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Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable ‘parasite’ – TechCrunch

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What do you get when you put one internet-connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Amazon Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open-source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye,” or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers.” Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write-up of the project here. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

And if you’re wondering how you’ll know when the microphone is safety being blocked again after you’ve been chatting to the voice assistant, Karmann told us: “Because of the new continuous conversion features in Alexa and Google, there is a built in time frame of 30 seconds before Alias goes back to blocking the microphones again. Inside the shell a bright LED lights up as soon as the assistant has been activated, as well on the app to give immediate feedback.”

While an IoT privacy shield is the immediate use-case for Alias, Karmann also envisages users being able to use the device to create other vocal shortcuts — and establish a more collegiate and cosy relationship with the underlying tech.

“Since Alias is essentially a man-in-the-middle device, it could say more that just the wake word. We could imagine users writing their own responses and shortcuts. For example: Say the word “Weather” and Alias could trigger the assistant and ask it about the today’s weather forecast,” he suggests.

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative and personalized future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

“We both would never had bought a smart speaker in the first place. But since Bjørn had received a developer device, he was curious and saw it as an opportunity for research, eventually leading to frustration and a bright idea. Today I am happily using a completely renamed Google Home with the name “Marvin”,” adds Karmann.

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa-disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And — unlike this creative physical IoT add-on — that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

This report was updated with comment from Alias’ co-designer

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Apple boosts employee pay as workers attempt to organize

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Enlarge / The branding on the front of an Apple Store retail location.

Apple plans to raise the starting pay of its hourly workers, according to a Wall Street Journal report. In the US, employees’ pay will be at least $22 per hour, which could be higher in some markets. That’s 45 percent higher than it was in 2018.

Additionally, Apple plans to increase starting salaries for corporate workers in the United States. It will also move up some employees’ annual reviews by several months to enact pay increases as soon as July.

In a statement, an Apple spokesperson said:

Supporting and retaining the best team members in the world enables us to deliver the best, most innovative, products and services for our customers. This year as part of our annual performance review process, we’re increasing our overall compensation budget.

There are likely several reasons for this move. First, businesses of all sizes are having a harder time attracting and retaining talent in this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apple could be facing more challenges than other big tech companies because of its efforts to get employees back into physical offices (though that doesn’t apply to hourly retail workers). It has repeatedly attempted to call employees into offices more days per week, but it has delayed those moves several times due to COVID-19 surges and organized employee resistance.

Apple recently lost an AI/machine learning leader who specifically cited the company’s remote work policy as a reason for his departure. Last week, the company postponed an imminent requirement to bring office workers back on-site for three days a week.

Economic factors are at play, too. Inflation has been at its highest in decades, contributing to pay dissatisfaction. The recent volatility of tech stocks could also be a factor. Tech companies like Apple sometimes seek to entice workers with stock options on top of salary and other compensation, but current and prospective employees might feel less enthusiastic about stock benefits right now.

Finally, retail workers at three US Apple Store locations have announced unionization plans. Some union organizers called for Apple to increase its base hourly pay.

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Modular Panasonic Toughbook has 8 replaceable parts, 1,200-nit screen

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Pansonic’s rugged Toughbook line expanded this week with the Toughbook 40. The new laptop carries many of the hallmarks of its predecessor, including military-grade durability specs and swappable parts, with some upgrades in size and display.

Toughbooks have durable designs meant to withstand long drops (as much as six feet, in this case) and challenging conditions, like rain. But another standout characteristic is their modularity. The Toughbook 40 has eight parts made to be easy to repair or upgrade: the battery, RAM, storage, and keyboard, plus four expansion areas. Various types of expansion packs are available, including an optical drive, fingerprint and barcode readers, and extra I/O ports, batteries, and storage.

Modularity.

In a FAQ (PDF), Panasonic said you can access most of the expansion areas with a screwdriver and some screws, while some only require you to use a slide lever. IT managers can lock down the SSD or expansion areas with a screw. According to Panasonic, there are 6,048 ways to build the Toughbook.

At 7.4 lbs, the 14-inch Touchbook 40 is 1.2 lbs lighter than the preceding laptop, the 13.1-inch Toughbook 31. That’s several pounds heavier than today’s ultralight laptops, but Toughbooks are built for extreme cases, like military and law enforcement use.

At 1,200 nits, the laptop’s 1920×1080 touchscreen is fit to use in a sunny room or outside. Panasonic didn’t specify battery life at that extreme brightness but claims that the PC can last up to 18 hours on the MobileMark 2014 benchmark and 36 hours if you get a second battery.

The laptop’s resistive touchpad has a 60 percent larger area, and it can be used while wearing gloves or during rain.

Inside, the Toughbook 40 has up to an Intel Core i7-1185G7 with Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics (a discrete, unspecified GPU will be coming at some point). The laptop is configurable with up to 2TB of storage, upgradeable via a quick-release latch, and up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM. Additionally, there’s a 5 MP webcam and the option for 4G or 5G connectivity.

The laptop starts with two USB-A ports and a Thunderbolt 4 port.
Enlarge / The laptop starts with two USB-A ports and a Thunderbolt 4 port.

In Panasonic’s announcement, Toughbook GM Craig Jackowski said the Toughbook 40 is the “most rugged” of the series. It meets the MIL-STD-810H and MIL-STD-461H military specifications and is CID2-certified for use in hazardous environments. It is IP66-certified, protecting it against dust and powerful water jets.

On the security side, the laptop has an encrypted OPAL SSD with optional FIPS, TPM 2.0, Intel Hardware Shield, and Microsoft Secure-core PC. The Toughbook 40 also introduces a “Secure Wipe” feature that “wipes the contents on the drive in a matter of seconds,” according to Panasonic.

Aimed at businesses and the public sector, the Toughbook 40 will start at $4,899 when it comes out in late spring, Panasonic’s announcement said. If you’re seeking something with a more digestible price, the 13.5-inch, DIY-friendly Framework laptop just got 12th Gen Intel CPUs.

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The Google Pixel Foldable is reportedly delayed to 2023

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Enlarge / The Oppo Find N. Google’s Pixel foldable is expected to have a similar aspect ratio.

Oppo

At Google’s recent I/O conference, we heard about a lot of upcoming Google hardware, including the Pixel 6a, Pixel 7, Pixel Watch, and even a Pixel Tablet, which isn’t due out until sometime in 2023. We didn’t hear anything about a Pixel foldable, though.

Still, we know something is in the works since the Google Camera app included the detection flag “isPixel2022Foldable” alongside flags for other Pixel devices. So what’s the deal?

The Elec reports that the Google foldable is delayed until 2023. This would mark the second time the foldable has been delayed, as it was originally due out late last year. It seems that the original plan was to release the product alongside Android 12L, aka 12.1, the tablet-and-foldables-focused Android release. Google often tries to develop Android builds and new hardware simultaneously, but making hardware is difficult.

Google's outline of the Pixel foldable, which was included in Android 12L.
Enlarge / Google’s outline of the Pixel foldable, which was included in Android 12L.

Google and Samsung are partnering up for Wear OS and the Google Tensor SoC, and the Pixel foldable is likewise expected to use a lot of Samsung parts. That means a Samsung Display-made flexible OLED display on the inside, flexible “ultra-thin glass” for added rigidity, and a hinge from Samsung’s hinge supplier.

The display sizes are 7.57 inches inside and 5.78 inches outside. That’s close to the Galaxy Z Fold 3 but not exactly the same. 9to5Google found simplified animations of a Google Foldable in Android 12L, and they suggest that Google’s phone will open to a wider aspect ratio than Samsung’s, which would put it more in line with the Oppo Find N.

You can’t blame Google for not wanting to rush a foldable to market. Users still regularly report cracked displays, even from Samsung’s third-generation foldable; combined with the device’s $1,800 price tag, that makes it a tough sell.

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