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SpaceX to offer Starlink public beta in six months, Musk says

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Enlarge / SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the Satellite 2020 Conference in Washington, DC, on Monday, March 9, 2020.

SpaceX will start testing Starlink broadband service in a private beta in about three months and make it available in a public beta about six months from now, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter yesterday. The first beta trials will occur in high latitudes, he wrote.

When asked by a Twitter user if Germany counts as a high-latitude area for purposes of the beta trial, Musk answered “yes.” Parts of the US would presumably be included in beta trials, given that SpaceX has said it plans to make Starlink service available in parts of the US this year.

The private beta would “almost certainly be reserved for SpaceX and Tesla employees and their families,” according to a Teslarati article. “Just like Tesla currently trials early software builds on employee cars, those customers would serve as much more regimented guinea pigs, likely offering detailed feedback throughout their trial of Starlink Internet.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX launched another 60 Starlink satellites yesterday. The launch, as Musk noted, gives SpaceX “420 operational Starlink satellites.”

SpaceX cuts orbital altitude in half

Meanwhile, SpaceX has asked for permission to operate thousands of Starlink satellites at much lower altitudes than originally planned, saying the change will result in better broadband coverage and less orbital debris.

SpaceX in 2018 got Federal Communications Commission approval to launch up to 4,425 low-Earth-orbit satellites at several different altitudes between 1,110km to 1,325km. In April 2019, SpaceX won FCC approval for a license modification to cut the orbital altitude in half for 1,584 of those satellites.

Now, SpaceX wants the FCC’s OK for another license change that would lower the altitude for the rest of the satellites and slightly reduce the total number. SpaceX told the FCC in a filing last week:

Specifically, SpaceX seeks to relocate 2,824 satellites that were previously authorized for operation at altitudes ranging from 1,100km to 1,330km to new altitudes ranging from 540km to 570km. Because of the increased atmospheric drag at this lower altitude, this relocation will significantly enhance space safety by ensuring that any orbital debris will quickly re-enter and demise in the atmosphere. And because of its closer proximity to consumers on Earth, this modification will allow SpaceX’s system to provide low-latency broadband to unserved and underserved Americans that is on par with service previously only available in urban areas. Finally, this modification will improve service to customers—including Federal users—in otherwise impossible to reach polar areas.

SpaceX now plans 4,408 satellites instead of the original 4,425. This number does not include an additional 7,518 broadband satellites that would operate at even lower altitudes from 335km to 346km. SpaceX has also floated plans for another 30,000 satellites, but it’s not clear how likely that is to happen.

Last month, SpaceX received FCC approval to deploy up to 1 million user terminals in the US.

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OpenAI invites everyone to test new AI-powered chatbot—with amusing results

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Enlarge / An AI-generated image of a chatbot exploding forth from squiggly radial lines, as was foretold by the prompt.

Benj Edwards / Ars Technica

On Wednesday, OpenAI announced ChatGPT, a dialogue-based AI chat interface for its GPT-3 family of large language models. It’s currently free to use with an OpenAI account during a testing phase. Unlike the GPT-3 model found in OpenAI’s Playground and API, ChatGPT provides a user-friendly conversational interface and is designed to strongly limit potentially harmful output.

“The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests,” writes OpenAI on its announcement blog page.

So far, people have been putting ChatGPT through its paces, finding a wide variety of potential uses while also exploring its vulnerabilities. It can write poetry, correct coding mistakes with detailed examples, generate AI art prompts, write brand-new code, expound on the philosophical classification of a hot dog as a sandwich, and explain the worst-case time complexity of the bubble sort algorithm… in the style of a “fast-talkin’ wise guy from a 1940’s gangster movie.”

ChatGPT also refuses to answer many potentially harmful questions (related to topics such as hate speech, violent content, or how to build a bomb) on the grounds that the answers would go against its “programming and purpose.” OpenAI has achieved this through both a special prompt it prepends to all input and by use of a technique called Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF), which can fine-tune an AI model based on how humans rate its generated responses.

Reining in the offensive proclivities of large language models is one of the key problems that has limited their potential market usefulness, and OpenAI sees ChatGPT as a significant iterative step in the direction of providing a safe AI model for everyone.

And yet, unsurprisingly, people have already figured out how to circumvent some of ChatGPT’s built-in content filters using quasi-social engineering attacks, such as asking the AI to frame a restricted output as a pretend scenario (or even as a poem). ChatGPT also appears to be vulnerable to prompt-injection attacks, which we broke a story about in September.

Like GPT-3, its dialogue-based cousin is also very good at completely making stuff up in an authoritative-sounding way, such as a book that doesn’t exist, including details about its content. This represents another key problem with large language models as they exist today: If they can breathlessly make up convincing information whole cloth, how can you trust any of their output?

Still, as people have noticed, ChatGPT’s output quality seems to represent a notable improvement over previous GPT-3 models, including the new text-davinci-003 model we wrote about on Tuesday. OpenAI itself says that ChatGPT is part of the “GPT 3.5” series of models that was trained on “a blend of text and code from before Q4 2021.”

Meanwhile, rumors of GPT-4 continue to swirl. If today’s ChatGPT model represents the culmination of OpenAI’s GPT-3 training work in 2021, it will be interesting to see what GPT-related innovations the firm has been working on over these past 12 months.

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Hive Social turns off servers after researchers warn hackers can access all data

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Hive Social

Hive Social, a social media platform that has seen meteoric growth since Elon Musk took over Twitter, abruptly shut down its service on Wednesday after a security advisory warned the site was riddled with vulnerabilities that exposed all data stored in user accounts.

“The issues we reported allow any attacker to access all data, including private posts, private messages, shared media and even deleted direct messages,” the advisory, published on Wednesday by Berlin-based security collective Zerforschung, claimed. “This also includes private email addresses and phone numbers entered during login.”

The post went on to say that after the researchers privately reported the vulnerabilities last Saturday, many of the flaws they reported remained unpatched. They headlined their post “Warning: do not use Hive Social.”

Hive Social responded by pulling down its entire service.

“The Hive team has become aware of security issues that affect the stability of our application and the safety of our users,” company officials wrote. “Fixing these issues will require temporarily turning off our servers for a couple of days while we fix this for a better and safer experience.”

The Zerforschung post said the vulnerabilities were so serious that they were withholding technical details to prevent the active exploitation of them by malicious hackers.

The series of events raised questions about why Hive Social waited some 72 hours to shut down its site after receiving notification users’ most private data was free for the taking. Zerforschung said that after multiple communications, Hive Social claimed to have fixed all issues when that was clearly not the case. The social media site said it never claimed the vulnerabilities were fixed.

Hive Social’s user base reportedly doubled in the last few weeks, going from about 1 million to 2 million as of last week, according to Business Insider. Despite the massive growth, the social media site continued to be staffed by just two people, neither of whom had much of a background in security.

Representatives of both Hive Social and Zerforschung didn’t respond to questions sent by email.

While there are no reports that the vulnerabilities were actively exploited, there’s no way at the moment to rule that out. Anyone with a Hive Social account should be prepared for the possibility that the data they provided during sign up, as well as private messages, whether deleted or not, have been obtained.

The lesson from this event further supports advice Ars gave on Tuesday concerning Mastodon, another social media site that has also seen skyrocketing user numbers in the aftermath of the Twitter takeover by Musk. Put nothing on the site that you wouldn’t mind being public. Confidential information should never be put in direct messages or any other place. Here’s hoping Hive Social users already knew that.

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My secret life as an 11-year-old BBS sysop

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Enlarge / Benj Edwards’ computer running The Cave BBS in 1994.

Thirty years ago last week—on November 25, 1992—my BBS came online for the first time. I was only 11 years old, working from my dad’s Tandy 1800HD laptop and a 2400 baud modem. The Cave BBS soon grew into a bustling 24-hour system with over 1,000 users. After a seven-year pause between 1998 and 2005, I’ve been running it again ever since. Here’s the story of how it started and the challenges I faced along the way.

Enter the modem

In January 1992, my dad brought home a gateway to a parallel world: a small black plexiglass box labeled “ZOOM” that hooked to a PC’s serial port. This modem granted the power to connect to other computers and share data over the dial-up telephone network.

While commercial online services like CompuServe and Prodigy existed then, many hobbyists ran their own miniature online services called bulletin board systems, or BBSes for short. The Internet existed, but it was not yet widely known outside academic circles.

A photo of a Zoom 2400 BPS modem like I first used in 1992.
Enlarge / A photo of a Zoom 2400 BPS modem like I first used in 1992.

John Scagon

Whereas the Internet is a huge connected web of systems with billions of users, most BBSes were small hobbyist fiefdoms with a single phone line, and only one person could call in and use it at a time. Although BBS-to-BBS message networks were common, each system still felt like its own island culture with a tin-pot dictator (the system operator—or “sysop” for short) who lorded over anyone who visited.

Not long after my dad brought home the modem, he handed off a photocopied list that included hundreds of BBS numbers from our 919 area code in North Carolina. Back then, the phone company charged significantly for long-distance calls (which could also sneakily include parts of your area code), so we’d be sticking to BBSes in our region. This made BBSes a mostly local phenomenon around the US.

My original Raleigh-area BBS list from 1992, dated December 9, 1991.
Enlarge / My original Raleigh-area BBS list from 1992, dated December 9, 1991.

Benj Edwards

With modem in hand, my older brother—about five years older than me—embraced calling BBSes first (we called it “BBSing”). He filled up his Procomm Plus dialing directory with local favorite BBSes such as The Octopus’s Garden, The Body Shop, and Chalkboard. Each system gained its own flavor from its sysop, who decorated it with ANSI graphics or special menus and also acted as an emcee and moderator for the board’s conversations.

I have a distinct memory of the first time I realized what a BBS was. One day while I looked over my brother’s shoulder, he showed me the file section of one of those BBSes—a list of available files that you could download to your local computer. Pages of free-to-download shareware games scrolled by. My eyes widened, and something clicked.

“You can download games for free?” I remember thinking. I noticed one file labeled “RAMPAGE.ZIP” that was one hundred kilobytes—or “100K,” as listed. Thinking of Rampage on the NES, which was one of my favorite games at the time, I asked my brother to download it. He declined because it would have taken over five minutes to transfer on our 2400 BPS modem. Any file around one megabyte would take about an hour to download.

Online time was precious back then. Since most BBSes only had one phone line, you didn’t want to hog the line for too long or the sysop might boot you. And there was extra jeopardy involved. Since we were using our regular house telephone line to connect, the odds that my mom would pick up and try to dial out—thus ruining the transfer process—remained very high. But whatever the risks, the thrill of remote projection by computer sunk into me that day and never left.

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