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News, Tech Roundup

Tech Beat by Namecheap – 11 November 2022

When it comes to online threats, malicious bots are a mainstay. They’re everywhere and becoming ever more sophisticated — whether you notice them or not. This week’s lead story explores the growing problem of bots and why exactly they can be so hard to detect.

In other news

  • People are spending billions on virtual land in the metaverse. The BBC reports that people and companies have spent nearly $2bn on metaverse land over the past year. Currently, the metaverse is made up of separate virtual worlds rather than the single, immersive online space it has been primed to become. So people are buying plots in these separate online spaces in preparation for the day that one day they’ll be unified. One of the most popular worlds is Decentraland, which launched in 2020. It often sells plots for millions of dollars. Many companies, including Samsung and Sotheby’s, have purchased plots and built establishments like shops and visitor centers. 
  • TikTok staff in other territories can access European user data. TikTok is updating its privacy policy to communicate that certain staff members in Brazil, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States have remote access to European user data. According to The Guardian, the company claims this access is to ensure that user experience is “consistent, enjoyable and safe.” TikTok’s head of privacy in Europe, Elaine Fox, has said that this data is subject to strict security protocols recognized by GDPR. The new privacy policy will go live on December 2 and applies to the European Economic Area, the UK, and Switzerland.
  • Robots may soon program themselves. Google researchers are investigating the possibility that robots could soon write their own code to perform various functions. As ZDNet describes, researchers suggest that existing language models could allow robots to generate programs in Python to carry out a wide range of instructions. If the robots wrote their own code, they could translate ambiguous commands such as “move faster” into precise instructions within the code itself. At this time, the language models are limited and don’t support complex prompts such as “use these blocks to build a house.” But one day? It’s not hard to imagine that researchers will develop language models to enable robots to perform complicated actions once thought impossible without significant and detailed prior programming. With these advances, could true autonomous androids be that far away?
  • Cities are being run by algorithms. Last week Wired revealed a new investigation by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) about automated decision-making in American cities. According to EPIC’s report, the city of Washington, DC used over 20 algorithms for bureaucratic policy and decision-making, with a third of them determining matters of policing and criminal justice. And this was just one example — these algorithms are at work all around the country as well as internationally, with Wired mentioning examples in the Netherlands and Finland.

    While these systems can improve efficiency, Wired points out that they are also impersonal and prone to error, and citizens may not be aware that decisions were made not by an official but by a computer. And as Wired notes, one of these systems, set up to detect unemployment fraud in Michigan, led to 40,000 false fraud allegations. EPIC recommends that governments be more transparent about decisions that impact individual lives, and already, some elected officials around the country support algorithm registries.
  • Lab-grown blood — what would Dracula say? Scientists in the UK are studying the potential for red blood cells grown in a lab to be used in human blood transfusions. According to Gizmodo, this artificial blood, grown from donated human stem cells, could be life-saving for people with rare blood types. The RESTORE trial is already showing early success, as the first human test subjects have received transfusions without experiencing any side effects. Despite the promising early results, scientists don’t expect lab-grown blood to be available to patients for 5-10 years, and even then, the inefficient production of lab-grown blood means it won’t replace blood donors any time soon.

Tip of the week: Build a bot that actually helps you

Even as we work to keep malicious bots from phishing for our photos or skewing our marketing data, we shouldn’t conclude that all bots are bad. In fact, some bots are created for good instead of evil. 

In one example, it’s easy to create a simple search bot that’s essentially a virtual assistant that can help you with certain tasks. To create this bot, you write code that connects to an external API (like Google Search), then create an interface that looks like a website using HTML and JavaScript. True, you need to know a little code to get started, but there are resources from publishers like https://www.freecodecamp.org/ and Microsoft that will walk you through the basics.  

You can build a search bot to help look up information on the web or respond to emails. They’re helpful for people who spend a lot of time online and want to save time by automating specific actions. If you’re a small business owner, you can even create a bot to chat with your customers online. Plus, learning to develop a bot can be fun, and you can brag about it to your friends. 

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