The lights dim and the music swells as an elite competitor in a silk robe passes through a cheering crowd to take the ring. It’s a blueprint familiar to boxing, only this pugilist won’t be throwing punches.
OpenAI created an AI bot that has beaten the best players in the world at this year’s International championship. The International is an esports competition held annually for Dota 2, one of the most competitive multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games.
Each match of the International consists of two 5-player teams competing against each other for 35-45 minutes. In layman’s terms, it is an online version of capture the flag. While the premise may sound simple, it is actually one of the most complicated and detailed competitive games out there. The top teams are required to practice together daily, but this level of play is nothing new to them. To reach a professional level, individual players would practice obscenely late, go to sleep, and then repeat the process. For years. So how long did the AI bot have to prepare for this competition compared to these seasoned pros? A couple of months.
Continue reading “Artificial Intelligence at the Top of a Professional Sport”
The mid-1980s were a time of drastic change. In the United States, the Reagan era was winding down, the Cold War was heating up, and the IBM PC was the newest of newnesses. The comparatively few wires stitching together the larger university research centers around the world pulsed with a new heartbeat — the Internet Protocol (IP) — and while the World Wide Web was still a decade or so away, The Internet was a real place for a growing number of computer-savvy explorers and adventurers, ready to set sail on the virtual sea to explore and exploit this new frontier.
In 1986, having recently lost his research grant, astronomer Clifford Stoll was made a computer system admin with the wave of a hand by the management of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s physics department. Commanded to go forth and administer, Stoll dove into what appeared to be a simple task for his first day on the job: investigating a 75-cent error in the computer account time charges. Little did he know that this six-bit overcharge would take over his life for the next six months and have this self-proclaimed Berkeley hippie rubbing shoulders with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the German Bundeskriminalamt, all in pursuit of the source: a nest of black-hat hackers and a tangled web of international espionage.
Continue reading “Books You Should Read: The Cuckoo’s Egg”
Passwords are in a pretty broken state of implementation for authentication. People pick horrible passwords and use the same password all over the place, firms fail to store them correctly and then their databases get leaked, and if anyone’s looking over your shoulder as you type it in (literally or metaphorically), you’re hosed. We’re told that two-factor authentication (2FA) is here to the rescue.
Well maybe. 2FA that actually implements a second factor is fantastic, but Google Authenticator, Facebook Code Generator, and any of the other app-based “second factors” are really just a second password. And worse, that second password cannot be stored hashed in the server’s database, which means that when the database is eventually compromised, your “second factor” blows away with the breeze.
Second factor apps can improve your overall security if you’re already following good password practices. We’ll demonstrate why and how below, but the punchline is that the most popular 2FA app implementations protect you against eavesdropping by creating a different, unpredictable, but verifiable, password every 30 seconds. This means that if someone overhears your login right now, they wouldn’t be able to use the same login info later on. What 2FA apps don’t protect you against, however, are database leaks.
Continue reading “Inside Two-Factor Authentication Apps”
Today it is easier than ever to learn how to program a computer. Everyone has one (and probably has several) and there are tons of resources available. You can even program entirely in your web browser and avoid having to install programming languages and other arcane software. But it wasn’t always like this. In the sixties and seventies, you usually learned to program on computers that didn’t exist. I was recently musing about those computers that were never real and wondering if we are better off now with a computer at every neophyte’s fingertips or if somehow these fictional computing devices were useful in the education process.
Back in the day, almost no one had a computer. Even if you were in the computer business, the chances that you had a computer that was all yours was almost unheard of. In the old days, computers cost money — a lot of money. They required special power and cooling. They needed a platoon of people to operate them. They took up a lot of space. The idea of letting students just run programs to learn was ludicrous.
Continue reading “Computers That Never Were”
Within the last few years, a lot of companies have started with the aim to disrupt the educational electronics industry using their LEGO-compatible sets. Now they’re ubiquitous, and fighting each other for their slice of space in your child’s box of bricks. What’s going on here?
The main reason for LEGO-compatibility is familiarity. Parents and children get LEGO. They have used it. They already have a bunch. When it comes to leveling up and learning about electronics, it makes sense to do that by adding on to a thing they already know and understand, and it means they can continue to play with and get more use from their existing sets. The parent choosing between something that’s LEGO-compatible and a completely separate ecosystem like littleBits (or Capsela) sees having to set aside all the LEGO and buy all new plastic parts and learn the new ecosystem, which is a significant re-investment. littleBits eventually caught on and started offering adapter plates, and that fact demonstrates how much demand there is to stick with the studs.
Continue reading “LEGO-compatible Electronics Kits Everywhere!”
Most of the electric motors we see these days are of the electromagnetic variety, and for good reason: they’re powerful. But there’s a type of motor that was invented before the electromagnetic one, and of which there are many variations. Those are motors that run on high voltage, and the attraction and repulsion of charge, commonly known as electrostatic motors.
Ben Franklin — whose electric experiments are most frequently associated with flying a kite in a thunderstorm — built and tested one such high-voltage motor. It wasn’t very powerful, but was good enough for him to envision using it as a rotisserie hack. Food is a powerful motivator.
What follows is a walk through the development of various types of these motors, from the earliest ion propelled ones to the induction motors which most have never heard of before, even an HV hacker such as yours truly.
Continue reading “Ben Franklin’s Weak Motor and Other Forgotten Locomotion”
It isn’t really a book, but Richard Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Disaster Report is still definitely something you should read. It’s not particularly long, but it’s educational and relevant not just as an example of critical thinking in action, but as a reminder not to fool oneself; neither individually, nor on an organizational level. Sadly, while much was learned from the events leading to and surrounding the Challenger disaster, over thirty years later many of us can still find a lot of the same things to relate to in our own professional lives. There isn’t a single magic solution, because these problems are subtle and often masquerade as normal.
Feynman and the Challenger Disaster
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel Prize winning physicist and one of the best-known scientists of his time. In 1986 he somewhat reluctantly agreed to join the Rogers Commission, whose task was to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded a little more than a minute after launch, killing everyone on board. The commission’s job was to find out what had gone wrong and how it had happened, and figure out how to keep it from happening again.
Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Disaster Report”