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Google Assistant app now available on iPhones in Europe

If you’ve been hankering for a chance to play with Google Assistant but don’t own an Android phone, Google Home or hate the Allo messaging app, we have good news: Google announced today that the standalone Assistant app has begun rolling out for iOS in the UK, Germany and France, following its US debut back in May.

The app lets you converse with Google’s AI using your voice, which means you’ll likely ask it to answer your questions or use it interact with your smart home devices. Assistant can interact with smart lighting and thermostats, as well as handling calls, sending messages, setting reminders and calendar events, playing music (albeit via YouTube) and directing you home.

Google says the app is designed to operate on devices running iOS 9.1 and above, which should cover the majority of iPhone and iPad users. As we noted in our recent Google Home breakdown, Assistant utilises Google’s search smarts, so it can help you find what you want faster. As Amazon and Apple continue to improve their offerings at a steady rate, it might be worth taking it for a spin, even if you’re already well-acquainted with Alexa or Siri.

Source: Google Assistant (App Store)


Microsoft boasts about Xbox One X sales without giving numbers

Microsoft has been counting the days until the release of its powered-up mid-generation console, the Xbox One X, on November 7th. The company even announced a stylized but otherwise identical Scorpio edition to commemorate the launch. Apparently, that’s gotten players hyped up enough to preorder the console in record but entirely unspecified numbers, Microsoft boasted in a blog post:

“Within just a few days, we saw record-setting sell-out times and are currently sold out in many countries around the world. You, our biggest fans, have pre-ordered more Xbox One X Project Scorpio Edition consoles in the first five days than any Xbox ever.”

The post didn’t give any figures, making it hard to understand this milestone in comparison with other console releases. It did quote an SVP of merchandising for GameStop who said that the Scorpio edition sold more preorders than the original Xbox One, but without numbers we can only guess at the how much of a splash the mid-generation console will make. We weren’t impressed with the slate of launch content and remained skeptical about the Xbox One X’s value, but check out the list of games getting enhanced (to whatever degree) by the souped-up console to judge for yourself.

We’ve reached out to Microsoft for comment and will update if we hear back.

Source: Microsoft


Google Voice is having trouble delivering text messages

If you’re a Google Voice users, there’s a chance you’re not receiving text messages this morning. As spotted by Android Police, a thread in the Google Voice support forums indicates that a number of users are having problems receiving messages. They’re able to send out messages, but replies are another story altogether. It doesn’t matter if you’re using your phone or the Google Voice web interface — replies are currently lost in the ether.

The good news is that the problem appears to be intermittent, at least judging by replies on the Google forum. The bad news is that a Google support representative said they were investigating the problem hours ago and there hasn’t been any update. Just know that if you’re using Google Voice that you could run into some issues getting message replies for a bit — perhaps reach out to your contacts on one of the many better-supported messaging services out there to make sure you’re not missing anything.

We’ve reached out to Google to get more details on this issue and will update this post with any additional info we receive.

Via: Android Police

Source: Google


Facebook adds more ways to relive memories in your News Feed

Facebook’s On This Day has become one of its more popular features, so it’s adding a handful of similar memory-centric compilations to your Feed.

Along with showing you the Facebook activity you were a part of in previous years, the site will now group recent posts into a monthly or seasonal recap story, which you’ll be able to share just like your On This Day lookback. Additionally, your Feed will also congratulate you when you make a significant number of new friends or when you get a lot of likes on your posts. For now, those are only for you, but Facebook says they will become shareable in the future.

There are also some updates to On This Day, which are mostly about making controls and preferences easier to get to. And Facebook has improved its filters for those who want to keep bad memories out of their On This Day and recap compilations. Users have been able to block dates or particular people from showing up in their memory posts and now Facebook has tweaked its algorithm to take reactions and keywords into account when determining what might be a memory someone may not want to see.

The new features will begin rolling out to users now.

Source: Facebook


KFC’s bizarre VR game isn’t ready to revolutionize work training

Fast food franchise KFC is known for its oddball stunts, including special smartphone editions (and wacky chicken-themed accessories). But its latest, a VR escape room cum work training experience, is one of its oddest yet. So, I took the bait and accepted KFC’s invitation to don a VR headset and run through their little game, which promised to teach anyone the chicken-frying basics. I walked in a skeptic and walked out with a better idea how the heartland franchise makes its bones, so to speak. But as for turning this into a proper, franchise-scalable work training tool, there area slew of logistical roadblocks.

Let’s cut to the chase: KFC’s VR training experience is…surreal. If you’ve got a thing for Saw but wanted Jigsaw to kindly instruct you through making fried chicken, this is your bag. Titled The Hard Way — because you’re making Kentucky fried goodness by hand, ostensibly how every KFC employee makes it on-site — players inspect, oil, batter and fry poultry under the omnipotent eye (and disembodied voice) of The Colonel. It’s creepy yet charming, which is KFC’s wheelhouse now with its media and stunts. But the ten-minute VR trip won’t make you a master chicken fryer, or even a competent employee.

As it stands, KFC’s VR trip is a weird diversion, an indulgent freefall into a brand’s cultish mythology. I got stuck on some tasks, like figuring out I was supposed to eyeball the whole chicken piece while “inspecting” it and struggling through a final shape-matching test. (I’ll admit to getting distracted by the cuckoo clocks and knickknacks plastering the walls of the virtual kitchen.) The oddball humor helps, though. When I tossed a chicken piece to the ground, the Colonel’s framed portrait used its eyeball lasers to zap it back up to my prep table, for example.

Obviously, the bizarro atmosphere doesn’t reflect a real workplace, but the humorous touches would likely keep potential trainees engaged in their VR education. And, hell, we could all use more play in the workplace. The Hard Way might look like it was made by Willy Wonka’s loony capitalist cousin from the south, but it’s good to see a brand not take itself seriously.

To be fair, everyone I talked to reassured me that The Hard Way is in its very early stages, and KFC isn’t totally sure how they want to refine or change it. By no means are they gearing up to replace traditional recruit training with the VR experience, KFC Head Chef Bob Das told me. At most, the company is showing it to some regional managers for feedback. For now, they’re trucking media in for another weird KFC experience and considering next steps — there’s always the possibility that it could augment training in the future, Das said.

When a brand so steeped in its old-school American image tries to jump on buzzworthy tech, it’s reasonable to be skeptical. The franchise has done outlandish gadget stunts in the past, from releasing a phone-charging takeout box to suggesting a take-out order based on your face. But their VR experience is a different endeavor, primarily because known companies like L’Oreal and UPS are looking into swapping virtual reality in for on-site training. With some tweaks to better simulate the real cooking process, I could see The Hard Way becoming a prototype for KFC’s future programs prepping trainees before they reach the real machines on-site.

But KFC’s VR experience has issues with scalability — including basing it on Oculus Rift (the pic above shows me wearing a Vive, but it was just for a photo op back at the office.). A recent price cut dropped the prosumer headset and controller bundle to $500, but that’s still more expensive than smartphone kits like Samsung’s $100 Gear VR or the almost-free Google Cardboard. That makes rolling out even a single kit to each of the 17,000-plus KFC locations worldwide astronomically expensive. The team at Wieden + Kennedy Lodge that built the experience chose to use the Rift for higher quality and better portability than the cord-bound HTC Vive, but that’s still a hefty cost for each franchised KFC location to bear.

In short, KFC’s facing the same minor business crisis as every other company considering VR training: Is it feasible? For the fried chicken king, it might be more of a hassle than it’s worth to route recruits through a high-tech simulation instead of simply walking them through steps in a kitchen. Given all the piping hot equipment in the back of a KFC, it might even be dangerous. Google held an experiment where volunteer barista trainees subbed in VR experiences for training videos and found the former more effective — but they got careless around digital steam wands that would have burned them in real life. Imagine horsing around in a VR mockup of a KFC kitchen and then discovering what boiling fry oil feels like — finding out The Hard Way on-site, you could say.

KFC is considering releasing the VR experience to Oculus Rift users, though players might rightly write it off as a dressed-up commercial for the company’s on-site chicken-frying process. It’s a shame they won’t get the full media experience, where hapless reporters donned aprons, hairnets and gloves before diving into the VR trip while actual chicken was frying in the next room (talk about indulging all of your senses). If players at home really want a crash course in how a fast food joint makes its flagship dish and don’t mind a bonkers experience, they could do worse than The Hard Way. It beats getting lectured by a Colonel Sanders puppet — but the future of fast food training it is not. Not yet, anyway.


Watson is helping heal America’s broken criminal-sentencing system

The American criminal-justice system’s sentencing system is among the fairest and most equitable in the world … assuming you’re wealthy, white and male. Everybody else is generally SOL. During the past three decades, America’s prison population has quadrupled to more than 2.3 million people. Of those incarcerated, 58 percent are either black or Latino (despite those groups constituting barely a quarter of the general US population). The racial disparity in America’s justice system is both obvious and endemic, which is why some courts have started looking for technological solutions. But can an artificial intelligence really make better sentencing recommendations than the people who designed it? We’re about to find out.

Human judgment can be dangerously fallible. That’s why, as the ACLU found in 2014, black and Latino men are not only more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts, their sentences are nearly 20 percent longer. And the more severe the crime, the bigger the disparity. In 2009, black Americans made up 13 percent of the country’s population yet constituted 28 percent of all inmates serving life sentences and more than 56 percent of both those serving life without parole and those serving a life-without-parole sentence for a conviction that occurred when they were kids. What’s more, studies have shown that anything from when an official last ate to how well the local sports team is performing can generate wild swings in how sentencing decisions are made. And that’s where the cold, calculating and empirically-based logic of AI is supposed to come in.

A study out of Cornell University from February suggests that, at least in decisions of whether or not to grant bail, AI may provide a significantly fairer alternative to human judges. In its machine-learning policy simulation, the Cornell team calculated that such systems can cut crime rates by 24.8 percent without increasing jailing rates by denying bail to the most dangerous offenders. Even more impressive, they may be able to reduce the US prison population by a whopping 42 percent without affecting the crime rate by releasing arrestees with minimal likelihood of committing more crimes. But the key is that these benefits would extend equally to blacks and Latinos as they do to whites.

LAPD's 77th Division Gang Unit

Police officers from the 77th Division gang unit handcuff three men

But AI is not the legal silver bullet that some had hoped for, at least not yet. Take the case of Eric Loomis v. Wisconsin. Loomis had been convicted of fleeing the police in a vehicle and sentenced to six years in prison. The duration of his sentence was influenced by his “high-risk” status, which was determined by Compas, a risk-assessment program employed by the court. The problem is, nobody knows how Compas works, save for Northpointe Inc., the company that sells it. The software is proprietary, its algorithm opaque, and the way in which it weighs various factors in its decision-making has been ruled a trade secret.

There is simply no means of legally coercing Northpointe into divulging how its software works. Loomis tried, arguing that his legal team should be able to examine the software and challenge the validity of its recommendations all the way up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court (SCOTUS declined to review the case in June).

The court eventually ruled against Loomis, reasoning that the software returned the same result a human judge would have, given Loomis’ actions and criminal history. However, in that decision, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley noted a ProPublica study from 2016 that found black defendants in Broward County, Florida, “were far more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly judged to be at a higher rate of recidivism” by the software.

“This study and others raise concerns regarding how a Compas assessment’s risk factors correlate with race,” Bradley wrote. Therefore, it should be employed only to provide “the sentencing court with as much information as possible in order to arrive at an individualized sentence” rather than be the deciding factor itself.

So here we are, with human judges who can’t seem to stop stepping on their own prejudices (however subconscious) and closed-source sentencing software that can’t be trusted by the public. Luckily, Montgomery County, Ohio, appears to be taking Justice Bradley’s advice and developing a hybrid solution to better serve its community.

Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi has teamed with IBM to adapt the company’s Watson AI system to work within the judicial system. It’s part of a pilot program aimed to help judges better understand the nuances of a kid’s home life and, in turn, make better decisions in regard to his or her care.

Judge Capizzi sees around 30 cases in an average docket, with only about six minutes to spend on any individual kid. There’s certainly no time to be fumbling with paperwork. That’s why Capizzi’s court is leveraging Watson’s cognitive abilities to develop a digital case-file system that surfaces all of the most relevant information to the case at hand.

“This is really a care-management system,” Capizzi told Engadget, “the distinction being that a case-management system tells the court what’s happened in the past, what’s going on with that child, that family, that court over the last three, five, 20 years. It doesn’t give you any indication of their capability for the future.”

With this system, however, the judge is afforded a more-complete view of the child’s life, her essential information displayed on a dashboard that can be updated in real-time. Should the judge need additional details, he can easily have it pulled up. “If I have 10 care providers in my region, can Watson tell me — because of where that child lives, their educational background, their limitations, their family — is there a better one for that child versus the nine others?”

But it’s not as though Capizzi blindly follows Watson’s recommendations. He points out that when making decisions in child-custody matters, he’s already receiving a number of competing recommendations — from law enforcement, probation officers and mental-health providers. “In the end, the judge makes the decision — I make the tough call,” he said.

“It gives me a better ability to synthesize what I know,” he explained. “It allows me to learn information quicker and in a concise way. It gives me the ability to read hundreds of law-review articles, maybe thousands of law-review articles in a matter of a day or two. … Watson can do that better at this point than any one or two or three individuals.”

Capizzi expects Watson’s computational ability to be fully realized within the next 18 months. As more and more information is fed into the system, Watson should begin returning increasingly accurate recommendations, which should help foster trust in the system. The eventual goal is to apply the digital case-file system across all 88 of Ohio’s counties and potentially serve as the model for a national program. And not just for juvenile or family courts. Capizzi envisions a day when every criminal court has access to this sort of technology. “The courts are only successful, I think, if they have the broadest, most unbiased information available to make decisions,” he said.

Granted, there is still a danger of Watson becoming biased based on the information being fed to it — just as is the case with any machine-learning system. However, Capizzi is steadfast in his belief that by combining the relative strengths of humans and AI, not only will the courts operate more efficiently, they’ll be able to markedly improve the service they provide to their constituents.

“Courts have to change,” Capizzi concluded. “Technology is changing every aspect of life, and I really think this gives our courts a more efficient way to get work done.”

Image: Getty (Police and handcuffed suspects)


The best portable AC power supply

By Mark Smirniotis

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. When readers choose to buy The Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read the full article here.

If you want to power or charge a small, AC-based device such as a laptop when power outlets are out of reach, you should get the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet (27 amp-hours). It’s essentially the same thing as a USB-only battery pack, but with higher capacity and an AC outlet. The ChargeTech stood out among the small models we tested because it offered the best balance of size, capacity, and price. If you need to power more than just a laptop or some other small device but a gas generator is out of the question, we like the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Solar Generator for its higher capacity and output, as well as its top-notch build quality—even if it’s too big and too heavy to lug around all the time.

Who this is for

You need an AC power source if you want to charge devices that require AC power, such as laptops and camera-battery chargers, or if you want to power AC-based devices like lighting equipment, fans, or certain music gear. AC power sources can also come in handy at conferences and conventions, on road trips, for remote workers, on photography expeditions, or during technology-heavy outdoor adventures.

Our smaller pick, the ChargeTech, is better suited to an individual looking for a portable, short-term option—for example, if you need to power a laptop at a coffee shop or airport and you don’t have access to an outlet. If you’re going for longer stretches away from the grid, have a large device to power, or want to take care of multiple smaller devices, you should consider a larger pack such as the Goal Zero Yeti 400. Weighing 10 to 30 pounds, these packs are meant to be kept in a vehicle or lugged to a single spot to stay put for a while—think of car camping or tailgating, portable presentations, or professional work sites.

How we picked and tested

For smaller models, we tested the Xcellon PB-1200AC (left), the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet (right), and the Goal Zero Sherpa 100 with Sherpa Inverter (bottom). Photo: Michael Hession

If you need an AC outlet slapped on a battery, you don’t have many choices—the 12 models we considered make up the bulk of the options when it comes to portable, affordable AC power sources. We split these models into two groups based on capacity and price. The first group of smaller batteries included eight models that were reasonably affordable and made sense for a carry-on, laptop bag, or backpack, so we focused on the most portable models—generally lithium-based units that weigh less than 5 pounds. The second group contained a handful of larger models for outdoor enthusiasts and field professionals that need more power than the smaller models can pack.

We charged each unit to full and then drained it using a 50-watt light bulb—our easily reproducible stand-in for a small laptop. We monitored the power usage and cumulative watt-hours with a simple Kill A Watt meter, and repeated the process three times. We then repeated this test using a 2012 11-inch MacBook Air to better simulate how people actually use these things in the real world.

We also considered how many watts each battery could put out at a given moment, and how smooth of an output it generated. Additionally, we paid attention to build quality and any usability quirks that came into play while using one of these batteries during an average workday.

Our pick for most people

Photo: Michael Hession

For anyone looking for a portable power source to charge a laptop or other small electronics that get power from a standard AC outlet, the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet (27 amp-hours) offers the best combination of size and capacity, and is useful enough to justify its price. It has a roughly 97 watt-hour (Wh) capacity, and claims a maximum output of 90 watts. It should handle any laptop, battery charger, or other small electronics without a problem, and you could even run a fair-size LED TV in a pinch.

Because the ChargeTech is about the size and weight of a small hardcover book, it’s compact enough for you to carry it in your bag whenever you’re out with your laptop. The trade-off for this small size is the lack of a fan, which seems to be a catch-22 for manufacturers. Although the ChargeTech got uncomfortably hot in our tests, including a fan would have added weight and made the battery quite a bit louder. That said, it gets warm enough that we wouldn’t leave it unattended, just to be on the safe side.

One drawback of the ChargeTech is that none of the ports have reliable protection from debris: The USB ports aren’t covered at all, and though the AC outlet comes with a small cover, that piece isn’t attached in any way—unless you’re judicious about such things, just plan to lose the cover the first time out. Even some basic protections here would make the ChargeTech as competent at a campsite as it is in a café.

When you need more power

The Goal Zero Yeti 400 comes with AC, DC, and USB outlets to power or charge a wide variety of devices. Photo: Mark Smirniotis

If you’re looking for more oomph, the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Solar Generator should do the trick—as long as you don’t need to carry its 30 pounds very far, that is. In our tests, it offered four times the available power of the ChargeTech Portable Power Outlet, but it costs only about twice as much at the time of this writing. With that much power, the Yeti 400 can charge a 13-inch laptop a handful of times or keep a 75-watt television going for almost four hours. It can power up to 300 watts continuously, and offers both a second AC outlet, two USB ports, and three DC outlets. You can also charge this battery using a vehicle or solar kit, though the solar charger doesn’t seem practical unless you have no other options.

The Yeti 400’s reliance on older, lead-acid battery technology is the reason behind the model’s biggest upside—more-affordable capacity—but it’s also the reason for the product’s biggest downside, considerable weight. The Yeti 400 is a stout little box (10 by 8 by 8 inches) that easily fits in a plastic milk crate; each time we lifted it, we were surprised by just how heavy it was. (Thankfully, it has a sturdy, extendable handle on top.) The lead-acid battery inside the Yeti is user-replaceable and not prohibitively expensive—a branded replacement currently costs $100, and a comparable generic is available for less.

The Yeti also uses a higher-quality pure-sine-wave inverter than our smaller pick. This means that instead of rougher power that a small fraction of devices won’t handle well (such as audio equipment, power tools, or motors), the Yeti produces smoother power that any device can handle—power that’s just like what the utility companies send out to standard wall outlets.

This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

Note from The Wirecutter: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.


Astronomers capture best image yet of a star other than the sun

See that photo above? It might look a lot hazier than the HD photos you’re used to, but it’s the best and most detail image of a star other than our own sun that we’ve captured thus far. A team of astronomers led by Keiichi Ohnaka have used ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer in Chile to map Antares, one of the largest known stars and the brightest in the Scorpius constellation. Antares, a red supergiant, is visible to the naked eye as a reddish, twinkling star, but we’ve never seen it this close before.

ESO’s VLTI is a collection of four 8.2-meter telescopes and four smaller, 1.8-meter auxiliary telescopes. Together, the eight instruments form a massive virtual telescope 200 meter across. This capability allows the VLTI to spot the finer details the telescopes won’t be able to see on their own.

Ohnaka says they chose Antares, because aside from the fact that its size makes it easier to observe than its smaller counterparts, it’s still a mystery how big stars like it “lose mass so quickly in the final phase of their evolution.” Mapping its surface and the movements of the gases in its atmosphere is “a crucial step towards clarifying this problem.” It’s also nice to have a close-up photo of Antares before it explodes in the next few hundred thousand years.

The red regions in the team’s velocity map below represent gases moving away from us, while the blue sections are the gases approaching us:

Ohnaka says the technique can be “applied to different types of stars to study their surfaces and atmospheres in unprecedented detail.” He added: “This has been limited to just the sun up to now. Our work brings stellar astrophysics to a new dimension and opens an entirely new window to observe stars.”

Source: ESO


Apple’s Swift coding course heads to 30 community colleges

In May, Apple launched a free app development curriculum that includes around 180 hours of training as well as lesson plans, exercises and instruction guides. Today, the company has announced that over 30 community colleges across the US have incorporated the App Development with Swift curriculum into their course offerings for the upcoming school year.

Colleges that will offer the course include institutions in Mississippi, Kansas and Alabama, among others. Austin Community College District, which has 11 campuses in eight counties and serves 74,000 students, is also one of the schools that has adopted the curriculum. “We’re thrilled to have Apple join our mission to make Austin more affordable for people who already live in the city,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement. “Apple is going to be a force multiplier in the community’s ongoing efforts to lift 10,000 out of poverty and into good jobs over the next five years.”

This early adoption of Apple’s new program is a testament to the attention educators are giving app development and coding in their curricula. And with learning to code becoming more and more accessible at earlier ages — through both school-based initiatives like Apple’s Everyone Can Code as well as the slew of toys and apps that are now geared towards young children — the demand for such courses in higher education is only going to grow.

“We’ve seen firsthand how Apple’s app ecosystem has transformed the global economy, creating entire new industries and supporting millions of jobs,” said Apple CEO, Tim Cook. “We believe passionately that same opportunity should be extended to everyone, and community colleges have a powerful reach into communities where education becomes the great equalizer.”

Source: Apple


A quadrocopter could be used to explore Saturn’s largest moon

Back in 2014, NASA proposed using drones to explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Well, three years later, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab has a pitch for the aeronautics agency. Like NASA suggested a few years ago, Hopkins’ craft is a quadrocopter. The school said that its Dragonfly drone is ideal for exploring the moon given its dense atmosphere and weak gravity, making it “perfect” for heavier-than-air flight. “A human could actually strap on wings, flap their arms and fly,” Peter Bedini says in the video below.

The craft’s mission would entail going from one geologic site to the next, examining the moon’s oceanic surface and atmosphere to see how viable it’d be for human habitation.

“Mass spectrometry would reveal the composition of the surface and the atmosphere,” the school writes. “Gamma-ray spectrometry would measure the composition of the shallow subsurface. Meteorology and geophysics sensors would measure atmospheric conditions such as wind, pressure, temperature and other factors, as well as seismic activity. Additionally, a camera suite would characterize the geologic and physical nature of the moon’s surface and help find subsequent landing sites.”

If you’re wondering how the Dragonfly will maintain power throughout its missions, here’s a hint: It won’t be gathered from the sun. Instead, a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator will keep the craft in the air.

Compared to a land-based craft, the school says that the Dragonfly is much more efficient because it can, well, fly, from one test site to another and give more of a return on investment. Sometime later this fall NASA will make its pick for the winning New Frontiers mission and said mission is expected to launch in the middle of 2019.

Source: Johns Hopkins

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