Self-taught, ‘superhuman’ AI now even smarter: makers


PARIS (AFP) – The computer that stunned humanity by beating the best mortal players at a strategy board game requiring “intuition” has become even smarter, its makers said Wednesday.

Even more startling, the updated version of AlphaGo is entirely self-taught — a major step towards the rise of machines that achieve superhuman abilities “with no human input”, they reported in the science journal Nature.

Dubbed AlphaGo Zero, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) system learnt by itself, within days, to master the ancient Chinese board game known as “Go” — said to be the most complex two-person challenge ever invented.

It came up with its own, novel moves to eclipse all the Go acumen humans have acquired over thousands of years.

After just three days of self-training it was put to the ultimate test against AlphaGo, its forerunner which previously dethroned the top human champs.

AlphaGo Zero won by 100 games to zero.

“AlphaGo Zero not only rediscovered the common patterns and openings that humans tend to play… it ultimately discarded them in preference for its own variants which humans don’t even know about or play at the moment,” said AlphaGo lead researcher David Silver.

The 3,000-year-old Chinese game played with black and white stones on a board has more move configurations possible than there are atoms in the Universe.

AlphaGo made world headlines with its shock 4-1 victory in March 2016 over 18-time Go champion Lee Se-Dol, one of the game’s all-time masters.

Lee’s defeat showed that AI was progressing faster than widely thought, said experts at the time who called for rules to make sure powerful AI always remains completely under human control.

In May this year, an updated AlphaGo Master programme beat world Number One Ke Jie in three matches out of three.

Not constrained by humans

Unlike its predecessors which trained on data from thousands of human games before practising by playing against itself, AlphaGo Zero did not learn from humans, or by playing against them, according to researchers at DeepMind, the British artificial intelligence (AI) company developing the system.

“All previous versions of AlphaGo… were told: ‘Well, in this position the human expert played this particular move, and in this other position the human expert played here’,” Silver said in a video explaining the advance.

AlphaGo Zero skipped this step.

Instead, it was programmed to respond to reward — a positive point for a win versus a negative point for a loss.

Starting with just the rules of Go and no instructions, the system learnt the game, devised strategy and improved as it competed against itself — starting with “completely random play” to figure out how the reward is earned.

This is a trial-and-error process known as “reinforcement learning”.

Unlike its predecessors, AlphaGo Zero “is no longer constrained by the limits of human knowledge,” Silver and DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis wrote in a blog.

Amazingly, AlphaGo Zero used a single machine — a human brain-mimicking “neural network” — compared to the multiple-machine “brain” that beat Lee.

It had four data processing units compared to AlphaGo’s 48, and played 4.9 million training games over three days compared to 30 million over several months.

Beginning of the end?

“People tend to assume that machine learning is all about big data and massive amounts of computation but actually what we saw with AlphaGo Zero is that algorithms matter much more,” said Silver.

The findings suggested that AI based on reinforcement learning performed better than those that rely on human expertise, Satinder Singh of the University of Michigan wrote in a commentary also carried by Nature.

“However, this is not the beginning of any end because AlphaGo Zero, like all other successful AI so far, is extremely limited in what it knows and in what it can do compared with humans and even other animals,” he said.

AlphaGo Zero’s ability to learn on its own “might appear creepily autonomous”, added Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

But there was an important difference, he told AFP, “between the general-purpose smarts humans have and the specialised smarts” of computer software.

“What DeepMind has demonstrated over the past years is that one can make software that can be turned into experts in different domains… but it does not become generally intelligent.”

It was also worth noting that AlphaGo was not programming itself, said Sandberg.

“The clever insights making Zero better was due to humans, not any piece of software suggesting that this approach would be good. I would start to get worried when that happens.”

First floating wind farm starts operation in Scotland


(AFP) – The world s first floating wind farm started operations off the coast of Scotland on Wednesday, opening up the possibility of turbines at sea depths that would avoid spoiling views from the shore.

The 30MW Hywind farm, operated by Norwegian oil group Statoil in partnership with Abu Dhabi s renewable energy company Masdar, is located 25 kilometres (16 miles) off the Aberdeenshire coast.

It will power approximately 20,000 households.

Irene Rummelhoff, executive vice president of Statoil s New Energy Solutions, said in a statement that Hywind “will pave the way for new global market opportunities for floating offshore wind energy”.

Mohamed Al Ramahi, chief executive of Masdar, said: “Hywind Scotland is showing that floating wind technology can be commercially viable wherever sea depths are too great for conventional fixed offshore wind power.

“This opens up a number of new geographies, and we are already looking at future opportunities with our partners…” he added.

The technical capacity to allow wind farms to float further out to sea opens up the possibility of faster development for the clean technology, which has often been slowed by public opposition to building giant turbines near homes or at picturesque locations.

Aberdeenshire is no stranger to public opposition to offshore wind farm projects, with US President Donald Trump trying unsuccessfully to get British courts to block construction of turbines visible from his golf course.

The Hywind project includes a 1MWh lithium battery known as Batwind to overcome the challenge many clean energy projects have of storing energy produced at times of low demand.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Hywind would help Scotland meet its “ambitious climate change targets”. Many countries plan to rely heavily on to reduce their use of dirty fuels for power generation.

Together with the battery project, the wind farm “puts us at the forefront of this global race and positions Scotland as a world centre for energy innovation,” she said.

ZTE Axon M with two displays, a new trend in smartphones?


(Web Desk) – Chinese smartphone manufacturer ZTE has experimented for the first time by introducing two displays in a single phone which flip open and can be combined to make the screen larger. These screens not only make the display bigger but also provide a next generation interactive interface.

The design is unique and has caught the eyes of buyers and smartphone makers alike. Tech geeks opined that the two displays design could either be the new trend or next flop for the industry.

Smartphone giants including Samsung and iPhone are both currently focusing on folding technology for display screens OLED. While Samsung is due to launch its first folding screen phone next year, Apple has hinted at plans to start working with LG Display to start manufacturing foldable models after 2020. Lenovo had showcased its foldable phone as well.

Coming back to Axon M, the M stands for multi-tasking. The featured phone is equipped with two foldable screens that can be joined to make a tablet-like device. The two 5.2-inch screens can be combined by flipping open into 6.8 inches of a single screen. Competing with the likes of Google Pixel 2, iPhone X, Galaxy Note 8 and other flagships models, ZTE launched Axon M with 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage and 4K display.

Although ZTE hasn’t revealed the price of its featured phone which will launch on November 17, it is expected to be cheaper than both iPhone X and Note 8. Some of the cons include dual screen modes, single camera for all kinds of pictures (including selfies) and smooth folding function. The cons include heavy and thick mode, no waterproofing, less optimization of apps with the foldable screen, not bezel-free and a few design flaws.

Baidu to hit the road with self-driving bus


LAGUNA BEACH, United States (AFP) – Baidu chief executive Robin Li on Tuesday said the Chinese internet giant will have a self-driving bus on the road soon as it races for a lead in autonomous vehicles.

Baidu is collaborating with an array of companies on autonomous cars, and is working with a large bus maker in China to have a self-driving bus running a route by next year, Li said in an on-stage interview late Tuesday at The Wall Street Journal D.Live conference in Laguna Beach, California.

Most major automakers and technology titans including Google-parent Alphabet have been stepping up efforts on autonomous driving in recent years, convinced that these systems could eliminate most road accidents. Apple has a testing permit in California.

US-based Tesla boasts that its models are built with the hardware for self-driving in event regulators give the technology a green light.

US chip maker Intel has a partnership with Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle unit Waymo, and plans for its own fleet of self-driving cars.

Li said Baidu has a “solid plan” to have its Apollo software platform in fully-autonomous production cars by the year 2021, and in semi-autonomous cars in two years.

Apollo software will provide smarts for navigating cars, with Baidu providing information, entertainment and other online offerings to passengers, according to Li.

“Our vision is that once a person is in the car, you never need to touch your phone anymore; everything in the car is a better experience,” Li said.

Baidu last month announced a $1.5 billion investment in autonomous driving projects over the next three years, as it seeks to diversify its portfolio and compete with rivals.

In July, the company launched an initial version of autonomous driving platform “Apollo.”

While Apollo software is open and free, there are “lots of things” Baidu can do to make money, such as providing car map services, entertainment, or even insurance, according to Li.

AI under the hood

Baidu’s search engine dominates the Chinese internet, and online ads are a key revenue stream.

But since a crackdown by authorities on Baidu’s online advertising business after a much-publicized scandal over promoting a fake medical treatment, “China’s Google” is seeking to focus on artificial intelligence and is investing heavily in the sector.

Baidu is pumping 15 percent of its revenue into research, with nearly all of that dedicated to artificial intelligence, Li said.

Software smarts are needed to safely navigate cars with humans at the wheels.

“We have entered a new age, the age of AI,” Li said.

Fighting fake news

Baidu is also using AI in a fight against being used to spread “fake news.” “Typically, fake news travels faster than real facts,” Li said.

“We want to provide the best way for people to find information.” Li acknowledged that Baidu needs “to do a lot more work,” but said the company is doing that “using technology and editorial control.”

Steps Baidu has taken include extracting main topics from articles and providing readers with related entries from its online encyclopedia for fact-checking, Li said.

Baidu last month teamed up with China’s cyber police to control the spread of rumors and fake news.

Baidu said artificial intelligence tools would monitor and identify “rumors” on its services — search engine, forums and blogs — on a system linked to registered police agencies around the country.

Suspicious content will be sent to the police for review and to reference organizations, such as state agencies, science academies or media, who will then be able to produce articles refuting the rumors, the official Xinhua news agency said at the time.

“Rumors” are to be labelled as such in search engine results or on forums, accompanied by the articles offering corrections.

Chinese authorities closely monitor cyberspace activities through their “Great Firewall.” Websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest have been blocked for years.

Is facial recognition the stuff of sci-fi? Not in China


SHANGHAI (AFP) – From toilet-paper dispensers to fast-food restaurants, travel and crime-fighting, China is taking the lead in rolling out facial-recognition technology.

But while advocates warn it makes life easier, quicker and safer, opponents counter that it is another example of how the Chinese government keeps a sinister and increasingly close eye on its 1.4 billion people.

Shanghai and other Chinese cities have recently started deploying facial recognition to catch those who flout the rules of the road.

Jaywalkers at some Shanghai intersections have their images flashed up on a nearby screen for public shaming and must pay a fine of 20 yuan ($3) to have it removed. And people at the crossing hardly blinked

Communist-ruled China is already one of world’s most heavily monitored societies, with estimates of more than 176 million surveillance cameras in operation.

“I can accept it. The offenders are captured after all in public and I think it’s a way to enforce the law,” said 42-year-old hospital worker Wu, who give only her surname.

“However, I believe there are some people whose photos are displayed publicly who may express their concerns about this, saying their privacy was violated and worrying about their private information being misused.”

Police say facial recognition is making the country safer.

It has been used to snare criminals who attempt to evade justice by giving false names, and in one recent case in Qingdao, home to China’s best-known lager, 25 suspects were arrested when they turned up to a beer festival only to be identified by the technology at the entry gates.

Smile to pay

All Chinese over 16 must hold an ID card with their picture and address, meaning authorities have a vast trove of information.

Experts say China is racing ahead of Western countries in deploying facial scanners owing to its comparatively lax privacy laws and because Chinese are used to having their pictures, finger prints and other personal details taken.

Park managers at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven went so far as to install facial recognition devices at lavatories in the imperial-era landmark earlier this year to catch toilet-paper thieves.

If someone returns too soon for more toilet paper they are met with a polite rejection by a machine that recognises them and advises: “Please try again later.”

Beijing Normal University installed facial scanners to make sure only students enter dormitory buildings and “help us better monitor the students’ whereabouts”, the state Xinhua news agency quoted a university official as saying.

Banks are beginning to use facial recognition instead of cards at cash machines while the travel and leisure industry also sees opportunities — China Southern Airlines this year began doing away with boarding passes in favour of the scheme.

The operator of KFC in China has introduced a “Smile to Pay” system allowing customers at a KFC spin-off to pay via a face-recognition system linked to Alipay, the ubiquitous online-payment arm of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Back in Shanghai, a government initiative uses facial recognition to help identify people on the streets — primarily the elderly and mentally ill — and reunite them with loved ones.

‘Ask Jack Ma’

The push is just one part of a broader high-tech strategy.

The government in July announced plans to become the world leader in artificial-intelligence by 2030 and build a domestic AI industry worth $150 billion.

Yue Lin, a law professor at Shanghai University, says the trend is being driven primarily by Chinese technology companies such as Alibaba and Baidu.

“The commercial development of facial recognition will not stop. How will the government use this technology in the future? Maybe we should ask Jack Ma,” said Yue, referring to Alibaba’s billionaire founder.

“The way companies work has changed the way government works.”

Yue says there are justifiable concerns about misuse of citizens’ pictures and information but cautioned it was too early to tell what the full repercussions will be.

“The police’s authority or jurisdiction has not changed, but definitely its power has been enhanced,” he said.

“This is not unique to China, the same thing happens all over the world. Maybe it is a good thing to Chinese people, but a terrible thing to Americans.”

Privacy groups warn of perils in smartwatches for kids


WASHINGTON (AFP) – Smartwatches designed to help parents keep tabs on children could create privacy and security risks, activist and consumer groups said Wednesday as they called for probes by regulators.

A coalition of child protection, consumer, and privacy groups asked the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate the risks posed to children by the devices and also called on retailers to stop selling the watches.

The groups said consumer organizations in Europe were expected to file similar complaints with EU regulators.

The organizations contend that the devices, instead of keeping children safe, could make them vulnerable to hackers or criminals.

“By preying upon parents’ desire to keep children safe… these smartwatches are actually putting kids in danger,” said Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in a statement.

“Once again, we see Internet of Things products for kids being rushed to market with no regard for how they will protect children’s sensitive information. Parents should avoid these watches and all internet-connected devices designed for kids.”

The actions come after research by the Norwegian Consumer Council highlighted security flaws in smartwatches designed for children, which transmit and store data without encryption.

With two of the watches, an attacker was able take control of the watch, eavesdrop on conversations, communicate with the child, and access stored data about the child’s location.

The Norwegian group also found that a “geofencing” feature meant to notify parents when a child leaves a specified area did not work as advertised, according to the organizations.

The study examined smartwatches sold under the Caref brand, marketed as Gator in Europe, SeTracker, Xplora and Tinitell.

“The devices implicate not only the data privacy of children, but also their personal safety,” said a letter to the FTC by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Public Citizen and the US Public Interest Research Group.

“The devices create a new vulnerability that allows a third party to find a young child at precisely the time when the child is separated from a parent or guardian.”

The same coalition warned last year of similar risks from internet-connected dolls, prompting an FBI warning and leading to many retailers taking the products off their shelves.

Dutch open ‘world’s first 3D-printed bridge’


(AFP) – Dutch officials toasted on Tuesday the opening of what is being called the world s first 3D-printed concrete bridge, which is primarily meant to be used by cyclists.

There was applause as officials wearing hard hats and workmen s jackets rode over the bridge on their bikes at the inauguration in the southeastern town of Gemert.

3D printing means cement can be applied only where it s required, reducing the need to build formwork structures and saving time, money and waste materials. Photo: BAM Infra

“The bridge is not very big, but it was rolled out by a printer which makes it unique,” Theo Salet, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, told Dutch broadcaster NOS.

Work on printing the bridge, which has some 800 layers, took about three months after starting in June and it is made of reinforced, pre-stressed concrete, according to the university.

“One of the advantages of printing a bridge is that much less concrete is needed than in the conventional technique in which a mould is filled,” it said on its website, adding “a printer deposits the concrete only where it is needed.”

The bridge was printed in six pieces, which were then assembled on-site, glued together and hoisted into place. Photo: BAM Infra

The eight-metre (26-foot) bridge spans a water-filled ditch to connect two roads, and in conjunction with the BAM Infra construction company was tested for safety to bear loads of up to two tonnes. Although designed for bikes, it could take up to 40 trucks, the designers said.

“We are looking to the future,” said the head of BAM, Marinus Schimmel, adding in a statement that his company was constantly “searching for a newer, smarter approach to addressing infrastructure issues and making a significant contribution to improving the mobility and sustainability of our society.”

3D printing meant “fewer scarce resources were needed and there was significantly less waste,” he added.

The Netherlands is among countries, with the United States and China, taking a lead in the cutting-edge technology of 3D printing, using computers and robotics to construct objects and structures from scratch without using traditional manpower.

Last year a Dutch architect unveiled a unique 3D printer with which he hopes to construct an “endless loop” building.

The 3D-printed bridge can support 5 tons, which is far more weight than it will need to support during normal operation as a cyclist bridge. Photo: BAM Infra

And a Dutch start-up called MX3D has begun printing a stainless-steel bridge, of which a third is already completed. The aim is to finish printing by March and lay the bridge over an Amsterdam canal in June.

Experts say these toothpaste ingredients can damage your teeth


(Web Desk) – Many of us don’t realise whether any particular ingredient in our toothpaste is beneficial or harmful for our teeth. In marketing and ads, the companies often claim one particular ingredient is the solution to all our oral hygiene concerns. Teeth whitening is one such selling point for marketers and many toothpastes today are sold in on this claim. discussed the issue with Dr Nigel Carter, a dentist, and found that natural ingredients like charcoal and coconut oil that are claimed to cure problems related to teeth are not as effective as shown on advertisements.


A number of health specialists and experts have pointed out in recent times that fluoride, integral part of most toothpastes, is not the best remedy for tooth decay. It gives a permanent mottled appearance to teeth. Also, it causes risk of adverse effects on nervous system and brittle bone disease.

Sea salt

Being another teeth whitener, sea salt in toothpastes endangers tge tooth enamel. It can hardly help prevent tooth decay. Sea salt products are relatively new and trendy in market. There is not much research to support their benefits for teeth.


Charcoal is claimed to absorb toxins and germs from teeth. It has a history of being used to prevent poisoning, however, the ingredient is abrasive in nature. Charcoal can also cause damage to tooth enamel. Experts are not sure whether the amount of fluoride and charcoal used in toothpastes are satisfactory for teeth whitening as well as prevention of tooth decay. Further research is required to prove the claimed benefits of charcoal for teeth like removing stains that turn teeth yellow.

Coconut oil

Like all the other natural ingredients above, coconut oil is said to be part of ancient Indian medicine “ayurved”. It is claimed to cure issues related to teeth and gums. The product manufacturers say it can prevent growth of plague, gum disease and tooth decay due to antibacterial nature.

The truth is that none of the qualities can be backed by medical research. Coconut oil can cause stomach problems and can only give temporary teeth whitening.

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