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Google introduces educational app Bolo to improve children’s literacy in India

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Google is expanding its suite of apps designed for the Indian market with today’s launch of a new language-learning app aimed at children, called Bolo. The app, which is aimed at elementary school-aged students, leverages technology like Google’s speech recognition and text-to-speech to help kids learn to read in both Hindi and English.

To do so, Bolo offers a catalog of 50 stories in Hindi and 40 in English, sourced from Storyweaver.org.in. The company says it plans to partner with other organizations in the future to expand the story selection.

Included in the app is a reading buddy, “Diya,” who encourages and corrects the child when they read aloud. As kids read, Diya can listen and respond with feedback. (Google notes all personal information remains on-device to protect kids’ privacy.) Diya can also read the text to the child and explain the meaning of English words. As children progress in the app, they’ll be presented with word games that win them in-app rewards and badges to motivate them.

The app works offline — a necessity in large parts of India — where internet access is not always available. Bolo can be used by multiple children, as well, and will adjust itself to their own reading levels.

Google says it had been trialing Bolo across 200 villages in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the help of nonprofit ASER Centre. During testing, it found that 64 percent of children who used the app showed an improvement in reading proficiency in three months’ time.

To run the pilot, 920 children were given the app and 600 were in a control group without the app, Google says.

In addition to improving their proficiency, more students in the group with the app (39 percent) reached the highest level of ASER’s reading assessment than those without it (28 percent), and parents also reported improvements in their children’s reading abilities.

Illiteracy remains a problem in India. The country has one of the largest illiterate populations in the world, where only 74 percent are able to read, according to a study by ASER Centre a few years back. It found then that more than half of students in fifth grade in rural state schools could not read second-grade textbooks in 2014. By 2018, that figure hadn’t changed much — still, only about half can read at a second-grade level, ASER now reports.

While Google today highlights its philanthropic efforts in education, it’s worth noting that Google’s interest in helping improve India’s literacy metrics benefits its bottom line, too. As the country continues to come online to become one of the largest internet markets in the world, literate users capable of using Google’s products like Search, Ads, Gmail and others are of increased importance to Google’s business.

Already, Google has shipped a number of applications designed specifically for Indian internet users, like data-friendly versions of YouTube, Search and other popular services, like payments app Tez (now rebranded Google Pay), a food delivery service, a neighborhood and communities networking app, a blogging app and more.

Today, Bolo is launching across India as an open beta, while Google will continue to work with its nonprofit partners — including Pratham Education Foundation, Room to Read, Saajha and Kaivalya Education Foundation — a Piramal Initiative — to bring the app to more children.

Bolo is available now on the Google Play Store in India, and works on Android smartphones running Android 4.4 (Kit Kat) and higher. The app is currently optimized for native Hindi speakers.

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ChatGPT sets record for fastest-growing user base in history, report says

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Enlarge / A realistic artist’s depiction of an encounter with ChatGPT Plus.

Benj Edwards / Ars Technica / OpenAI

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that AI bot ChatGPT reached an estimated 100 million active monthly users last month, a mere two months from launch, making it the “fastest-growing consumer application in history,” according to a UBS investment bank research note. In comparison, TikTok took nine months to reach 100 million monthly users, and Instagram about 2.5 years, according to UBS researcher Lloyd Walmsley.

“In 20 years following the Internet space, we cannot recall a faster ramp in a consumer internet app,” Reuters quotes Walmsley as writing in the UBS note.

Reuters says the UBS data comes from analytics firm Similar Web, which states that around 13 million unique visitors used ChatGPT every day in January, doubling the number of users in December.

ChatGPT is a conversational large language model (LLM) that can discuss almost any topic at an almost human level. It reads context and answers questions easily, though sometimes not accurately (improving its accuracy is a work in progress). After launching as a free public beta on November 30, the GPT-3 powered AI bot has inspired awe, wonder, and fear in education, computer security, and finance. It’s shaken up the tech industry, prompting a $10 billion investment from Microsoft and causing Google to see its life flash before its eyes.

Also on Wednesday, OpenAI announced ChatGPT Plus, a $20 per month subscription service that will offer users faster response times, preferential access to ChatGPT during peak times, and priority access to new features. It’s an attempt to keep up with the intense demand for ChatGPT that has often seen the site deny users due to overwhelming activity.

Over the past few decades, researchers have noticed that technology adoption rates are quickening, with inventions such as the telephone, television, and the Internet taking shorter periods of time to reach massive numbers of users. Will generative AI tools be next on that list? With the kind of trajectory shown by ChatGPT, it’s entirely possible.

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Netflix stirs fears by using AI-assisted background art in short anime film

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Enlarge / A still image from the short film Dog and Boy,, which uses image synthesis to help generate background artwork.

Netflix

Over the past year, generative AI has kicked off a wave of existential dread over potential machine-fueled job loss not seen since the advent of the industrial revolution. On Tuesday, Netflix reinvigorated that fear when it debuted a short film called Dog and Boy that utilizes AI image synthesis to help generate its background artwork.

Directed by Ryotaro Makihara, the three-minute animated short follows the story of a boy and his robotic dog through cheerful times, although the story soon takes a dramatic turn toward the post-apocalyptic. Along the way, it includes lush backgrounds apparently created as a collaboration between man and machine, credited to “AI (+Human)” in the end credit sequence.

In the announcement tweet, Netflix cited an industry labor shortage as the reason for using the image synthesis technology:

As an experimental effort to help the anime industry, which has a labor shortage, we used image generation technology for the background images of all three-minute video cuts!

Netflix and the production company WIT Studio tapped Japanese AI firm Rinna for assistance with generating the images. They did not announce exactly what type of technology Rinna used to generate the artwork, but the process looks similar to a Stable Diffusion-powered “img2img” process than can take an image and transform it based on a written prompt.

The film is currently available to view for free on YouTube.

Netflix’s official Dog and Boy promotional video.

Almost immediately, Twitter users responded with a torrent of negative replies to Netflix’s tweet announcing the film, such as, “I know a ton of animators looking for work if you guys are struggling to find them (are you looking very hard?).” Several others quoted legendary Studio Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki as saying that AI-powered art “is an insult to life itself.”

In a news release, Netflix expressed its hopes that the new technology would assist with future animation productions (translated by Google Translate): “As a studio, Netflix focuses on supporting creators in the creation of works on a daily basis. As the shortage of human resources in the animation industry is seen as an issue, we hope that this initiative will contribute to the realization of a flexible animation production process through appropriate support for creators using the latest technology.”

It also looks like Makihara also wanted to push boundaries in animation by using AI technology as part of the production process. The Netflix release quoted him as saying, “By combining tools and hand-drawn techniques, we can create something unique to humans … I think that the core of the story is ‘drawing a human being.’ I think that it will be possible to secure and return to its roots, which will eventually strengthen the strengths of Japanese animation and expand its possibilities.”

Labor shortage or not, AI assistance may possibly speed up production times and lower production costs, allowing the creation of more animated content than ever before. But will people be happy about it? That remains to be seen.

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Up to 29,000 unpatched QNAP storage devices are sitting ducks to ransomware

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As many as 29,000 network storage devices manufactured by Taiwan-based QNAP are vulnerable to hacks that are easy to carry out and give unauthenticated users on the Internet complete control, a security firm has warned.

The vulnerability, which carries a severity rating of 9.8 out of a possible 10, came to light on Monday, when QNAP issued a patch and urged users to install it. Tracked as CVE-2022-27596, the vulnerability makes it possible for remote hackers to perform a SQL injection, a type of attack that targets web applications that use the Structured Query Language. SQL injection vulnerabilities are exploited by entering specially crafted characters or scripts into the search fields, login fields, or URLs of a buggy website. The injections allow for the modifying, stealing, or deleting of data or the gaining of administrative control over the systems running the vulnerable apps.

QNAP’s advisory on Monday said that network-attached storage devices running QTS versions before 5.0.1.2234 and QuTS Hero versions prior to h5.0.1.2248 were vulnerable. The post also provided instructions for updating to the patched versions.

On Tuesday, security firm Censys reported that data collected from network scan searches showed that as many as 29,000 QNAP devices may not have been patched against CVE-2022-27596. Researchers found that of the 30,520 Internet-connected devices showing what version they were running, only 557, or about 2 percent, were patched. In all, Censys said it detected 67,415 QNAP devices. The 29,000 figure was estimated by applying the 2 percent patch rate to the total number of devices.

“Given that the Deadbolt ransomware is geared to target QNAP NAS devices specifically, it’s very likely that if an exploit is made public, the same criminals will use it to spread the same ransomware again,” Censys researchers wrote. “If the exploit is published and weaponized, it could spell trouble to thousands of QNAP users.”

In an email, a Censys representative said that as of Wednesday, researchers found 30,475 QNAP devices that showed their version numbers (45 fewer than on Tuesday), and that of those, 29,923 are running versions that are vulnerable to CVE-2022-27596.

The mention of Deadbolt refers to a series of hack campaigns over the past year that exploited earlier vulnerabilities in QNAP devices to infect them with ransomware that uses that name. One of the most recent campaign waves occurred in September and exploited CVE-2022-27593, a vulnerability in devices that use a proprietary feature known as Photo Station. The vulnerability was classified as an Externally Controlled Reference to a Resource in Another Sphere.

Tuesday’s Censys report said that devices vulnerable to CVE-2022-27596 were most common in the US, followed by Italy and Taiwan.

Censys also provided the following breakdown:

Country Total Hosts Non-Vulnerable Hosts Vulnerable Hosts
United States 3,271 122 3,149
Italy 3,239 39 3,200
Taiwan 1,951 9 1,942
Germany 1,901 20 1,881
Japan 1,748 34 1,714
France 1,527 69 1,458
Hong Kong 1,425 3 1,422
South Korea 1,313 2 1,311
United Kingdom 1,167 10 1,157
Poland 1,001 17 984

In the past, QNAP has also recommended that users follow all of these steps to lower the chances of getting hacked:

  1. Disable the port forwarding function on the router.
  2. Set up myQNAPcloud on the NAS to enable secure remote access and prevent exposure to the Internet.
  3. Update the NAS firmware to the latest version.
  4. Update all applications on the NAS to their latest versions.
  5. Apply strong passwords for all user accounts on the NAS.
  6. Take snapshots and back up regularly to protect your data.

As reported by Bleeping Computer, QNAP devices over the years have been successfully hacked and infected with other ransomware strains, including Muhstik, eCh0raix/QNAPCrypt, QSnatch, Agelocker, Qlocker, DeadBolt, and Checkmate. Users of these devices should take action now.

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