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What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

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Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services, including Google and Facebook, are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu; 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google’s year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches, and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. U.S.-China trade war: The runner-up comes as no surprise, given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the stand-off, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.
  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.
  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm, which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.
  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.
  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.
  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy of pop idol Kris Wu, who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with myriad interpretations.
  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.
  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant whom the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.
  10.  Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor, such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms: robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference and quantum mechanics.

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European Parliament DDoSed after declaring Russia a sponsor of terrorism

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Enlarge / An iteration of what happens when your site gets shut down by a DDoS attack.

The European Parliament website was knocked offline for several hours on Wednesday by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that started shortly after the governing body voted to declare the Russian government a state sponsor of terrorism.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola confirmed the attack on Wednesday afternoon European time, while the site was still down. “A pro-Kremlin group has claimed responsibility,” she wrote on Twitter. “Our IT experts are pushing back against it & protecting our systems. This, after we proclaimed Russia as a State-sponsor of terrorism.”

While this post was being reported and written, the website became available again and appeared to work normally.

The pro-Kremlin group Metsola referred to is likely the one known as Killnet, which emerged at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has posted claims of DDoS attacks in countries supporting the smaller nation. Targets have included police departments, airports, and governments in Lithuania, Germany, Italy, Romania, Norway, and the United States.

Shortly after Wednesday’s attack against the European Parliament started, Killnet members took to a private channel on Telegram to post screenshots showing the European Parliament website was unavailable in 23 countries. Text accompanying the images made a homophobic remark directed at the legislative body.

The outage occurred shortly after the parliament overwhelmingly voted to declare the Kremlin a sponsor of terrorism.

Members of the European Parliament “highlight that the deliberate attacks and atrocities committed by Russian forces and their proxies against civilians in Ukraine, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and other serious violations of international and humanitarian law amount to acts of terror and constitute war crimes,” the declaration stated. “In light of this, they recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a state that ‘uses means of terrorism.’”

The resolution was adopted with 494 votes in favor, and 58 against. There were 44 abstentions.

DDoS attacks typically harness the bandwidth of hundreds, thousands, and in some cases, millions of computers infected with malware. After coming into their control, the attackers cause them to bombard a target site with more traffic than they can accommodate, forcing them to deny service to legitimate users. Traditionally, DDoS has been among the crudest forms of attack because it relies on brute force to silence its targets.

Over the years, DDoSes have become more advanced. In some cases, the attackers can increase the bandwidth by as much as a thousand-fold using amplification methods, which send data to a misconfigured third-party site, which then returns a much larger amount of traffic to the target.
Another innovation has been designing attacks that exhaust the computing resources of a server. Rather than clogging the pipe between the website and the would-be visitors—the way more traditional volumetric DDoSes work—packet-per-second attacks send specifc types of compute-intensive requests to a target in an attempt to bring the hardware connected to the pipe to a standstill.

Metsola said the DDoS attacks on the European Parliament were “sophisticated,” a word that’s often misused to describe DDoSes and hacks. She provided no details to corroborate that assessment.

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Apple iPhone factory workers clash with police in China

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Enlarge / Workers walk outside Hon Hai Group’s Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, in 2010.

Violent worker protests have erupted at the world’s largest iPhone factory in central China as authorities at the Foxconn plant struggle to contain a COVID-19 outbreak while maintaining production ahead of the peak holiday season.

Workers at the factory in Zhengzhou shared more than a dozen videos that show staff in a standoff with lines of police armed with batons and clad in white protective gear. The videos show police beating workers, with some bleeding from their heads and others limping away from chaotic clashes.

Beijing’s strict zero-COVID regime has posed big challenges for the running of Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant, which typically staffs more than 200,000 workers on a large campus in the city’s suburbs.

Wednesday’s unrest will heighten investor concerns about supply chain risk at Apple, with more than 95 percent of iPhones produced in China.

Problems at the plant earlier this month led Apple to cut estimates for high-end iPhone 14 shipments and to issue a rare warning to investors over the delays.

Two workers at the Foxconn factory said the protests broke out on Wednesday morning after Apple’s manufacturing partner attempted to deny bonuses promised to new workers put into quarantine before being sent to assembly lines.

“Initially they just went into the plant seeking an explanation from executives, but they [the executives] didn’t show their faces and instead called the police,” said one of the workers.

Another worker said there was growing discontent over the factory’s continued inability to curb a COVID outbreak, tough living conditions, and fear among staff that they would test positive.

Foxconn said the company would work with employees and the government to prevent further violent acts.

The company said it had always fulfilled its contracts and would continue to “communicate and explain” that to new staff. It said reports that the company had mixed COVID positive workers with those not yet infected were untrue.

Videos show workers flipping over carts on the Foxconn campus, charging into the factory’s offices and bashing a COVID testing booth. Live streams from the scene on Wednesday afternoon showed groups of workers milling about in a courtyard between buildings. Some workers were livestreaming the protests on social media until censors stepped in to cut off the broadcasts.

“The Foxconn situation raises concern for China’s leaders because it challenges the narrative of being a reliable supplier,” said Shan Guo at Plenum China Research. “It’s clear workers are not happy being locked down,” she said.

Foxconn has been working with the local government in Henan province, where the plant is located, to repopulate its assembly lines with new workers after a mass staff exodus late last month spurred by conditions at the plant.

Local officials have been tasked with helping send workers to the plant, which is a big taxpayer and was responsible for 60 percent of the province’s exports in 2019.

Ivan Lam, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, said Foxconn had already been shifting iPhone 14 production away from the Zhengzhou factory amid the COVID problems. He estimated the Zhengzhou plant’s share of total iPhone 14 production was down to about 60 percent today from about 80 percent before the outbreak began.

Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

© 2022 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.

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Meta researchers create AI that masters Diplomacy, tricking human players

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Enlarge / A screenshot of an online game of Diplomacy, including a running chat dialog, provided by a Cicero researcher.

On Tuesday, Meta AI announced the development of Cicero, which it clams is the first AI to achieve human-level performance in the strategic board game Diplomacy. It’s a notable achievement because the game requires deep interpersonal negotiation skills, which implies that Cicero has obtained a certain mastery of language necessary to win the game.

Even before Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, board games were a useful measure of AI achievement. In 2015, another barrier fell when AlphaGo defeated Go master Lee Sedol. Both of those games follow a relatively clear set of analytical rules (although Go’s rules are typically simplified for computer AI).

But with Diplomacy, a large portion of the gameplay involves social skills. Players must show empathy, use natural language, and build relationships to win—a difficult task for a computer player. With this in mind, Meta asked, “Can we build more effective and flexible agents that can use language to negotiate, persuade, and work with people to achieve strategic goals similar to the way humans do?”

According to Meta, the answer is yes. Cicero learned its skills by playing an online version of Diplomacy on webDiplomacy.net. Over time, it became a master at the game, reportedly achieving “more than double the average score” of human players and ranking in the top 10 percent of people who played more than one game.

To create Cicero, Meta pulled together AI models for strategic reasoning (similar to AlphaGo) and natural language processing (similar to GPT-3) and rolled them into one agent. During each game, Cicero looks at the state of the game board and the conversation history and predicts how other players will act. It crafts a plan that it executes through a language model that can generate human-like dialog, allowing it to coordinate with other players.

A block diagram of Cicero, the <em>Diplomacy</em>-playing bot, provided by Meta.
Enlarge / A block diagram of Cicero, the Diplomacy-playing bot, provided by Meta.

Meta AI

Meta calls Cicero’s natural language skills a “controllable dialog model,” which is where the heart of Cicero’s personality lies. Like GPT-3, Cicero pulls from a large corpus of Internet text scraped from the web. “To build a controllable dialogue model, we started with a 2.7 billion parameter BART-like language model pre-trained on text from the internet and fine tuned on over 40,000 human games on webDiplomacy.net,” writes Meta.

The resulting model mastered the intricacies of a complex game. “Cicero can deduce, for example, that later in the game it will need the support of one particular player,” says Meta, “and then craft a strategy to win that person’s favor—and even recognize the risks and opportunities that that player sees from their particular point of view.”

Meta’s Cicero research appeared in the journal Science under the title, “Human-level play in the game of Diplomacy by combining language models with strategic reasoning.”

As for wider applications, Meta suggests that its Cicero research could “ease communication barriers” between humans and AI, such as maintaining a long-term conversation to teach someone a new skill. Or it could power a video game where NPCs can talk just like humans, understanding the player’s motivations and adapting along the way.

At the same time, this technology could be used to manipulate humans by impersonating people and tricking them in potentially dangerous ways, depending on the context. Along those lines, Meta hopes other researchers can build on its code “in a responsible manner,” and says it has taken steps toward detecting and removing “toxic messages in this new domain,” which likely refers to dialog Cicero learned from the Internet texts it ingested—always a risk for large language models.

Meta provided a detailed site to explain how Cicero works and has also open-sourced Cicero’s code on GitHub. Online Diplomacy fans—and maybe even the rest of us—may need to watch out.

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