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Researchers hack a computer using DNA

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Researchers inject malware code in a strand of DNA

With each passing day, hackers are using innovative ways to breach cyber security systems. One such inventive method of hacking a computer is via DNA.

Researchers at the University of Washington claims to have successfully injected a malware program into a DNA sample and use it to hack into a computer that analyzes the sequence of that DNA. In other words, so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer.

The team also explained its work in a more readable essay on its website that provides suggestions to tighten computer security and privacy protections in DNA synthesis, sequencing, and processing.

One of the big things we try to do in the computer security community is to avoid a situation where we say, ‘Oh shoot, adversaries are here and knocking on our door and we’re not prepared,’” co-author Tadayoshi Kohno, a professor at UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, said in a statement. “Instead, we’d rather say, ‘Hey, if you continue on your current trajectory, adversaries might show up in 10 years. So let’s start a conversation now about how to improve your security before it becomes an issue.’”

The researchers through trial and error successfully proved that it is possible to infect a computer with a malware that was coded into a strand of DNA and which when inserted into the gene-sequencing process, could allow an attacker to gain control of that system.

To assess whether this is theoretically possible, we included a known security vulnerability in a DNA processing program,” they wrote. “We then designed and created a synthetic DNA strand that contained malicious computer code encoded in the bases of the DNA strand. When this physical strand was sequenced and processed by the vulnerable program it gave remote control of the computer doing the processing. That is, we were able to remotely exploit and gain full control over a computer using adversarial synthetic DNA.”

Should we be worried with this finding at this point of time? Well, not really. “We don’t want to alarm people or make patients worry about genetic testing, which can yield incredibly valuable information,” said author and Allen School Associate Professor Luis Ceze. “We do want to give people a heads up that as these molecular and electronic worlds get closer together, there are potential interactions that we haven’t really had to contemplate before.”

However, the finding is been considered as a significant breakthrough in the growing overlap between the digital and the biological world. As sequencing becomes cheaper and more popular, there are chances of more DNA-encoded cyberthreats.

The researchers asserted that, “It is time to improve the state of DNA security. We encourage the DNA sequencing community to proactively address computer security risks before any adversaries manifest.”

The researchers plan to discuss their findings at the USENIX Security Symposium in Vancouver during a presentation on August 17.

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The BecDot is a toy that helps teach vision-impaired kids to read braille

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Learning braille is a skill that, like most, is best learned at an early age by those who need it. But toddlers with vision impairment often have few or no options to do so, leaving them behind their peers academically and socially. The BecDot is a toy created by parents facing that challenge that teaches kids braille in a fun, simple way, and is both robust and affordable.

Beth and Jake Lacourse’s daughter Rebecca (that’s her up top playing with the prototype) was born with Usher Syndrome, a common cause of blindness and deafness. After finding existing braille toys and teaching tools either too basic, too complex, or too expensive, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

Jake happens to have a background in product design, having worked for years at a company that creates simple, durable environmental sensors. But this was a unique challenge — how to make a toy that doubles as a braille teaching aid? Months later, however, he had created a prototype of a production device, albeit with a one-off 3D printed case.

You can see it in action at the TechCrunch booth at CES here:

The BecDot has a colorfully lit surface on which toys equipped with NFC tags (programmed through an app) can be placed. Once the tag is detected, for instance on a toy cow, up to four braille letters appear, formed by lifted pegs: C-O-W. The device can also emit a sound uploaded by the parent or teacher.

It’s simple, yes — as toys should be for kids this age. Yet it affords blind and partially sighted kids the opportunity to learn the alphabet and identify short words at the same time and in much the same way as sighted children. And with the sounds, lights, and the possibility of integration with books and lessons, kids will likely find it plenty of fun.

Here it’s worth noting that kids with disabilities often suffer doubly, first from simply not having the same senses or mobility as other kids, but secondly from the social isolation that results from not being able to interact with those kids as naturally as they interact with one another. This in turn causes them to fall further behind, isolating them further, and so on in a self-perpetuating cycle. This effect snowballs as time goes on, shrinking kids’ prospects of higher education and employment. We’re talking 70 percent unemployed here.

The BecDot and devices like it could help short circuit that cycle, both allowing kids to connect with others and learn on their own through play.

One of the things holding back devices like this is the complexity and cost of braille displays. If you think what’s behind an LCD is complicated, imagine if every pixel needed to actually move up and down independently and withstand frequent handling. The braille equivalents of e-readers can cost thousands to display a sentence or two at a time — but of course kids don’t need that.

Unsatisfied with the available options, Jake decided to engineer his own. He created a simple Scotch yoke mechanism that can control up to three dots at a time, meaning two of them can create a braille letter. It’s all controlled by an Arduino Uno. Simple means cheap, and the other parts are far from expensive; he told me that his bill of materials right now is around $50, and he could probably get it below $30.

Such a low cost would make the BecDot highly attractive, I should think, for any school with vision-impaired students. And of course there’s nothing stopping sighted kids from playing with the gadget either, as I’m sure they will.

Right now the BecDot is only in prototype phase, but the Lacourses sounded optimistic during CES, when I met with them. They’d been selected for a reward and exhibition by Not Impossible, an organization that creates and advocates for tech in the humanitarian space. Jake tells me that their time at the show exceeded his expectations, and that they got a chance to speak with people who can help both move the device towards market and advance the message he and Beth are trying to get out.

Toys like this (follow-up devices could have more letters or spaces for input) could help close the literacy and socialization gap that leads to many deaf and blind people being unemployed and dependent on others later in life. And having educational toys aimed at underserved, marginalized, and at-risk populations seems obvious in retrospect. It’s a simple idea in some ways, but only made possible by a creative and innovative application of technology and, of course, love.

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Fli Charge demonstrates its charging pad with Craftsman power tools

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Don’t call Fli Charge wireless charging. Fli Charge is conductive charging. It’s just like plugging something into a wall but uses powered surfaces to distribute power. And thanks to proprietary tech, it’s safe to the touch and just as fast as a wall outlet.

The company stopped by TechCrunch’s CES 2018 booth to show off their latest generation. It works and it’s amazing and was able to charge a variety of objects including power tools, smartphones, battery packs, USB-C computers and even a custom laptop with the Fli Charge system built directly in.

There are several advantages to Fli Charge. The system is capable of simultaneously charging batteries of different voltages. One strip can charge a smartphone, power tool, and laptop at the same time even though each device has different power requirements.

Once a Fli Charge device is placed on the strip, charging starts immediately at the same rate as if it was plugged into an outlet. Four small conductive nubs make contact with the pad and serve up power as needed.

The charging pad is safe to the touch and when the pad detects an unknown conductive material like a key or hand, it shuts off immediately. I placed my hand on the surface while it was plugged in and lived. There was no electrical sensation. Throw a set of keys on the pad and the charging shuts off, too.

FORM Holdings (then Vringo) acquired Fli Charge, a fledging technology company that once had its technology used in some Chrysler vehicles. Then in October 2016 Fli Charge CEO Cliff Weinstein led a management buyout to take Fli Charge private. Along the way the products were reworked and new partnerships found including with office and school supply provider Bretford and tool maker Craftsman. In both cases, Fli Charge will be built in at an OEM level to select products.

The Fli Charge line has expanded since the product hit Indiegogo in August 2016 though the fundamental offering has stayed on target. The company’s pad can charge a variety of gadgets and devices while remaining safe to the touch. Fli Charged received $230k from its Indiegogo campaign.

Going forward its clear that Fli Charge sees its future with additional partnerships that builds the Fli Charge technology directly into products like Craftsman power tools. The company sees a future where Fli Charge pads are built into desks and tool cases and laptops, phones and tools charge simultaneously on the same pad. And I, a guy with a lot of laptops, phones and tools, would love to live in the future, too.


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Nintendo’s bringing DIY robots and more to the Switch using cardboard

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Nintendo’s big new surprise interactive experience for the Switch is now official, and it’s basically a maker kit for the portable console that uses cardboard component pieces to allow people to build a range of different creations and play with them using the console to power games that interact with the DIY components.

NintendoLabo is like a next-level LEGO, with kits that let you do things like build working pianos that interact directly with Switch software, and even make your own robots. Nintendo shows off an interactive fishing game with a real, build-it-yourself cardboard fishing rod you can use to catch stuff in-game, and a rolling bot you can remote-control with the Switch’s touchscreen, as just a couple of examples.

It actually looks super fun, and there’s a variety kit and a robot kit coming out on April 20, 2018, with pricing starting at $69.99, which seems like a deal for the level of interactivity and creativity that’s available with these things. The Labo kits include all the cardboard pieces you need to build the projects they contain, as well as the Switch software necessary to run the interactive digital elements.

Nintendo is also selling Labo customization kits for $10 that will ship at the same time, and provide stencils, stickers and tape that allow you to customize the creations so your cardboard robot backpack looks different from everyone else’s cardboard robot backpack.

Kudos to Nintendo for once again ignoring the well-trod ground of putting more silicon and tech behind their gaming console ambitions, and instead striking out into the unknown of the weird and wacky. This looks like a really good time, and one that won’t necessarily result in a huge new source of waste plastic after people move on to the next thing.
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