Depending on how paranoid you are, this research from Stanford and Google will be either terrifying or fascinating. A machine learning agent intended to transform aerial images into street maps and back was found to be cheating by hiding information it would need later in “a nearly imperceptible, high-frequency signal.” Clever girl!
This occurrence reveals a problem with computers that has existed since they were invented: they do exactly what you tell them to do.
The intention of the researchers was, as you might guess, to accelerate and improve the process of turning satellite imagery into Google’s famously accurate maps. To that end the team was working with what’s called a CycleGAN — a neural network that learns to transform images of type X and Y into one another, as efficiently yet accurately as possible, through a great deal of experimentation.
In some early results, the agent was doing well — suspiciously well. What tipped the team off was that, when the agent reconstructed aerial photographs from its street maps, there were lots of details that didn’t seem to be on the latter at all. For instance, skylights on a roof that were eliminated in the process of creating the street map would magically reappear when they asked the agent to do the reverse process:
Although it is very difficult to peer into the inner workings of a neural network’s processes, the team could easily audit the data it was generating. And with a little experimentation, they found that the CycleGAN had indeed pulled a fast one.
The intention was for the agent to be able to interpret the features of either type of map and match them to the correct features of the other. But what the agent was actually being graded on (among other things) was how close an aerial map was to the original, and the clarity of the street map.
So it didn’t learn how to make one from the other. It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.
In fact, the computer is so good at slipping these details into the street maps that it had learned to encode any aerial map into any street map! It doesn’t even have to pay attention to the “real” street map — all the data needed for reconstructing the aerial photo can be superimposed harmlessly on a completely different street map, as the researchers confirmed:
The colorful maps in (c) are a visualization of the slight differences the computer systematically introduced. You can see that they form the general shape of the aerial map, but you’d never notice it unless it was carefully highlighted and exaggerated like this.
This practice of encoding data into images isn’t new; it’s an established science called steganography, and it’s used all the time to, say, watermark images or add metadata like camera settings. But a computer creating its own steganographic method to evade having to actually learn to perform the task at hand is rather new. (Well, the research came out last year, so it isn’t new new, but it’s pretty novel.)
One could easily take this as a step in the “the machines are getting smarter” narrative, but the truth is it’s almost the opposite. The machine, not smart enough to do the actual difficult job of converting these sophisticated image types to each other, found a way to cheat that humans are bad at detecting. This could be avoided with more stringent evaluation of the agent’s results, and no doubt the researchers went on to do that.
As always, computers do exactly what they are asked, so you have to be very specific in what you ask them. In this case the computer’s solution was an interesting one that shed light on a possible weakness of this type of neural network — that the computer, if not explicitly prevented from doing so, will essentially find a way to transmit details to itself in the interest of solving a given problem quickly and easily.
This is really just a lesson in the oldest adage in computing: PEBKAC. “Problem exists between keyboard and computer.” Or as HAL put it: “It can only be attributable to human error.”
The paper, “CycleGAN, a Master of Steganography,” was presented at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in 2017. Thanks to Fiora Esoterica and Reddit for bringing this old but interesting paper to my attention.
Oculus Quest subscriptions roll out for games and apps
Oculus today announced that it’s now allowing developers to offer subscriptions to their apps. While perhaps not the best fit for gaming – which Oculus was centered around at the beginning of its life – the company says that by offering subscriptions, it can offer monetization options that make Quest a better fit for other types of apps. Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for subscription offerings, but in today’s announcement, Oculus listed several different apps that will offer them to start.
There are six different apps that are adding subscriptions today: FitXR, Rec Room, Tribe XR, TRIPP, vSpatial, and VZfit. Oculus says that content you’ve previously purchased in these apps will continue to be accessible after these subscriptions go live, so it sounds like developers won’t be allowed to remove content that’s already been paid for and stick it behind a subscription.
In FitXR, for instance, Oculus says that subscribers will get a new instructor-led class from the existing Box and Dance studios and the upcoming HIIT studio each day, along with access to multiplayer. Those who already purchased FitXR will keep the content they’ve paid for (which includes Add-On packs). While newcomers to the app will get a seven-day free trial to the FitXR subscription service, those who already own the app will get a 90-day trial.
With Rec Room, we see something entirely different. While the base app will continue to be free, a subscription called Rec Room Plus will be offered as something of a premium tier for those who want it. The monthly subscription will net users 6,000 tokens each month – which translates to $10 of real world cash – along with weekly four-star items and access to a special section of the store that’s reserved for subscribers.
Ultimately, what you get with a subscription depends on the app – some might require a subscription to access the app, while others might just offer the subscription as a bonus for those interested in getting some extra content. Oculus says that you’ll be able to cancel subscriptions at any time. To read more about the subscriptions being offered by these initial six apps, check out today’s blog post on the Oculus website.
Apple Fitness+ adds workouts for beginners plus older and pregnant users
Apple Fitness+ is gaining new workouts today, adding specific sessions for pregnancy and that target older adults and beginners. It’s part of a workout boost for the Apple Watch-centered subscription fitness system, and will also include a new Time to Walk session with Jane Fonda.
Announced last year, Fitness+ opened up its guided sessions in December 2020. It relies on exercise tracking through the Apple Watch, with tutorials and classes delivered via a variety of the company’s screens, such as Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone.
One of the challenges early-adopters have found, particularly those just getting into fitness, is trying to get up to speed. That’s something Apple is addressing today, with new workouts for beginners. Offered across the Yoga, Strength, and HIIT workout types, they consist of low-impact exercises and spend more time on how to perfect form to build good habits.
Much in the same way, the new workouts for older adults focus on the specific needs of older people trying to get – or stay – fit. They center on strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and mobility, Apple says, with a series of eight sessions led by trainer Molly Fox, with guest appearances by Gregg Cook for Strength, Dustin Brown for Yoga, Bakari Williams for HIIT, and Jhon Gonzalez for Dance.
Each workout is 10 minutes long, and many can be completed with either bodyweight or a light dumbbell, Apple says. Alternatively, they may use a chair or involve leaning against the wall. They can also be combined with other Fitness+ workouts, carrying those modifications over.
Finally, there’s a new workouts for pregnancy series. 10 sessions – covering Strength, Core, and Mindful Cooldown – will be led by Betina Gozo alongside trainers Emily Fayette and Anja Garcia, each 10 minutes in length. They’re designed, Apple says, to suit any stage of pregnancy along with any fitness level. Again, as with the older fitness sessions, they also include suggestions on how to modify the more general Fitness+ workouts in ways to accommodate those who are pregnant.
Beyond the three specific categories, there are now two new trainers: one in the Yoga section, and the other in HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). From April 19, meanwhile, Jane Fonda’s Time to Walk session will be added. That takes the form of an audio interview with paired walking instructions.
Apple Fitness+ is currently available in the US, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK. Three months access is bundled with a new Apple Watch Series 3 or later, while existing owners can try it free for a month. After that, it’s $9.99 per month or $79.99 per year – for up to six family members to share – or bundle as part of the $29.95 Apple One Premiere plan.
Xfinity Mobile unlimited 5G plans get cheaper (but that’s not the best part)
Xfinity Mobile is trimming the cost of its unlimited 5G plans, with Comcast aiming to undercut its better-known rivals as more Americans hunt for lower prices without sacrificing speed. The new Xfinity Mobile unlimited 5G plans still start at $45 per month for one line, but bring down the price of multiple lines as it blends them with the carrier’s “By-the-Gig” per-gigabyte option.
Under that system, subscribers can purchase data in advance, based on how much they think they’re need. 1GB is $15, 3GB is $30, and 10GB is $60. If users run out midway through the month, they can switch to a higher tier at any time – or, alternatively, switch to a lower tier if their data needs are unexpectedly low.
Now, there’s also a more affordable, more flexible unlimited option. As well as $45 for a single line, Xfinity Mobile 5G plans will be $80 for two lines, $100 for three lines, or $120 for four lines. Previously, two lines would cost $90 per month, three would cost $135, and four would cost $180.
The unlimited plans are also included in the switching system, so subscribers will be able to move between them and the “By-the-Gig” options too. Importantly – and arguably best of all – that’s done via the Xfinity Mobile app, rather than having to call up and speak to a customer service agent. The unlimited plans can be applied to both phones and tablets, too, and Comcast is using Verizon’s 4G/5G network along with its own WiFi hotspot network.
There is, as always, some small print to consider. For a start, you’ll need to be a post-pay Xfinity Home Internet subscriber in order to qualify for Xfinity Mobile. Meanwhile, though the data may be unlimited, that doesn’t mean you’ll always be getting 5G speeds: Xfinity Mobile will automatically reduce the speeds after 20 GB of usage per line. That will trim the rates to 1.5 Mbps downloads and 750 kbps uploads.
Video will stream at SD 480p quality on unlimited plans when on a 4G LTE network, unlike on By-the-Gig plans where it streams at HD by default; if you’re on 5G, unlimited subscribers will get the highest possible resolution instead. For mobile hotspots, that’s limited to 600 kbps downloads when on an LTE connection. If you’re on 5G, however, mobile hotspot data is not capped: you’ll get whatever fastest rate the connection supports.
Up to ten lines can be activated, per Xfinity Mobile subscriber. It’s also possible to include smartwatches on an account – for $10 per line – Comcast says. The new plans are available now, to new and existing users.
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