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The top smartphone trends to watch in 2019

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This was a bad year for the smartphone. For the first time, its seemingly unstoppable growth began to slow.

Things started off on a bad note in February, when Gartner recorded its first year-over-year decline since it began tracking the category. Not even the mighty Apple was immune from the trend. Last week, stocks took a hit as influential analyst Ming-Chi Kuo downgraded sales expectations for 2019.

People simply aren’t upgrading as fast as they used to. This is due in part to the fact that flagship phones are pretty good across the board. Manufacturers have painted themselves into a corner as they’ve battled it out over specs. There just aren’t as many compelling reasons to continually upgrade.

Of course, that’s not going to stop them from trying. Along with the standard upgrades to things like cameras, you can expect some radical rethinks of smartphone form factors, along with the first few pushes into 5G in the next calendar year.

If we’re lucky, there will be a few surprises along the way as well, but the following trends all look like no-brainers for 2019.

5G

GUANGZHOU, CHINA – DECEMBER 06: Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. The three-day conference opened on Thursday, with the theme of 5G network. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Let’s get this one out of the way, shall we? It’s a bit tricky — after all, plenty of publications are going to claim 2019 as “The Year of 5G,” but they’re all jumping the gun. It’s true that we’re going to see the first wave of 5G handsets appearing next year.

OnePlus and LG have committed to a handset and Samsung, being Samsung, has since committed to two. We’ve also seen promises of a Verizon 5G MiFi and whatever the hell this thing is from HTC and Sprint.

Others, most notably Apple, are absent from the list. The company is not expected to release a 5G handset until 2020. While that’s going to put it behind the curve, the truth of the matter is that 5G will arrive into this world as a marketing gimmick. When it does fully roll out, 5G has the potential to be a great, gaming-changing technology for smartphones and beyond. And while carriers have promised to begin rolling out the technology in the States early next year (AT&T even got a jump start), the fact of the matter is that your handset will likely spend a lot more time using 4G.

That is to say, until 5G becomes more ubiquitous, you’re going to be paying a hefty premium for a feature you barely use. Of course, that’s not going to stop hardware makers, component manufacturers and their carrier partners from rushing these devices to market as quickly as possible. Just be aware of your chosen carrier’s coverage map before shelling out that extra cash.

Foldables

We’ve already seen two — well, one-and-a-half, really. And you can be sure we’ll see even more as smartphone manufacturers scramble to figure out the next big thing. After years of waiting, we’ve been pretty unimpressed with the foldable smartphone we’ve seen so far.

The Royole is fascinating, but its execution leaves something to be desired. Samsung’s prototype, meanwhile, is just that. The company made it the centerpiece of its recent developer conference, but didn’t really step out of the shadows with the product — almost certainly because they’re not ready to show off the full product.

Now that the long-promised technology is ready in consumer form, it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing a number of companies exploring the form factor. That will no doubt be helped along by the fact that Google partnered with Samsung to create a version of Android tailored to the form factor — similar to its embrace of the top notch with Android Pie.

Of course, like 5G, these designs are going to come at a major premium. Once the initial novelty has worn off, the hardest task of all will be convincing consumers they need one in their life.

Pinholes

Bezels be damned. For better or worse, the notch has been a mainstay of flagship smartphones. Practically everyone (save for Samsung) has embraced the cutout in an attempt to go edge to edge. Even Google made it a part of Android (while giving the world a notch you can see from space with the Pixel 3 XL).

We’ve already seen (and will continue to see) a number of clever workarounds like Oppo’s pop-up. The pin hole/hole punch design found on the Huawei Nova 4 seems like a more reasonable route for a majority of camera manufacturers.

Embedded Fingerprint Readers

The flip side of the race to infinite displays is what to do with the fingerprint reader. Some moved it to the rear, while others, like Apple, did away with it in favor of face scanning. Of course, for those unable to register a full 3D face scan, that tech is pretty easy to spoof. For that reason, fingerprint scanners aren’t going away any time soon.

OnePlus’ 6T was among the first to bring the in-display fingerprint scanner to market, and it works like a charm. Here’s how the tech works (quoting from my own writeup from a few months ago):

When the screen is locked, a fingerprint icon pops up, showing you where to press. When the finger is in the right spot, the AMOLED display flashes a bright light to capture a scan of the surface from the reflected light. The company says it takes around a third of a second, though in my own testing, that number was closer to one second or sometimes longer as I negotiated my thumb into the right spot.

Samsung’s S10 is expected to bring that technology when it arrives around the February time frame, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of other manufacturers follow suit.

Cameras, cameras, cameras (also, cameras)

What’s the reasonable limit for rear-facing cameras? Two? Three? What about the five cameras on that leaked Nokia from a few months back? When does it stop being a phone back and start being a camera front? These are the sorts of existential crises we’ll have to grapple with as manufacturers continue to attempt differentiation through imagining.

Smartphone cameras are pretty good across the board these days, so one of the simple solutions has been simply adding more to the equation. LG’s latest offers a pretty reasonable example of how this will play out for many. The V40 ThinQ has two front and three rear-facing cameras. The three on the back are standard, super wide-angle and 2x optical zoom, offering a way to capture different types of images when a smartphone camera isn’t really capable of that kind of optical zoom in a thin form factor.

On the flip side, companies will also be investing a fair deal in software to help bring better shots to existing components. Apple and Google both demonstrated how a little AI and ML can go a long way toward improving image capture on their last handsets. Expect much of that to be focused on ultra-low light and zoom.

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Tesla shows off underwhelming human robot prototype at AI Day 2022

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Enlarge / The walking Optimus prototype demonstrated at the AI Day 2022 event.

Tesla

Today at Tesla’s “AI Day” press event, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled an early prototype of its Optimus humanoid robot, which emerged from behind a curtain, walked around, waved, and “raised the roof” with its hands to the beat of techno music.

It was a risky reveal for the prototype, which seemed somewhat unsteady on its feet. “Literally the first time the robot has operated without a tether was on stage tonight,” said Musk. Shortly afterward, Tesla employees rolled a sleeker-looking Optimus model supported by a stand onto the stage that could not yet stand on its own. It waved and lifted its legs. Later, it slumped over while Musk spoke.

Video of Tesla AI Day 2022

The entire live robot demonstration lasted roughly seven minutes, and the firm also played a demonstration video of the walking Optimus prototype slowly picking up a box and putting it down, slowly watering a plant, and slowly moving metal parts in a factory-like setting—all while tethered to an overhead cable. The video also showed a 3D-rendered view of the world that represents what the Optimus robot can see.

Three stages of the Tesla Optimus robot so far, presented at AI Day 2022.
Enlarge / Three stages of the Tesla Optimus robot so far, presented at AI Day 2022.

Tesla

Tesla first announced its plans to built a humanoid robot during its AI Day event in August of last year. During that earlier event, a human dressed in a spandex suit resembling a robot and did the Charleston on stage, which prompted skepticism in the press.

At the AI Event today, Musk and his team emphasized that the walking prototype was an early demo developed in roughly six months using “semi-off the shelf actuators,” and that the sleeker model much more closely resembled the “Version 1” unit they wanted to ship. He said it would probably be able to walk in a few weeks.

Goals of the Optimus project include high-volume production (possibly “millions of units sold,” said Musk), low-cost (“probably less than $20,000”), and high-reliability. Comparing the plans for Optimus to existing humanoid robots from competitors, Musk also emphasized that the Optimus robot should have the brains-on-board to work autonomously, citing Tesla’s work with its automotive Autopilot system.

Tesla shared some specifications of its
Enlarge / Tesla shared some specifications of its “Latest Generation” prototype Optimus robot.

Tesla

Shortly afterward, Musk handed over the stage to Tesla engineers that gave jargon-heavy overviews about developing the power systems, actuators, and joint mechanisms that would make Optimus possible, replete with fancy graphs but with few concrete specifics about how they would apply to a shipping product. “We are carrying over most of our design experience from the car to the robot,” said one engineer, while another engineer said they drew much of their inspiration from human biology, especially in joint design.

Earlier in the demonstration, Musk said that they were having the event to “convince some of the most talented people in the world to come to Tesla and help bring this to fruition.” Musk also emphasized the public nature of Tesla several times, mentioning that if the public doesn’t like what Tesla is doing they could purchase stock and vote against it. “If I go crazy, you can fire me,” he said.

[This is a developing story and will be updated as new information comes in.]

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High-severity Microsoft Exchange 0-day under attack threatens 220,000 servers

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Microsoft late Thursday confirmed the existence of two critical vulnerabilities in its Exchange application that have already compromised multiple servers and pose a serious risk to an estimated 220,000 more around the world.

The currently unpatched security flaws have been under active exploit since early August, when Vietnam-based security firm GTSC discovered customer networks had been infected with malicious webshells and that the initial entry point was some sort of Exchange vulnerability. The mystery exploit looked almost identical to an Exchange zero-day from 2021 called ProxyShell, but the customers’ servers had all been patched against the vulnerability, which is tracked as CVE-2021-34473. Eventually, the researchers discovered the unknown hackers were exploiting a new Exchange vulnerability.

Webshells, backdoors, and fake sites

“After successfully mastering the exploit, we recorded attacks to collect information and create a foothold in the victim’s system,” the researchers wrote in a post published on Wednesday. “The attack team also used various techniques to create backdoors on the affected system and perform lateral movements to other servers in the system.”

On Thursday evening, Microsoft confirmed that the vulnerabilities were new and said it was scrambling to develop and release a patch. The new vulnerabilities are: CVE-2022-41040, a server-side request forgery vulnerability, and CVE-2022-41082, which allows remote code execution when PowerShell is accessible to the attacker.

“​​At this time, Microsoft is aware of limited targeted attacks using the two vulnerabilities to get into users’ systems,” members of the Microsoft Security Response Center team wrote. “In these attacks, CVE-2022-41040 can enable an authenticated attacker to remotely trigger CVE-2022-41082.” Team members stressed that successful attacks require valid credentials for at least one email user on the server.

The vulnerability affects on-premises Exchange servers and, strictly speaking, not Microsoft’s hosted Exchange service. The huge caveat is that many organizations using Microsoft’s cloud offering choose an option that uses a mix of on-premises and cloud hardware. These hybrid environments are as vulnerable as standalone on-premises ones.

Searches on Shodan indicate there are currently more than 200,000 on-premises Exchange servers exposed to the Internet and more than 1,000 hybrid configurations.

Wednesday’s GTSC post said the attackers are exploiting the zero-day to infect servers with webshells, a text interface that allows them to issue commands. These webshells contain simplified Chinese characters, leading the researchers to speculate the hackers are fluent in Chinese. Commands issued also bear the signature of the China Chopper, a webshell commonly used by Chinese-speaking threat actors, including several advanced persistent threat groups known to be backed by the People’s Republic of China.

GTSC went on to say that the malware the threat actors eventually install emulates Microsoft’s Exchange Web Service. It also makes a connection to the IP address 137[.]184[.]67[.]33, which is hardcoded in the binary. Independent researcher Kevin Beaumont said the address hosts a fake website with only a single user with one minute of login time and has been active only since August.

Kevin Beaumont

The malware then sends and receives data that’s encrypted with an RC4 encryption key that’s generated at runtime. Beaumont went on to say that the backdoor malware appears to be novel, meaning this is the first time it has been used in the wild.

People running on-premises Exchange servers should take immediate action. Specifically, they should apply a blocking rule that prevents servers from accepting known attack patterns. The rule can be applied by going to “IIS Manager -> Default Web Site -> URL Rewrite -> Actions.” For the time being, Microsoft also recommends people block HTTP port 5985 and HTTPS port 5986, which attackers need to exploit CVE-2022-41082.

Microsoft’s advisory contains a host of other suggestions for detecting infections and preventing exploits until a patch is available.

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Bruce Willis sells deepfake rights to his likeness for commercial use

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Enlarge / Deepfake Bruce Willis as he appeared in a 2021 commercial for Russian mobile company MegaFon.

MegaFon

Bruce Willis has sold the “digital twin” rights to his likeness for commercial video production use, according to a report by The Telegraph. This move allows the Hollywood actor to digitally appear in future commercials and possibly even films, and he has already appeared in a Russian commercial using the technology.

Willis, who has been diagnosed with a language disorder called aphasia, announced that he would be “stepping away” from acting earlier this year. Instead, he will license his digital rights through a company called Deepcake. The company is based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and is doing business in America while being registered as a corporation in Delaware.

In 2021, a deepfake Bruce Willis appeared in a Russian cell phone commercial for MegaFon.

Deepcake obtained Willis’ likeness by training a deep learning neural network model on his appearances in blockbuster action films from the 1990s. With his facial appearance known, the model can then apply Willis’ head to another actor with a similar build in a process commonly called a deepfake. Deepfakes have become popular in recent years on TikTok, with unauthorized deepfakes of Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves gathering large followings.

In a statement on Deepcake’s website, Bruce Willis reportedly said:

I liked the precision of my character. It’s a great opportunity for me to go back in time. The neural network was trained on [the] content of Die Hard and Fifth Element, so my character is similar to the images of that time.

With the advent of the modern technology, I could communicate, work, and participate in filming, even being on another continent. It’s a brand new and interesting experience for me, and I [am] grateful to our team.

According to Deepcake’s website, the firm aims to disrupt the traditional casting process by undercutting it in price, saying that its method “allows us to succeed in tasks minus travel expenses, expensive filming days, insurance, and other costs. You pay for endorsement contract with the celeb’s agent, and a fee for Deepcake’s services. This is game-changingly low.”

While the Telegraph report claims that Willis is “the first Hollywood star to sell his rights to allow a ‘digital twin’ of himself to be created for use on screen,” Ars Technica could not verify that claim outside of the context of a first license with the firm Deepcake. Evidence suggests that a similar licensing precedent exists—in Hollywood, deepfakes have already been used in several Star Wars films and TV shows, for example.

Looking deeper, the concept of having a “digital twin” isn’t new to Willis, either. In 1998, he starred in a PlayStation video game called Apocalypse that involved digitizing his face and capturing the motion of his body as he acted out scenes. Still, it’s notable to see an aging actor sidelined by illness who is willing to volunteer a digital double to work for him. James Earl Jones did so recently with his voice for Darth Vader. It’s possible we’ll see much more of this as deepfake technology improves.

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