when it comes to long-term data archiving. Synthetic DNA, on the other hand, is far more durable, Microsoft says, with the potential to preserve data for thousands of years. On top of that, synthetic DNA will likely drastically reduce the environmental impact of data centers, with Microsoft citing evidence that indicates lower water and energy use, as well as decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

Synthetic DNA data storage can only be a viable option if certain big hurdles are addressed, however. The technology is currently limited by low data throughput, specifically the rate at which data can be written. This, Microsoft notes, is a big stumbling block to large-scale synthetic DNA storage, not to mention the costs associated with the tech at this.

DNA storage graph

Image: Microsoft Research

The newly announced breakthrough revolves around throughput, presenting a proof-of-concept molecular controller. The researchers describe this innovation as a “tiny DNA storage writing mechanism on a chip,” which drastically improves how tightly DNA-synthesis spots are packed. The result is proof that higher levels of writing throughput are possible.

At its core, synthetic DNA storage involves moving data back and forth from molecules to bits. Microsoft explains that two things are critical for making DNA a viable commercial-scale storage option:

The first requires translating digital bits (ones and zeros) into strands of synthetic DNA representing these bits with encoding software and a DNA synthesizer. The second is to read and decode the information back into bits to recover that information into digital form again with a DNA sequencer and decoding software.

The company goes into extensive details about the new development and the wider processes involved in synthetic DNA storage in a new blog post. Storing data in DNA requires the information (in the form of digital bits) to be embedded in a DNA sequence’s A/C/T/G bases. The DNA chain is then synthesized, which typically involves a photochemical process.

Microsoft goes on to explain that electrochemical DNA synthesis side-steps some of the limitations inherent to photochemistry; it involves an array, electrodes, and cathodes. The new work details a synthesis method that successfully increased the rate at which the data was written in synthetic DNA, therefore boosting the throughput and, by proxy, decreasing the costs associated with synthesizing the DNA.

Though synthetic DNA storage isn’t yet ready to replace magnetic tape, Microsoft sees this latest development as a key step toward that reality. In its blog post detailing the study, Microsoft explained:

A natural next step is to embed digital logic in the chip to allow individual control of millions of electrode spots to write kilobytes per second of data in DNA. From there, we foresee the technology reaching arrays containing billions of electrodes capable of storing megabytes per second of data in DNA. This will bring DNA data storage performance and cost significantly closer to tape.

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Apple Watch Series 7 Review

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Nobody can deny that the Apple Watch won the smartwatch wars, and the latest Apple Watch Series 7 only extends that lead. A collection of endearing enhancements rather than the all-out reinvention that some expected, 2021’s version blends a bigger display with the improvements of watchOS 8, for a result that, though predictable, is no less impressive for it.

Both watch and display are slightly larger, though the former’s mild growth is not something you’re going to notice day to day. The latter, though, is more obvious. The 41mm (from $399) and 45mm (from $429) versions have a screen that’s nearly 20-percent bigger than on the previous-generation Apple Watch. It’s still a beautiful OLED panel, crisp and easy to read, and Apple says the always-on mode – when the smartwatch is in standby rather than raised up – is brighter than before. Just how much brighter, a new algorithm decides.

Honestly, I’m not sure the Apple Watch display needed to be any bigger. Not for my (corrected) eyesight, anyway, though I’ll concede that if you typically wear reading glasses then the larger fonts of the Series 7 probably are an improvement. Still, it’s worth noting that you’ve been able to increase font size and weight in watchOS for some time now.

What’s turned out to make a bigger difference is, quite literally, the edge cases. The Apple Watch’s screen now continues under the curved sides of its cover glass; viewed off-angle, it gives a fascinating three-dimensional effect, akin to stacked physical complications on a mechanical watch face.

Unless you’re the sort of – brave – person who wears two watches at once, one on each wrist, most of us make a singular decision about what graces their arm. I have a few “nice” mechanical watches already, but I choose to wear the Apple Watch for a user-experience the others can’t deliver. The trade-off is that the digital watch, with its accommodations to functionality, has never quite felt like a piece of charming jewelry in the same way that a traditional timepiece might.

Call me crazy, but the way the Apple Watch Series 7’s screen melds so interestingly into the curvature of the glass feels like a nod back to one of the key lures of old-school watches. Something that’s not necessarily a functional decision, but which elevates the smartwatch nonetheless. No, the dedicated Rolex or IWC owner may still not find that enough to make the switch, but it’s enough to have caught my eye when I glance down at my angled wrist.

The rest of the hardware feels very familiar. Apple says the front crystal is tougher than before, and the whole watch now has IP6X certification for dust resistance along with WR50 water resistance. It means you can take it swimming and wear it without concern on the beach, though I’d still – as with any watch – be cautious about banging it against hard objects.

There are aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium cases to choose from, in a variety of colors depending on the metal. Factor in the growing array of Apple’s own and third-party bands, and you can feasible take your Apple Watch from the gym to the office to a fancy wedding without it looking out of place. I’m rather partial to the blue aluminum of my review unit, though the green version is striking, too.

Battery life is about the same – 18 hours of typical use – but there’s a new charger included in the box. That promises up to 33-percent speedier recharging, though only with the Series 7, since it also relies on changes Apple made inside the watch itself. We’re still not quite at supercharge levels yet, but it did trim down a top-up when I forgot to recharge the Apple Watch overnight as I normally would. If you’re in the habit of tracking sleep with the wearable then the improvements are likely even more useful; in the time it would take to have a leisurely shower, you could more than likely add sufficient juice for the rest of the day.

If there’s one place the larger screen pays dividends, it’s Apple’s addition of an on-screen QWERTY keyboard to watchOS. Until now, Siri and voice-to-text dictation was the primary text input method for Apple Watch, bar a handful of canned responses to messages and the like. It works okay, but I doubt I’m the only person who feels self-conscious talking into their watch like a wannabe Dick Tracy. Or, you could scribble a letter at a time, a quieter if more time-consuming system.

The on-screen keyboard offers another approach. It uses the same autocorrect as on iPhone, along with auto-complete, to minimize the amount of tapping and swiping you’ll need to do. You can peck at each letter, or drag your fingertip around and let the mighty algorithm do its decoding. Most of the time, I’ve found, it’s been accurate.

You’re not going to be sending lengthy emails or writing term papers this way, but it’s another welcome step toward the Apple Watch feeling like a standalone device in its own right, rather than an adjunct to the iPhone. It’s worth noting that only the Series 7 gets the QWERTY keyboard, one of a handful of watchOS 8 features exclusive to the newer, larger model.

One of the reasons I wear an Apple Watch daily is fitness tracking. I’m not a fan of working out, and so watchOS’ needling reminders to close my move, stand, and exercise rings are one of those things that I hate-appreciate. The array of sensors is not really changed from last year’s watch: blood oxygen saturation, which is very dependent on where the Apple Watch is positioned on your wrist; heart rate tracking; ECG for signs of irregular heart rhythm; and an always-on altimeter that tracks height. Tempting as it is to think of the Apple Watch as a mini doctor on your wrist, though, it’s not a medical device.

Improvements in watchOS have made tracking cycling more accurate, Apple says, as well as better figuring out just how much effort you’re actually putting in if you’ve got an e-bike. Fall detection should handle falls from while cycling more intelligently, too. Since I’m usually clipped into a Peloton instead, however, I’ve not noticed those improvements in daily life.

Similarly, if I had one of the latest BMW’s with their support for digital key, I could use the Apple Watch Series 7 and its U1 chip to unlock the car when I got close. Sadly I do not, though Apple does say it’s working with other automakers on implementing the technology. Given the rate of change of the car industry versus the tech world, mind, you could probably wait for the Apple Watch Series 8 or 9 before there’s a much bigger choice in vehicles.

Attempting to aid your patience there is the new Mindfulness app. It absorbs the functionality of the old Breathe app – which would periodically, infuriatingly, remind you to breathe – and adds a Reflect mode, which encourages 1-5 minutes of meditation. I could probably do with taking time out for that as much as any other middle-aged man who spends too much of the day online, but there’s something about the Apple Watch’s prompts that pumps my blood pressure instead. You can, of course, turn those notifications off.

Apple Watch Series 7 Verdict

On the one hand, the Apple Watch Series 7 is another incremental upgrade. If you already have a Series 6 on your wrist, or even a Series 5, you could realistically sit 2021’s version out and simply upgrade watchOS for many of the newer improvements. All the same, it’s a testament to just how good the Apple Watch was, and is, that Apple hasn’t really needed to reinvent the wheel in order to maintain its lead. I know a fair few people who stick with their iPhone predominantly because they don’t want to give up their Apple Watch, and I can’t say I blame them.

If you’re in that group, then the new watchOS is probably the best place to start. Those yet to dive into Apple Watch ownership, however, should begin their journey here. Apple may not have made vast changes to this generation of wearable, but the Apple Watch is still the best smartwatch, and the Apple Watch Series 7 is the best of the best.

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