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Power

Russian Scientists Upgrade Nuclear Battery Design To Increase Power Output (sciencealert.com) 150

schwit1 shares a report from ScienceAlert: A team of Russian researchers have put a new spin on technology that uses the beta decay of a radioactive element to create differences in voltage. The devices are made of stacks of isotope of nickel-63 sandwiched between a pair of special semiconducting diodes called a Schottky barrier. This barrier keeps a current headed one way, a feature often used to turn alternating currents into direct ones. Finding that the optimal thickness of each layer was just 2 micrometers, the researchers were able to maximize the voltage produced by every gram of isotope.

Nickel-63 has a half-life of just over 100 years, which in an optimized system like this adds up to 3,300 milliwatt-hours of energy per gram: ten times the specific energy of your typical electrochemical cell. It's a significant step up from previous nickel-63 betavoltaic devices, and while it isn't quite enough to power your smart phone, it does bring it into a realm of being useful for a wide variety of tasks.

XBox (Games)

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant Are Coming To Xbox One (windowscentral.com) 29

According to Windows Central, the Xbox One will soon support Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, which should provide a decent alternative to Kinect for controlling your console via voice commands. Microsoft stopped manufacturing the Kinect in October of last year. From the report: This picture comes to us from a reliable source who is familiar with Amazon and Microsoft's efforts to link Alexa and Cortana. In upcoming Xbox One builds, the Kinect & Devices menu should have a new "Digital Assistants" section, which lets you enable Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana, for use on your Xbox One. It then directs you to install the Xbox skills app for those respective platforms to get connected. The full range of features for those assistants remains unknown, but it could bring back many of the voice-assisted features abandoned Kinect users are yearning for.
Cellphones

Smartphone Shipments Declined For the First Time In 2017 (theverge.com) 144

2017 was the first year that smartphone unit shipments didn't grow, according to a new Internet Trends report. "Shipments actually declined by 0.5 percent, as IDC noted in February," reports The Verge. "In 2016, shipments were lukewarm at 2 percent yearly growth, but this downturn is significant." From the report: Among smartphone shipments, Android and iOS have all but completely pushed out every other mobile operating system. And despite the growing price of today's top flagship devices, the average selling price of a smartphone has steadily fallen over the years. As more of the world now owns smartphones, growth has basically stalled. Similarly, internet user growth has only grown 7 percent in 2017, compared to 12 percent in 2016. More people are accessing the internet than ever, on an average of 5.9 hours a day. And they're browsing on mobile, indicating that they're just holding onto older models of phones instead of buying new ones.
Google

Google Quits Selling Tablets (techcrunch.com) 143

Google has quietly crept out of the tablet business, removing the "tablets" heading from its Android page. It was there yesterday, but it's gone today. TechCrunch reports: Google in particular has struggled to make Android a convincing alternative to iOS in the tablet realm, and with this move has clearly indicated its preference for the Chrome OS side of things, where it has inherited the questionable (but lucrative) legacy of netbooks. They've also been working on broadening Android compatibility with that OS. So it shouldn't come as much surprise that the company is bowing out.

Sales have dropped considerably, since few people see any reason to upgrade a device that was originally sold for its simplicity and ease of use, not its specs. Google's exit doesn't mean Android tablets are done for, of course. They'll still get made, primarily by Samsung, Amazon and a couple of others, and there will probably even be some nice ones. But if Google isn't selling them, it probably isn't prioritizing them as far as features and support.
Android Police was first to break the news.
Iphone

Apple May Introduce a Triple-Camera iPhone This Year (thenextweb.com) 107

A rumor from The Korea Herald suggests that Apple may be planning on introducing its first triple camera smartphone this year with the rumored 6.5-inch iPhone. The rumor comes buried in a piece mostly about Samsung, which is also expected to introduce a triple-camera smartphone with next year's S10. The Next Web reports: To be clear, this isn't the first time we've heard word of a triple camera iPhone, but the three previous reports have pointed to a 2019 release, according to MacRumors. One of these reports was from Ming Chi Kuo, an Apple analyst who has a solid track record. The fact that's it's mentioned offhandedly in the Korea Herald report makes me think the date may have been a mistake. No matter how good AI and processing get, there's only so much you can do within the physical constraints of a small smartphone sensor. In theory, using multiple cameras and combining the information with some smart processing could help you somewhat replicate the image quality of a larger sensor.
Power

Trump Orders a Lifeline For Struggling Coal and Nuclear Plants (nytimes.com) 286

According to The New York Times, President Trump has ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to "prepare immediate steps" to stop the closure of unprofitable coal and nuclear plants around the country. From the report: Under one proposal outlined in the memo, which was reported by Bloomberg, the Department of Energy would order grid operators to buy electricity from struggling coal and nuclear plants for two years, using emergency authority that is normally reserved for exceptional crises like natural disasters. That idea triggered immediate blowback from a broad alliance of energy companies, consumer groups and environmentalists. On Friday, oil and gas companies joined with wind and solar organizations in a joint statement condemning the plan, saying that it was "legally indefensible" and would force consumers to pay more for electricity.

The administration has also discussed invoking the Defense Production Act of 1950, which allows the federal government to intervene in private industry in the name of national security. (Harry S. Truman used the law to impose price controls on the steel industry during the Korean War.) If the Trump administration were to invoke these two statutes, the move would almost certainly be challenged in federal court by natural gas and renewable energy companies, which could stand to lose market share.
Such an intervention could cost consumers between $311 million to $11.8 billion pear year, according to a preliminary estimate (PDF) by Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation.
Power

Three US States Will Spend $1.3 Billion To Build More Electric Vehicle Charging (theverge.com) 105

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Three U.S. states announced major investments in charging infrastructure for electric cars on Thursday. In total, California, New York, and New Jersey will put $1.3 billion on the table in the coming years to help chip away at one of the biggest barriers standing in the way of widespread EV adoption. California's Public Utilities Commission approved up to $738 million worth of projects over the next five years, the agency announced. Southern California Edison and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) will spend up to $343 million and $236 million, respectively, to build charging infrastructure that will support thousands of medium or heavy-duty vehicles at around 1,500 locations throughout the state. PG&E will spend another $22 million building 234 DC fast-charging stations at around 50 different sites throughout the state.

In New York, the governor's office announced a pledge of up to $250 million through 2025 to its electric vehicle expansion initiative, EVolve NY. The New York Power Authority will work with the private sector to install up to 200 DC fast chargers "along key interstate corridors" with the goal of making them available every 30 miles, and it will also bring them to urban areas as well, including at or near New York City's two major airports. Meanwhile, New Jersey's biggest utility owner Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) announced a $300 million pledge to build out up to 50,000 charging stations along highways, in residential areas, and at workplaces.

Intel

Intel Wants PCs To Be More Than Just 'Personal Computers' (engadget.com) 180

An anonymous reader shares a report "What people need from a PC, what they expect is really more diverse than ever," Intel's Client Computing head Gregory Bryant said in an interview. "We're going to embark on a journey to transform the PC from a personal computer to a personal contribution platform... The platform where people focus and can do their most meaningful work." Bryant says Intel will focus on five key areas to reframe its vision of PCs: Uncompromised performance (of course); improved connectivity with 5G on the horizon; a dramatic increase in battery life; developing more adaptable platforms that go beyond 2-in-1s and convertibles; and a push towards more intelligent machines with AI and machine learning integration. Admittedly, many of those points aren't exactly new for Intel, and they also fall in line with where the computing industry is going.
The Military

Leaked Emails Show Google Expected Military Drone AI Work To Grow Exponentially (theintercept.com) 84

In March, Google secretly signed an agreement with the Pentagon to provide cutting edge AI technology for drone warfare, causing about a dozen Google employees to resign in protest and thousands to sign a petition calling for an end to the contract. Google has since tried to quash the dissent, claiming that the contract was "only" for $9 million, according to the New York Times. Internal company emails obtained by The Intercept tell a different story: The September emails show that Google's business development arm expected the military drone artificial intelligence revenue to ramp up from an initial $15 million to an eventual $250 million per year. In fact, one month after news of the contract broke, the Pentagon allocated an additional $100 million to Project Maven [the endeavor designed to help drone operators recognize images captured on the battlefield]. The internal Google email chain also notes that several big tech players competed to win the Project Maven contract. Other tech firms such as Amazon were in the running, one Google executive involved in negotiations wrote. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.) Rather than serving solely as a minor experiment for the military, Google executives on the thread stated that Project Maven was "directly related" to a major cloud computing contract worth billions of dollars that other Silicon Valley firms are competing to win. The emails further note that Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing arm of Amazon, "has some work loads" related to Project Maven.
Cellphones

Arm Unveils Next-Gen 76-Series Mobile CPU, GPU Cores (hothardware.com) 54

MojoKid writes: Last week, Arm showed off its new Machine Learning Processor design, but today it has lifted the veil on its next-generation Cortex and Mali CPU, GPU, and VPU architectures, destined for 2019 smartphones and mobile devices. The Arm Cortex-A76 CPU, Mali-G76 GPU, and Mali-V76 VPU designs all step up performance and efficiency over previous generation designs, though there are architectural and layout changes and more advanced manufacturing processes.

Arm believes its A76 core, which can be clocked at 3GHz+ when produced on a 7nm process, can perform within 10 percent of an Intel Skylake core within the same thermal constraints, but at approximately half the footprint. The Mali-G76 improves density and energy efficiency by 30 percent over the previous generation G72, while providing a 2.7x uplift in machine learning workloads. And the Mali-V76 VPU improves on the recently announced V52 by adding support for 8K UltraHD content, among many other improvements.

Windows

Dell is Reportedly Working on a Dual-Screen Windows ARM Device (theverge.com) 35

Dell is working on a foldable dual-screen device, according to a report. According to news blog WinFuture, Dell's supposedly forthcoming device would run Windows 10 and an unreleased Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 ARM processor. From a report: Dell's device is reportedly codenamed "Januss," and has been under development since last summer, but it's not clear whether the device will ever come to market. Dell was working on mobile Windows devices before, and those devices were canceled. Microsoft also canceled its own Surface Mini device, just weeks before it was due to be revealed. The Verge understands that the documents WinFuture has obtained are old, and that Dell could have altered its product plans by now.
Education

Face Recognition Is Now Being Used In Schools (theintercept.com) 206

Presto Vivace shares a report from The Intercept: Officials at the Lockport, New York, school district have purchased face recognition technology as part of a purported effort to prevent school shootings. Starting in September, all 10 of Lockport District's school buildings, just north of Buffalo, will be outfitted with a surveillance system that can identify faces and objects. The software, known as Aegis, was developed by SN Technologies Corp., a Canadian biometrics firm that specifically advertises to schools. It can be used to alert officials to whenever sex offenders, suspended students, fired employees, suspected gang members, or anyone else placed on a school's "blacklist" enters the premises. Aegis also sends alerts any time one of the "top 10" most popular guns used in school shootings appears in view of a camera. The district is spending most of its recent $4 million state "Smart School" grant on these and other enhancements to its security systems, including bullet-proof greeter windows and a mass notification system, according to the Niagra Gazette. Slashdot reader Presto Vivace adds: "This is why municipal elections are so important. Just because this stuff is on the market, does not mean your local school system has to buy it."

The report notes that "all the major school shootings in the last five years in the U.S. have been carried out by current students or alumnae of the school in question." These students wouldn't have their face entered into the face recognition system's blacklist. Furthermore, "Most shooters don't brandish their guns before opening fire; and by the time they do, an object-detection algorithm that could specify the exact type of weapon they're firing would not be of much use," reports The Intercept. "... the technology would give a school, at best, only a few extra seconds in response time to a shooting."
Power

Qualcomm Launches a New Chip Specifically For Standalone AR, VR Devices (arstechnica.com) 8

Yesterday at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California, Qualcomm announced a new chip specifically designed for standalone augmented reality and virtual reality devices: the Snapdragon XR1. Ars Technica reports: The company is staying tight-lipped on technical details about the new SoC for the time being. Qualcomm says the SoC will use a Kryo CPU and Adreno GPU, as Qualcomm chips typically do, but exactly how those and the rest of the XR1's building blocks will be configured isn't yet clear. That said, Qualcomm is slotting the XR1 below its existing Snapdragon 845 -- the chip powering most of the year's highest-end smartphones -- in terms of memory bandwidth and GPU power. It is primarily aiming XR1 devices at "lean back" experiences like 360-degree video viewing, at least to start.

Even still, the company says the XR1 can output video up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, that it'll keep motion-to-photon latency "well below" 20 milliseconds (so as to prevent nausea and motion sickness), and that it can handle both 3DoF and 6DoF tracking for headsets and accompanying controllers if needed. (Devices with the latter allow users to replicate a fuller range of movement in a virtual space.) Qualcomm is talking up the chip's power management and 3D-audio abilities and its support for always-on voice assistance as well.

Operating Systems

Sonic and Ultrasonic Attacks Damage Hard Drives and Crash OSes (arstechnica.com) 102

Dan Goodin reports via Ars Technica: Attackers can cause potentially harmful hard drive and operating system crashes by playing sounds over low-cost speakers embedded in computers or sold in stores, a team of researchers demonstrated last week. The attacks use sonic and ultrasonic sounds to disrupt magnetic HDDs as they read or write data. The researchers showed how the technique could stop some video-surveillance systems from recording live streams. Just 12 seconds of specially designed acoustic interference was all it took to cause video loss in a 720p system made by Ezviz. Sounds that lasted for 105 seconds or more caused the stock Western Digital 3.5 HDD in the device to stop recording altogether until it was rebooted. The device uses flash storage to house its firmware, but by default it uses a magnetic HDD to store the large quantities of video it records. The attack used a speaker hanging from a ceiling that rested about four inches above the surveillance system's HDD. The researchers didn't remove the casing or otherwise tamper with the surveillance system. The technique was also able to disrupt HDDs in desktop and laptop computers running both Windows and Linux. In some cases, it even required a reboot before the PCs worked properly. The paper titled "Blue Note: How Intentional Acoustic Interference Damages Availability and Integrity in Hard Disk Drives and Operating Systems" can be found here (PDF).
Robotics

AI-Enhanced Weed-Killing Robots Frighten Pesticide Industry (reuters.com) 176

Rick Schumann writes: A Swiss company called ecoRobotix is betting the agricultural industry will be willing to welcome their solar-powered weed-killing autonomous robot, in an effort to reduce the use of herbicides by up to a factor of 20 and perhaps even eliminate the need for herbicide-resistant GMO crops entirely.

The 'see-and-spray' robot goes from plant to plant, visually differentiating the actual crops and weeds, and squirting the weeds selectively and precisely with weed killer, as opposed to the current technique of using large quantities of weed killer like Monsantos' Roundup to spray entire crops.

Weeds are already becoming resistant to such glyphosate-based herbicides after "more than 20 years of near-ubiquitous use," reports Reuters. (The head of one pesticide company's science division concedes that "That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime product.") But AI-based precision spraying "could mean established herbicides whose effect has worn off on some weeds could be used successfully in more potent, targeted doses."

Meanwhile, another Silicon Valley startup has built a machine using on-board cameras to distinguish weeds from crops -- and was recently acquired by the John Deere tractor company. Reuters calls these companies the "new breed of AI weeders that investors say could disrupt the $100 billion pesticides and seeds industry."

The original submission asks: Should we welcome our weed-killing robotic overlords?
The Almighty Buck

Companies Are Using California Homes As Batteries To Power the Grid (qz.com) 208

"Companies like Tesla and SunRun are starting to bid on utility contracts that would allow them to string together dozens or hundreds of systems that act as an enormous reserve to balance the flow of electricity on the grid," reports Quartz. "Doing so would accelerate the grid's transformation from 20th century hub-and-spoke architecture to a transmission network moving electricity among thousands or millions of customers who generate and store their own power." From the report: In theory, networked home-solar-and-battery systems, acting in coordination over a single geographical area, could replace things like natural gas "peaker" plants need to help support the grid on a moment's notice. But it's an open question whether it makes financial sense. Kamath says renewable mandates could keep home solar-storage solutions for the grid going for a while, but the idea will have to prove itself on the market, perhaps by aggregating large areas, if it wants to seriously compete with existing energy assets.

SunRun told investors in 2017 that its pilot programs suggest it could competitively generate $2,000 worth of services by managing electricity flow back to the grid. The company has recently dropped its combative stance with utilities dragging their feet on accepting home solar. Instead, it's pursuing cooperation with the utilities now, in hopes of selling them home-based power. That would allow it grab a chunk of the billions being spent on modernizing the grid. "We don't want to be in a position of building two competing infrastructures," SunRun's Jurich said.

Google

Google Zooms By Amazon In Smart Speaker Shipments, Report Says (arstechnica.com) 29

A new report released this week says that Google has surpassed Amazon in global smart speaker shipments in the first quarter of 2018. "[Research firm Canalys] says Google shipped 3.2 million Google Home and Home Mini speakers over the course of the quarter," reports Ars Technica. "Amazon, meanwhile, is said to have shipped 2.5 million Echo speakers." From the report: According to the report, Google jumped from taking 19.3 percent of smart speaker shipments in Q1 2017 to 36.2 percent this past quarter. Amazon accounted for a whopping 79.6 percent of shipments in the year-ago quarter but fell to 27.7 percent in Q1 2018, the report says. Now, it appears the Home has reached a point of parity with the Echo; this report would mark the first time Google has overtaken Amazon in total shipments. Canalys credits Google's rise in part to retailers and channel operators "prioritizing" the Home over the Echo, given that Amazon is one of its biggest competitors in retail at large. A couple of caveats: neither Amazon nor Google breaks out quarterly sales figures for each device family, so Canalys' figures likely aren't 100-percent exact. It's also worth noting that "shipments" are not the same as "sales," so it's possible that deals and discounts on the devices have affected the figures to an extent.
Robotics

Robot Worries Could Cause a 50,000-Worker Strike in Las Vegas (technologyreview.com) 323

Thousands of unionized hotel and casino workers in Las Vegas are ready to go on strike for the first time in more than three decades. From a report: Members of the Culinary Union, who work in many of the city's biggest casinos, have voted to approve a strike unless a deal is reached soon. Some background: On June 1, the contracts of 50,000 union workers expire, making them eligible to strike. Employees range from bartenders to guest room attendants. The last casino worker strike, in 1984, lasted 67 days and cost more than $1 million a day. Why? Higher wages, naturally. But the workers are also looking for better job security, especially from robots. "We support innovations that improve jobs, but we oppose automation when it only destroys jobs," says Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union. "Our industry must innovate without losing the human touch."
Businesses

Apple Blocks Steam's Plan To Extend Its Video Games To iPhones (reuters.com) 202

Citing "business conflicts," Apple has blocked Steam's plans to distribute PC-based video games to iPhones. It's "a sign that Apple is serious about protecting its ability to take a cut of digital purchases made inside games on its mobile devices," reports Reuters. From the report: Steam, the dominant online store for downloaded games played on Windows PCs, had planned to release a free mobile phone app called Steam Link so that gamers could continue playing on their mobile phones while away from their desktop machines. But Apple has rejected the app, blocking its release, according to a statement from Steam's parent company, the Bellevue, Washington-based Valve. Steam did not give a precise reason for the App Store denials, saying only that Apple cited "business conflicts with app guidelines." But the conflict likely centers on what are known as in-app purchases or micro-transactions, in which gamers can spend small sums of money inside games to buy tokens, extra lives or others so-called digital goods. Lombardi said Steam disabled purchasing its iOS app but did not elaborate on how the change was made. Many analysts believe Apple could lose revenue if they allow Steam's app, which is essentially a store-within-a-store. "Apple takes a 30 percent cut of such purchases made within apps distributed through its App Store," Reuters notes. "[T]hose purchases are among the primary drivers of revenue in Apple's services business."
The Courts

Samsung Must Pay Apple $539 Million For Infringing iPhone Design Patents, Jury Finds (cnet.com) 143

Samsung must pay Apple $539 million for infringing five patents with Android phones it sold in 2010 and 2011, a jury has found in a legal fight that dates back seven years. "The unanimous decision, in the U.S. District Court in San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley, is just about halfway between what the two largest mobile phone makers had sought in a high-profile case that reaches back to 2011," reports CNET. From the report: The bulk of the damages payment, $533,316,606, was for infringing three Apple design patents. The remaining $5,325,050 was for infringing two utility patents. Samsung already had been found to infringe the patents, but this trial determined some of the damages. The jury's rationale isn't clear, but the figure is high enough to help cement the importance of design patents in the tech industry. Even though they only describe cosmetic elements of a product, they clearly can have a lot of value.

Samsung showed its displeasure and indicated the fight isn't over. "Today's decision flies in the face of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in favor of Samsung on the scope of design patent damages. We will consider all options to obtain an outcome that does not hinder creativity and fair competition for all companies and consumers," Samsung said.

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