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Never-before-seen malware has infected hundreds of Linux and Windows devices


A stylized skull and crossbones made out of ones and zeroes.

Researchers have revealed a never-before-seen piece of cross-platform malware that has infected a wide range of Linux and Windows devices, including small office routers, FreeBSD boxes, and large enterprise servers.

Black Lotus Labs, the research arm of security firm Lumen, is calling the malware Chaos, a word that repeatedly appears in function names, certificates, and file names it uses. Chaos emerged no later than April 16, when the first cluster of control servers went live in the wild. From June through mid-July, researchers found hundreds of unique IP addresses representing compromised Chaos devices. Staging servers used to infect new devices have mushroomed in recent months, growing from 39 in May to 93 in August. As of Tuesday, the number reached 111.

Black Lotus has observed interactions with these staging servers from both embedded Linux devices as well as enterprise servers, including one in Europe that was hosting an instance of GitLab. There are more than 100 unique samples in the wild.

“The potency of the Chaos malware stems from a few factors,” Black Lotus Labs researchers wrote in a Wednesday morning blog post. “First, it is designed to work across several architectures, including: ARM, Intel (i386), MIPS and PowerPC—in addition to both Windows and Linux operating systems. Second, unlike largescale ransomware distribution botnets like Emotet that leverage spam to spread and grow, Chaos propagates through known CVEs and brute forced as well as stolen SSH keys.”

CVEs refer to the mechanism used to track specific vulnerabilities. Wednesday’s report referred to only a few, including CVE-2017-17215 and CVE-2022-30525 affecting firewalls sold by Huawei, and CVE-2022-1388, an extremely severe vulnerability in load balancers, firewalls, and network inspection gear sold by F5. SSH infections using password brute-forcing and stolen keys also allow Chaos to spread from machine to machine inside an infected network.

Chaos also has various capabilities, including enumerating all devices connected to an infected network, running remote shells that allow attackers to execute commands, and loading additional modules. Combined with the ability to run on such a wide range of devices, these capabilities have lead Black Lotus Labs to suspect Chaos “is the work of a cybercriminal actor that is cultivating a network of infected devices to leverage for initial access, DDoS attacks and crypto mining,” company researchers said.

Black Lotus Labs believes Chaos is an offshoot of Kaiji, a piece of botnet software for Linux-based AMD and i386 servers for performing DDoS attacks. Since coming into its own, Chaos has gained a host of new features, including modules for new architectures, the ability to run on Windows, and the ability to spread through vulnerability exploitation and SSH key harvesting.

Infected IP addresses indicate that Chaos infections are most heavily concentrated in Europe, with smaller hotspots in North and South America, and Asia Pacific.

Black Lotus Labs

Black Lotus Labs researchers wrote:

Over the first few weeks of September, our Chaos host emulator received multiple DDoS commands targeting roughly two dozen organizations’ domains or IPs. Using our global telemetry, we identified multiple DDoS attacks that coincide with the timeframe, IP and port from the attack commands we received. Attack types were generally multi-vector leveraging UDP and TCP/SYN across multiple ports, often increasing in volume over the course of multiple days. Targeted entities included gaming, financial services and technology, media and entertainment, and hosting. We even observed attacks targeting DDoS-as-a-service providers and a crypto mining exchange. Collectively, the targets spanned EMEA, APAC and North America.

One gaming company was targeted for a mixed UDP, TCP and SYN attack over port 30120. Beginning September 1 – September 5, the organization received a flood of traffic over and above its typical volume. A breakdown of traffic for the timeframe before and through the attack period shows a flood of traffic sent to port 30120 by approximately 12K distinct IPs – though some of that traffic may be indicative of IP spoofing.

Black Lotus Labs

A few of the targets included DDoS-as-a-service providers. One markets itself as a premier IP stressor and booter that offers CAPTCHA bypass and “unique” transport layer DDoS capabilities. In mid-August, our visibility revealed a massive uptick in traffic roughly four times higher than the highest volume registered over the prior 30 days. This was followed on September 1 by an even larger spike of more than six times the normal traffic volume.

DDoS-as-a-service organization incoming attack volume
Enlarge / DDoS-as-a-service organization incoming attack volume

Black Lotus Labs

The two most important things people can do to prevent Chaos infections are to keep all routers, servers, and other devices fully updated and to use strong passwords and FIDO2-based multifactor authentication whenever possible. A reminder to small office router owners everywhere: Most router malware can’t survive a reboot. Consider restarting your device every week or so. Those who use SSH should always use a cryptographic key for authentication.


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Software Development

Grand Canyon’s explosive gastroenteritis was a 3-month, multisource outbreak


The Grand Canyon viewed from the South Rim adjacent to the El Tovar Hotel on November 11, 2019, in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Enlarge / The Grand Canyon viewed from the South Rim adjacent to the El Tovar Hotel on November 11, 2019, in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

The explosive outbreak of gastroenteritis that erupted in the Grand Canyon earlier this year was likely sparked by multiple people hauling in norovirus infections, according to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The infectious blast ended up violently hollowing out of at least 222 visitors to the geologic marvel over a brisk, but brutal three-month period

As Ars readers may recall, the National Park Service issued warnings early in the summer that an outbreak was gutting river rafters and hikers. But the new study, led by local and CDC officials, offers a more detailed look at the outbreak that left outdoor adventurers grasping the rims of basins much smaller than that of the Colorado River.

The trouble appears to have begun in early April, with the first identified case striking a backpacker on April 4. On April 8, a commercial rafting company notified the National Park’s Office of Public Health (OPH) that seven people on a rafting trip fell ill with vomiting and/or diarrhea. The cases kept streaming in through April and erupted in early May. The OPH contacted the CDC on May 11, after collecting dozens of case reports. By May 21, the OPH received reports of an additional 102 cases from 13 river rafting groups and several backpackers.

Local officials tested samples taken from portable toilets used by nine affected rafting groups. They found norovirus in all of them. Officials also tested toilet samples from two unaffected rafting groups, which were negative for norovirus. Of the nine positive samples, two were from rafting groups who visited the park in April, while the other seven were from May.

Genetic testing revealed that the strain of norovirus causing illnesses in April differed from the one found in May. Moreover, at least five people reported that their symptoms began more than 24 hours before their trip to the canyon. This all suggests a “potential for multisource introduction of norovirus into the river corridor,” the authors wrote.

Bottoming out

To date, it’s still unclear how the virus spread among the different groups and park visitors. But the authors note that “[b]ecause many trips use the same campsites and place portable toilets in the same locations, particles could have been transmitted to surfaces, beach sand, or river water where new groups could have encountered them, and then transmitted the virus both from person-to-person and trip-to-trip.”

However the virus moved, it did so efficiently. The attack rate among rafting trip groups ranged from 10 percent (i.e., three rafters in a group of 31 fell ill) to a horrifying 83 percent (29 of 35).

In response to the cases, the OPH tried boosting sanitation around potable water spigots at campsites, including daily chlorine disinfections and mechanical devices that prevent backflow. They also raised awareness of the outbreak and advised visitors to wash their hands with soap and water, avoid sharing food, stay home if they’re feeling ill, and immediately isolate anyone who falls ill. The authors highlighted that many people “were unaware that alcohol-based hand sanitizer is ineffective in mitigating norovirus transmission,” and that washing with soap and water was the most effective prevention.

The efforts appeared to pay off. After alerts were posted in mid-May, the cases slowed to a trickle by the end of the month. Only three cases were reported in June, the last of which occurred on June 17. In all, the authors counted 222 cases between April 1 and June 17, 2022, but they say cases are “likely underreported.”

Looking more broadly, the authors note that the outbreak at the Grand Canyon mirrors a nationwide surge in norovirus outbreaks during spring 2022. Like many infectious diseases, the highly contagious gut-busting virus died down amid the pandemic, but came roaring back as pandemic health restrictions eased. A study published by the CDC last week found that norovirus outbreaks nearly tripled in the 2021-2022 surveillance year compared with the 2020-2021 surveillance year.

As such, park visitors should stay vigilant, the authors warn. “With norovirus increasing nationwide and visitation rates returning to near prepandemic levels, the potential exists for resurgence of norovirus outbreaks among visitors to the Grand Canyon backcountry,” they conclude.


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Software Development

Today’s best deals: Apple MacBook Air, Sony and LG 4K TVs, Nintendo Switch, and more


Today’s best deals: Apple MacBook Air, Sony and LG 4K TVs, Nintendo Switch, and more

Time for another mid-week Dealmaster. Our latest roundup of the best tech deals from around the web includes a nice discount on Apple’s latest M2-based MacBook Air in both the 256GB and 512GB versions. With $100 and $150 discounts, respectively, these are the lowest prices we’ve tracked on the new MacBook Airs.

In our review, we noted the MacBook Air’s excellent hardware, build quality, battery life, and “out-of-this-world performance” for its size and weight. Going with an M2-based Air doesn’t only mean better computing performance over the M1 MacBook Airs, but also an improved screen and a much nicer camera and audio system for video calls.

We also have a record low price on Sony’s A80K 55-inch 4K television with Google TV. This is a deal exclusive to Prime members that knocks off $200 from its usual price. The A80K is well-reviewed for its punchy, wide-ranging contrast ratio, HDR performance, wide viewing angles, and excellent reflection handling.

Elsewhere around the web, we’re seeing discounts on Google’s Nest Hub (my favorite bedside gadget), Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 earbuds, and a $100 DoorDash gift card deal that rewards you with a $20 Best Buy gift card with purchase, a few Hynix SSDs, and much more. You can check out our full curated list of deals below.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Featured deals of the day

  • Sony A80K (2022) 55-inch 4K OLED TV for $1,298 ($1,500) at Amazon (Prime members)
  • LG C2 (2022) 48-inch 4K OLED TV + $100 gift card for $1,197 ($1,420) at Newegg (GC expires after six months)
  • Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio 14.4-inch tablet PC (Core i7-11700, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050 Ti, 2400×1600, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) for $1,597 ($2,099) at Amazon
  • Apple MacBook Air (2022) 13.6-inch laptop (Apple M2, 2560×1664, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) for $1,099 ($1,199) at Amazon, B&H (512 GB for $1,349)
  • Apple MacBook Pro (2021) 13.3-inch laptop (Apple M1, 2560×1600, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD) for $1,049 ($1,500) at Best Buy
  • Nintendo Switch (OLED) for $286 ($339) at Amazon
  • SK Hynix Platinum P41 (1TB) PCIe 4.0 SSD for $120 ($150) at Amazon (2TB for $208)
  • SK Hynix Gold P31 (1TB) PCIe 3.0 SSD for $98 ($106) at Amazon (2TB for $169)
  • WD Black SN850 (1TB) PCIe 4.0 SSD w/ heatsink for $104 ($140) at Best Buy
  • Razer Power Up gaming bundle (Cynosa Lite, Gigantus V2 L, DeathAdder Essential, BlackShark V2) for $40 ($80) at Walmart
  • Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless ANC earbuds for $100 ($180) at Newegg
  • Google Nest Hub 7-inch smart display for $55 ($85) at Target, Best Buy, Walmart
  • $100 DoorDash gift card + $20 Best Buy gift card (digital) for $100 ($120)
Apple's 2022 MacBook Air has MagSafe and two Thunderbolt/USB-C ports.
Enlarge / Apple’s 2022 MacBook Air has MagSafe and two Thunderbolt/USB-C ports.

Samuel Axon

Electronics deals

  • Apple Watch SE (44mm, 2nd gen) smartwatch for $270 ($279) at Amazon
  • Google Nest Hub 7-inch smart display for $55 ($85) at Target, Best Buy, Walmart
  • Google Nest Hub Max 10-inch smart display for $175 ($210) at Target, Best Buy
  • WD My Passport (1TB) portable SSD for $110 ($128) at B&H and Newegg
  • SanDisk Extreme V2 (2TB) portable SSD for $200 ($230) at Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart (1TB for $130)
  • Apple AirPods Max wireless ANC headphones for $429 ($470) at Amazon
  • Sony MDR-7506 wired headphones for $79 ($89) at Amazon, B&H
  • Apple iPad (64GB) 10.2-inch tablet for $300 ($305) at Amazon
  • Garmin Lily (34mm, Tan) smartwatch for $150 ($190) at Amazon
  • Hisense U6G (2021) 65-inch 4K LED TV for $413 ($540) at Best Buy
  • LG C2 (2022) 48-inch 4K OLED TV + $100 gift card for $1,197 ($1,420) at Newegg (GC expires after 6 mo.)
The Garmin Lily comes in six fashionable colorways, with uniquely designed watch faces. It handles notifications and most sports too, but you'll need to keep your phone with you to use GPS tracking.
Enlarge / The Garmin Lily comes in six fashionable colorways, with uniquely designed watch faces. It handles notifications and most sports too, but you’ll need to keep your phone with you to use GPS tracking.

Corey Gaskin / Ars Technica

Laptop and desktop PC deals

  • Apple MacBook Air (2020) 13.3-inch laptop (Apple M1, 2560×1600, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) for $900 ($940) at Amazon (discount in cart)
  • Apple MacBook Air (2022) 13.6-inch laptop (Apple M2, 2560×1664, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) for $1,099 ($1,199) at Amazon, B&H
  • SK Hynix Platinum P41 (1TB) PCIe 4.0 SSD for $120 ($150) at Amazon (2TB for $208)
  • SK Hynix Gold P31 (1TB) PCIe 3.0 SSD for $98 ($106) at Amazon (2TB for $169)
  • Corsair Vengeance DDR5 32GB (2×16GB) 5600 MHz RAM for $158 ($200) at Newegg (use code: UPGBW2Z232, $158 at Amazon)
  • ViewSonic Elite XG270Q 27-inch gaming monitor (2560×1440, IPS, 165 Hz, G-Sync) for $260 ($375) at B&H, Amazon
  • Gigabyte M28U 28-inch gaming monitor (3840×2160, IPS, 144 Hz, VRR) for $480 ($540) at Amazon, Best Buy, B&H
  • Gigabyte M32UC 32-inch gaming monitor (3840×2160, VA, 160 Hz, VRR) for $530 ($600) at Amazon, B&H
  • Gigabyte M32QC 32-inch gaming monitor (2560×1440, VA, 165 Hz, VRR) for $230 ($300) at Amazon, Newegg
Google's second-generation Nest Hub looks identical to the previous generation.
Enlarge / Google’s second-generation Nest Hub looks identical to the previous generation.

Corey Gaskin

Video game deals

You can perform car maintenance in GT Auto.
Enlarge / You can perform car maintenance in GT Auto.

Sony

Gaming deals

Apple's MagSafe Charger aligns easily with the help of magnets and delivers a 15W charge to the iPhone 12 and higher.
Enlarge / Apple’s MagSafe Charger aligns easily with the help of magnets and delivers a 15W charge to the iPhone 12 and higher.

Corey Gaskin

Accessories and miscellaneous deals


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Software Development

Cloudflare’s CAPTCHA replacement lacks crosswalks, checkboxes, Google


CAPTCHAs are meant to prevent these kinds of browsing scenarios, not train us all to better recognize vehicles and infrastructure in grainy photos.
Enlarge / CAPTCHAs are meant to prevent these kinds of browsing scenarios, not train us all to better recognize vehicles and infrastructure in grainy photos.

Getty Images

Cloudflare has recently made an audacious claim: We could all be doing something better with our lives than deciding which images contain crosswalks or stop lights or clicking an “I’m not a robot” checkbox. Now the cloud services company is offering up a free CAPTCHA alternative, Turnstile, available to anyone, Cloudflare customer or not, and specifically calling out Google’s role in the existing “prove you’re a human” hegemony.

Turnstile utilizes Cloudflare’s Managed Challenge system, which takes cues from user behavior, browser data, and, on Apple devices, Private Access Tokens, to distinguish human visitors from bots and scripts. Cloudflare claims that its Managed Challenge system was able to reduce 91 percent of CAPTCHAs served to its customers’ visitors over the course of a year.

Turnstile integrations run “a series of small non-interactive JavaScript challenges” to investigate the visitor, including proof of work and space, probing for web APIs, and “various other challenges for detecting browser-quirks and human behavior,” Cloudflare’s post states. The challenges vary by visitor, and machine learning can update the model with the common features of visitors who previously passed a test. The user only sees a “Verifying …” widget for a moment, then “Success!”

Note the lack of grid-aligned blurry images that make you feel like you're helping Skynet refine its targeting.

Note the lack of grid-aligned blurry images that make you feel like you’re helping Skynet refine its targeting.

Cloudflare

Cloudflare claims that beyond annoyance and time-wasting, CAPTCHAs (which stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”) are largely controlled by Google through its reCAPTCHA service. Google’s service had announced in 2017 that it would largely become invisible in newer versions, using the same flavor of browser and behavior hints about human-ness Cloudflare is touting to eliminate even the not-robot checkbox. One aspect of that proof that security researchers seemed to suss out: being logged in to a Google account.

“Google says they don’t use this information for ad targeting, but at the end of the day, Google is an ad sales company,” Cloudflare’s post states.

Google bought reCAPTCHA in 2009 and used it early on to solve problems like book digitization, Street View house numbers, and, as you’ve likely guessed, identifying objects like stairs, palm trees, taxis, and the like in image recognition tools. Cloudflare notes that CAPTCHA’s ubiquity is one of its strengths, as it has a steady, constantly updated base of solving and behavior data to lean on.

Google’s reCAPTCHA has offered an “invisible” mode in V2 since 2017 and a V3 that “will never interrupt your users.” Most Internet users still see their fair share of photo-picking grids and anti-robot checkboxes, likely due to sites and developers who haven’t upgraded to newer versions—or, potentially, seeming “suspicious” to an unknowable algorithm.

Cloudflare, originally a content-delivery network that has grown into security, hosting, and nearly every other aspect of cloud computing, cites its mission of “helping build a better Internet” as the reason it’s giving away a free verification service. The company, whose reverse proxy services are used by something close to 20 percent of all sites, has been in the news recently for its long debate on dropping hate site Kiwi Farms and deciding not to pull out of Russia after it invaded Ukraine.


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Software Development

More EV charging stations coming nationwide, electrifying 75K miles of highways


More EV charging stations coming nationwide, electrifying 75K miles of highways

For drivers choosing electric vehicles, convenient access to reliable charging stations remains one of the biggest pain points after adopting the eco-friendlier way to cruise. Just the thought of driving out of the way to find a charging station when planning road trips—rather than pop into a choice of many gas stations at any exit—deters so many drivers that it was starting to look like unreliable charging could be the deciding factor that could ultimately doom EVs.

Instead, the Department of Transportation and the Biden administration announced yesterday that America has greenlit a plan to invest $5 billion over the next five years to create a more reliable charging network by installing EV chargers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The first wave of funding is available now, granting access to all states to “more than $1.5 billion to help build EV chargers covering approximately 75,000 miles of highway across the country.”

“President Biden is leading the shift to electrify transportation—ensuring drivers can commute and charge confidently and affordably and lessening our oversized reliance on fossil fuels while combatting climate change,” US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in the press release.

The plan is to sprinkle hundreds of thousands of additional EV chargers along interstate highways, including in places where people would least expect to find them. This, Biden hopes, will decrease hesitancy among car buyers to invest more in EVs, so that half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 will be zero-emissions vehicles. That could reduce vehicle emissions, the DOT press release said, by “50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.”

This significant advancement in EV charging infrastructure comes a little more than a week after the US Departments of Energy and Transportation appointed the first-ever executive director charged with leading the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, Gabe Klein. In a press release announcing Klein’s new role, DOE and DOT said Klein was specifically brought in to oversee efforts to “build a national electric vehicle (EV) charging network with a focus on filling gaps in rural and disadvantaged communities and hard-to-reach locations.”

To help underserved communities, cities, and states prepare their EV charging plans now that funding is available, Klein’s team will be available to provide technical assistance and analytical support.

Klein was not available to comment on the Biden administration’s latest move. However, a DOE representative provided Ars with a statement from Klein, saying his next steps would be to combine private and public investments “to support the deployment of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers nationwide,” ensuring “equitable access to affordable transportation,” in line with Biden’s goal to deliver “40 percent of the benefits from federal climate and clean energy investment in underserved communities.”

According to DOT, 35 state plans have already been approved, and some states have already started staffing local efforts to expand EV charging. Now, those states can be reimbursed for their efforts, plus access funding for initiatives like upgrading existing chargers, funding construction of new charging infrastructure, covering necessary operation and maintenance costs, and updating road signs to point people to new charging stations. Acting Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack said in DOT’s press release that the new initiative would quickly form “the backbone of our national EV charging network.”

The US has tried offering various incentives to convince car owners to switch to EVs, and researchers have identified a robust cost-effective charging infrastructure as a necessary component of encouraging mass adoption. However, part of a robust infrastructure includes ensuring that charging stations are reliable and actually function when the drivers arrive, another consumer complaint that the new funding also seeks to address.

Last year, Georgia Institute of Technology climate and energy policy expert Omar Asensio reported in the Cell Press journal Patterns that AI could help states track functionality of charging stations.

Asensio told Ars that the new charging infrastructure funding would help address current user concerns his analysis found over uneven distribution of charging stations. His team analyzed millions of EV charging reviews and concluded that “based on the rate of consumers leaving reviews at charging stations across the United States, we find that the deep-learning algorithms can detect the functioning of a certain station, daily.”

Klein, who previously served as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation and director of the Washington DC Department of Transportation, is a vocal advocate for electrified transportation. He shares Biden’s views that expanding EV charging infrastructure is key to reaching US climate goals, considering, as the DOT press release noted, that the transportation sector is currently “our country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.” He has vowed to be a driving force pushing the country to embrace greener roadways.

“I will seize the opportunity to steward a critical shift in our transportation economy from fossil fuels to clean, electric energy systems, as there has never been a more important mission in our recent history than solving the climate crisis,” Klein said in DOE’s press release.


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Software Development

Amazon’s Astro robot still isn’t ready for prime time


Amazon Astro robot in a living room
Enlarge / A limited number of customers have had Astro in their living room.

Amazon

Amazon’s press-only hardware event today included reveals of the Kindle Scribe, Eero extending mesh networks with Echo, updated Echo Dot and Studio speakers, plus an Echo dashboard accessory. Like last year, there was also talk of the Amazon Astro robot that can roll around homes equipped with a digital smile, camera, and microphones. This time, Amazon detailed new and planned features for Astro; however, a year after its initial announcement, Astro remains an invite-only experimental product.

Astro is a 17.3×9.8-inch robot, with Alexa, a smart display, microphones, speakers, night-vision LEDs, a periscope camera, cupholder, and visual simultaneous location and mapping (V-SLAM) for navigating around people’s homes and unexpected obstacles, like a dropped item. You need to request an invite in order to pay $1,000 for the bot.

Amazon appears to be accepting invite requests still while developing new features ahead of expected mass availability, whenever that may be. Amazon’s event today didn’t provide any updates to Astro seeing general availability (we asked Amazon and will update this story if we get any response).

The pet-detection feature announced today sounds like it can make being away from a beloved animal easier. Astro can purportedly find your pet in the home and send you a short video of it. The feature also allows you to appear on Astro’s display, in case your pet misses you as much as you miss it or needs a familiar voice.

Amazon also announced the ability to train Astro to learn about windows or doors in your home, so it can alert you via image and text if they’re open or closed when they shouldn’t be. If something’s amiss Astro can alert you, including if you’re not home, by sending you an image and text. You can also ask Astro to check a certain window or door that you taught it about.

The feature works by dual-modality AI, including Astro looking at the object and you describing the object to Astro. Astro gives you the option to tell it if it got things wrong, so it can improve.

The next step is greater object identification, starting with furniture and pet food bowls, Ken Washington, VP of Amazon Devices and Services, said.

But while many consumers are still not able to buy and try out Astro, Amazon will continue experimenting with the robot in a new market: small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

Amazon is hoping Astro appeals to SMBs’ physical security concerns and minimal budgets. Amazon pointed to Astro working with Amazon’s Ring security cameras. If the Ring uses the Virtual Security Guard feature—which also seems to have limited availability, based on its website—Astro will bravely roll over to the location of an intrusion. Then, it can communicate to “professional monitoring agents,” as per Washington’s blog, via video and two-way voice communication.

Amazon said it would test the feature with a small group of business customers “in the coming months.” However, if successful, we could see this feature being appealing to the most cautious residential customers, too.

Once launched, Astro has the potential to be one of the most easily available consumer robots, backed by a tech giant and an ecosystem of compatible products. But based on reviews of Astro this year, there’s plenty of work to be done before anticipating such a successful product launch.

TechCrunch in May, for example, noted a lack of committed direction from Amazon for the product and struggled to find a need for the pricey technology. CNET agreed Astro lacked “a compelling use case” as it stood as a Day 1 Edition experimental product (as of writing, Astro is still considered a Day 1 Edition product). And with reliance on Amazon services, like Alexa and Ring’s Protection Pro subscription, The Verge reduced the home robot to an “Echo Show on wheels.”

So, it makes sense that Amazon is still working on tweaking the robot so that it can not only appear as useful as possible but as necessary as possible, considering its steep price tag and limited precedence for robots like this, particularly in homes. After all, it’s not just about Astro; Amazon hopes to build more than one consumer home robot, Washington told GeekWire in June.

It is also not surprising for Astro’s strategy to move forward with stronger consideration for businesses, as many an emerging technology, such as mixed reality devices and smart glasses, have done to maintain relevancy.

In order to encourage development of even more Astro abilities, Amazon is sharing the software development kit it used to build the aforementioned pet detection feature with three schools known for robotics development, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, and University of Michigan.

For the time being, it seems that the next news about Astro will be around further software development rather than a full public release. And for a robot expected to be $1,500 when it sees general availability, that’s probably for the best.


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Software Development

Ubisoft’s biggest 2022 game delayed for sixth time in five years


As <em>Skull & Bones</em> suffers yet another delay, we question Ubisoft's choice of an ominous skull as its featured box-art image.
Enlarge / As Skull & Bones suffers yet another delay, we question Ubisoft’s choice of an ominous skull as its featured box-art image.

Ubisoft

2022 is turning out to be a substantial rebuilding year for game publisher Ubisoft, as its holiday 2022 release slate of major multi-platform games has now been all but wiped clean.

The bad news came on Wednesday when Ubisoft once again delayed the launch of its open-world pirate adventure Skull and Bones, this time past its previously suggested November 8 launch date on PC and current-gen consoles. The game maker formally confirmed the delay to March 9, 2023, after an independent report from Kotaku suggested that S&B‘s latest rounds of pre-release testing pointed to a stable-but-boring experience for its online multiplayer modes and noted issues with the game’s “progression” systems.

Skull and Bones debuted at E3 2017 as an apparent build-out of the third-person, open-seas pirate adventuring found in mid-’10s Assassin’s Creed games—albeit with no formal ties to that other Ubisoft-helmed series. As originally announced, players would directly control a pirate ship’s captain and issue orders to AI-controlled crewmates to either engage in a solo campaign or connect online for open-seas combat with both PvE (fight the computer) and PvP (fight real players) elements.

However, even as the game approached its previously confirmed November 2022 launch window, Ubisoft had yet to publish a clear video demonstration of exactly how the final game might look to play—meaning, no direct-feed footage of players’ viewpoints, in-game HUD elements, or demonstrations of how different modes will work. In the years since S&B‘s initial announcement, Microsoft and Rare’s own online, open-world pirate series Sea of Thieves has racked up player counts and accolades while delivering substantial free patches and updates—all of which have rendered our initial criticisms of that 2018 game moot.

Ahead of S&B‘s own fall 2018 launch window, Ubisoft began rowing the game’s release date farther out to sea. Shortly before E3 2018, the game’s retail launch was pushed into “fiscal year 2020,” only to get bumped from that release calendar into “sometime after March 2020.” This was followed by conference call mentions over the years that delayed S&B‘s launch into FY 2022, then FY 2023, before finally settling on its November 8 launch date earlier this year.

“Generous subsidies” may have come at a cost

According to an extensive 2021 report from Kotaku, S&B began life even further back than we had publicly heard: in 2013, as an expansion to the pirate-filled adventures of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The offshoot game’s messy lifespan has reportedly been prolonged by a tenuous deal struck between Ubisoft and the government of Singapore, which allegedly gave the game maker’s Singapore office certain “generous subsidies” in exchange for a guaranteed game launch and the development of unique IP by the company’s Singapore studio. The report was so stuffed with behind-the-scenes stories of turmoil and toxicity that Kotaku broke out an additional feature-length piece on the project’s underpayment, mismanagement, and sexual harassment of staffers.

Those stories, of course, landed on top of other reports and investigations about Ubisoft’s allegedly pervasive issues with mismanagement, sexual harassment, and sexual assault—which led to a number of major executives stepping down, even though Yves Guillemot, the longtime CEO who oversaw the company during its reported periods of turmoil, has remained on board. Axios’ Stephen Totilo, who has spent years covering and investigating internal affairs at Ubisoft, recently suggested that the resulting executive efforts to turn the company’s reputation around have been inconsistent and left company-wide morale generally low.

Between those issues and pandemic-related work disruptions, Ubisoft has come up short with other potential 2022 game launches. A recent Assassin’s Creed announcement event confirmed reports that the series was undergoing a massive shakeup, and it suggested three standalone console games would launch at some point (no dates given). The Middle Eastern setting of Assassin’s Creed Mirage will be the first to launch out of this collection (currently pegged to a “2023” launch window, but, hey, we’ll see). Additionally, a third-person adventure game based on the James Cameron film series Avatar had been pegged for a late 2022 launch, only to be delayed earlier this year to sometime in FY 2024. A new free-to-play Division spinoff, dubbed The Heartland, was teased in 2021, and its closed beta may begin in 2022, but we don’t expect this F2P spinoff to formally launch by year’s end.

Thus, Ubisoft’s remaining 2022 release calendar has little left: a sequel to the popular Mario + Rabbids strategy series (a Switch exclusive and co-production with Nintendo, which so far looks promising), an iterative sequel to its long-running casual Just Dance series, and this month’s long-delayed launch of Rocksmith+, a paid-subscription version of its “Guitar Hero on a real guitar” series. Other Ubisoft console games came and went earlier this year: Rainbow Six Extraction, a January dud, and Roller Champions, a three-years-delayed free-to-play roller derby romp that eventually launched with very little fanfare or promotion from Ubisoft. The biggest news attached to Roller Champions in recent memory is a tweet that begins, “Let’s clear it out of the way first, Roller Champions isn’t getting cancelled”—which only inspires so much confidence coming from a publisher with a history of early F2P game shutdowns.




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Software Development

Google Fiber touts 20Gbps download speed in test, promises eventual 100Gbps


Illustration of fiber-optic cables.
Enlarge / Illustration of fiber-optic cables.

Google Fiber is touting a test that delivered 20Gbps download speeds to a house in Kansas City, calling it a milestone on the path to offering 100Gbps symmetrical Internet. The company said it will also offer new multi-gigabit tiers in the near future.

“We used to get asked, ‘who needs a gig?’ Today it’s no longer a question,” Google Fiber CEO Dinni Jain wrote in a blog post yesterday. “Every major provider in the US seems to have now gotten the gigabit memo, and it’s only going up from there—some providers are already offering 2, 5, 8, even 10 Gig products.”

The Alphabet division recently began selling 2Gbps download speeds with 1Gbps uploads for $100, alongside its longstanding offer of symmetrical 1Gbps speeds for $70 a month. “In the coming months, we’ll have announcements to dramatically expand our multi-gigabit tiers. These will be critical milestones on our journey to 100 Gig symmetrical Internet,” Jain wrote.

Google Fiber is “closer than you might think” to that goal, Jain wrote. “This month, we took our testing out of the lab and into the home, starting with our first trusted tester, Nick Saporito, the Head of Commercial Strategy for GFiber.” Jain provided a screenshot from a test at Saporito’s home in Kansas City showing 20.2Gbps download speeds:

Google Fiber

The screenshot doesn’t show upload speeds. While Google Fiber has only hit these speeds in testing, the municipal broadband provider EPB in Chattanooga, Tennessee, recently launched a symmetrical 25Gbps service. It does cost $1,500 per month for residential customers and $12,500 a month for business customers, though.

Google Fiber to expand after years of stagnation

After years of stagnation, Google Fiber last month said it’s aiming to expand its fiber-to-the-home service into five new states. As of now, the ISP offers fiber service in 12 metro areas and wireless home Internet in seven.

A lot of people hoping for faster Internet and more competition were disappointed when Google Fiber “paused” its expansion plans in October 2016. Many Americans still don’t have access to fast, wired Internet or can buy it from only one provider for a high monthly fee.

Despite that, Jain expressed optimism about future improvements in US broadband competition. “We believe that many, if not most, communities across America will ultimately have at least two, if not three, fiber providers and an incumbent coax provider. We see it in communities we plan to build in, and expect investment in the industry to continue,” he wrote.

Getting two or three fiber providers and a cable ISP to most communities is especially unlikely in rural parts of the US, where the federal government is planning to give ISPs tens of billions of dollars just to get one high-speed option to unserved areas.

But in communities with multiple fiber ISPs, “a fiber network alone will no longer be the differentiating factor it once was for internet providers,” Jain wrote. “The unique selling points will be how that network is built to deliver symmetrical multi-gig speed at accessible pricing.”


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Software Development

Google Maps gets augmented reality search results


Google Maps loves augmented reality. After launching augmented reality walking navigation in 2019 and indoor AR navigation in 2021, it’s now showing off augmented reality search results.

Augmented reality search results will put markers in your video feed, positioned in 3D space. It’s a dream interface for augmented reality goggles, but for now, it will only work on a phone.

As usual for Maps AR features, this will be powered by Google Maps VPS or “Visual Positioning System.” This is a camera-powered location system: You fire up the camera, point it at the world, and your camera feed is compared against Google’s huge collection of street view data to determine your location. This is an extremely data-intensive way of determining location, but it’s a lot more accurate at orientation and street-level location than a phone compass and GPS, which are both prone to interference.

Like Google said in that original post, “the accuracy of localization through VPS is greatly affected by the quality of both the imagery and the location associated with it.” So this AR feature is getting a limited rollout to only a few cities: London, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Paris, and Tokyo. Google says it will be out on Android and iOS “in the coming months.”

Listing image by Google / Ron Amadeo


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Software Development

OpenAI image generator DALL-E now available without waitlist


An artwork created with OpenAI's DALL-E image generator.
Enlarge / An artwork created with OpenAI’s DALL-E image generator.

OpenAI

If you’ve been itching to try OpenAI’s image synthesis tool but have been stymied by the lack of an invitation, now’s your chance. Today, OpenAI announced that it has removed the waitlist for its DALL-E AI image generator service. That means anyone can sign up and use it.

DALL-E is a deep learning image synthesis model that has been trained on hundreds of millions of images pulled from the Internet. It uses a technique called latent diffusion to learn associations between words and images. As a result, DALL-E users can type in a text description—called a prompt—and see it rendered visually as a 1024×1024 pixel image in almost any artistic style.

Aside from image-to-text generation, DALL-E also includes a feature called “Outpainting” which allows you to upload an image and extend its borders using image synthesis. You can also merge several photos into one by generating a visual bridge between them, blending styles.

DALL-E generated this when we typed
Enlarge / DALL-E generated this when we typed “A vintage computer on the moon.”

OpenAI

OpenAI first announced an earlier version of DALL-E in January 2021, with surprising capabilities but obvious limitations. In April of this year, it premiered DALLE-2, which wowed a limited test audience of 200 researchers with its ability to generate near-photorealistic images and imitate the styles of artists. After gradually opening up to more users and instituting a pricing model in July, over 1.5 million users worldwide are now using DALL-E (re-branded from DALL-E 2) to create over 2 million images a day, according to OpenAI.

DALL-E is a commercial service, and it comes with some significant limitations. New users get 50 free credits, and you can purchase credits in groups of 115 for $15 a piece. Images generated with DALL-E are owned by OpenAI, but the company grants users exclusive rights to “reproduce and display” their generations as long as they comply with the content policy. Content violations will revoke your right to legally use generated images.

Previously, we’ve reported extensively about Stable Diffusion, which is an open source image model (and competitor) similar to DALL-E created by Stability AI. For the past month, Stable Diffusion has been available with few restrictions through open source channels and its own commercial website. Now that DALL-E is open to everyone, competition between image synthesis models is likely to heat up.


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