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GOOGLE NEVER REALLY LEFT CHINA: A LOOK AT THE CHINESE WEBSITE GOOGLE’S BEEN QUIETLY RUNNING

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More information is leaking out about just how Google is planning to re-enter the Chinese market with a mobile search engine application that complies to the country’s censorship laws.

The Intercept first broke this story when a whistleblower provided them documentation detailing the secret censored search project (codenamed Dragonfly). According to them, an overlooked Google acquisition from 2008 — 265.com — has been quietly laying down the foundation for the endeavor.

In order to run a business in China, tech companies are required to obtain a Internet Content Provider license from the Chinese government. As it’s difficult for foreign businesses to obtain this license, Google has long partnered with Chinese IT company Ganji.com. Back in the early years of Google.cn, Google actually operated directly off of Ganji.com’s license, even claiming the Chinese company was temporarily running its search engine. Facing intense scrutiny from the Chinese government and the media over this license arrangement, in 2007 Google formed a legitimate joint venture company with Ganji.com — the Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co.

Because of the necessity of that license, Google has maintained that joint venture and has been operating in China under the name Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co. ever since. Even after the shut down of Google.cn, Google’s Chinese advertising enterprise has been operating under the joint venture company as well as, low and behold, 265.com. A whois search of the 265.com domain name, which provides a record of the current domain registrant information, pulls up Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co. as the registrant organization.

A significant number of Google employees are reportedly none too happy about Google’s project complying with Chinese censorship laws. This most recent news, that the company has long been collecting data for a moment just like this, surely won’t make morale among these workers any better.

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WHISTLEBLOWER REVEALS GOOGLE’S PLANS FOR CENSORED SEARCH IN CHINA

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Google is reportedly planning to relaunch its search engine in China, complete with censored results to meet the demands of the Chinese government. The company originally shut down its Chinese search engine in 2010, citing government attempts to “limit free speech on the web.” But according to a report from The Interceptthe US tech giant now wants to return to the world’s biggest single market for internet users.

According to internal documents provided to The Intercept by a whistleblower, Google has been developing a censored version of its search engine under the codename “Dragonfly” since the beginning of 2017. The search engine is being built as an Android mobile app and will reportedly “blacklist sensitive queries” and filter out all websites blocked by China’s web censors (including Wikipedia and BBC News). The censorship will extend to Google’s image search, spell check, and suggested search features.

The web is heavily censored in China, with the country’s so-called Great Firewall stopping citizens from accessing many sites. Information on topics like religion, police brutality, freedom of speech, and democracy are heavily filtered, while specific search topics (like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and Taiwanese independence) are censored completely. Advocacy groups report that censorship in the country has increased under President Xi Jinping, extending beyond the web to social media and chat apps.

The whistleblower who spoke to The Intercept said they did so because they were “against large companies and governments collaborating in the oppression of their people.” They also suggested that “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”

Patrick Poon, a researcher with Amnesty International, agreed with this assessment. Poon told The Intercept that if Google launches a censored version of its search engine in China it will “set a terrible precedent” for other companies. “The biggest search engine in the world obeying the censorship in China is a victory for the Chinese government — it sends a signal that nobody will bother to challenge the censorship any more,” said Poon.

In a statement given to The Verge, a spokesperson said: “We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

According to The Intercept, Google faces a number of substantial barriers before it can launch its new search app in China, including approval from officials in Beijing and “confidence within Google” that the app will be better than its main rival in China, Baidu.

Google previously offered a censored version of its search engine in China between 2006 and 2010, before pulling out of the country after facing criticism in the US. (Politicians said the company was acting as a “functionary of the Chinese government.”) In recent months, though, the company has been attempting to reintegrate itself into the Chinese commercial market. It launched an AI research lab in Beijing last December, a mobile file management app in January, and an AI-powered doodle game just last month.

Although this suggests Google is eager to get a slice of China’s huge market of some 750 million web users, ambitions to relaunch its search engine may yet go nowhere. Reports in past years of plans to bring the Google Play mobile store to China, for example, have so far come to nothing, and Google regularly plans out projects it ultimately rejects.

Notably, relations between China and the US have worsened in recent weeks due to trade tariffs imposed by President Trump. The Interceptreports that despite this Google staff have been told to be ready to launch the app at short notice. The company’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, reportedly told employees last month that they must be prepared in case “suddenly the world changes or [President Trump] decides his new best friend is Xi Jinping.”

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THIS GOOGLE-FUNDED COMPANY USES ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE TO FIGHT AGAINST FAKE NEWS

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“Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” wrote Jonathan Swift over 200 years ago.

If that was the case back then, before telephones and radio, let alone Twitter and Instagram, imagine how much bigger the problem is now.  In fact, it’s so big that “fake news” has become a hot topic for those on both sides of the political spectrum. Gartner has gone as far as predicting that by 2022, we will consume more lies than truth.

But if technology has exacerbated the situation, there’s hope that it may also offer remedies. In particular, artificial intelligence – in its most useful current form, machine learning – can potentially be a powerful tool for sorting truth from fiction.

Machine learning is already being used by banks and financial institutions to comb through records of financial transactions, looking for tell-tale signs of errors or fraud, and then using that data to become more efficient – effectively “learning” without human input.

In the same way, algorithms can be trained to monitor media – across both social networks and news organizations – looking for tell-tale signs that any piece of output might be out of alignment with whatever objective truths are known regarding situations or events.

One exciting application of this technology comes from Belgium-based startup VeriFlix. They have developed a method of scanning user-submitted videos – which play an increasingly significant part in the output of most media organizations – and attempting to determine whether they actually are what they purport to be.

After winning funding through Google’s Digital News Initiative, the company’s technology is now being put to use by one of that country’s largest media outlets – Rourlarta, with promising results.

Founder Donald Staar talked to me about how the platform had evolved from its initial conception as a peer-to-peer crowdsourcing app for videos. Media organizations would make a request for video footage through the app, and any user within the correct geolocation could switch on their phone and start filming.

“Once the videos get sent to the platform we add a layer which first detects the content of every stream – so we can say what we see in the video, alongside the geolocation data and time stamp,” Staar tells me.

“And once the videos are tagged we can compare them to one another, so that if for example, one request results in 1,000 videos, we can compare the content of every video and if a majority of the videos show the same content, then it can verify the authenticity of what has been shot.

“If 800 videos out of 1,000 show the same thing then the probability that the video has been faked is very low.”

Veriflix uses the YOLO (You Only Look Once) real-time object detection algorithms to classify and label contents of videos, before passing that data through to proprietary algorithms, designed in partnership with KU Leuven University. These algorithms analyze the data, alongside timestamp and geolocation information passed through the application’s secure interface.

Staar says “There are two main advantages – the first is that media companies can now make sure that videos they use are authentic and shot in the location where they say they are taken, and not modified or doctored.

“The other advantage is that they are able to bridge the gap between themselves and their audience – let their audience become a part of the story, and source exclusive and verified content very quickly. It can be for small things, too – it doesn’t have to just be big, breaking news.”

As is common with those working in today’s AI space, Staar is keen to point out that the idea isn’t to put journalists and human fact-checkers out of jobs.

“It will not replace the job of the journalist – we will always need journalists to put everything in perspective, but to get the raw data, this will be a great tool.”

Of course, as technology advances, the tools that fakers use to attempt to pull the wool over our eyes are likely to become increasingly sophisticated. It’s already possible to make highly realistic videos putting words in the mouths of people who would, in reality, be very unlikely to say such things. This doctored video of Obama being rather rude about Trump is a great example (warning, contains explicit language)

Over time it’s likely we will see a continuation of the arms race which has always existed in the technology sphere – with good guys racing against the bad guys to be the first to deploy the latest and most powerful tools.

Fake news is unlikely ever to be fully eradicated – there will always be someone willing to present a skewed version of the truth to push their own agenda. However, it could be the case that tools like VeriFlix, or whatever comes next, will raise the barrier regarding the tech and expertise needed to hoodwink us, going some way toward making the world a more truthful place.

Bernard Marr is a best-selling author & keynote speaker on business, technology and big data. His new book is Data Strategy. To read his future posts simply join his network here.

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