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Tech News Roundup (March/April 2020)

April 17, 2020 Jonathan Houghton

As we know, the world is a bit upside-down right now, but tech innovations are still coming at us fast and furious. Here are a few recent pieces of tech news that we thought were worth sharing:



Creativity blooms

The COVID-19 pandemic is leading businesses and individual inventors to innovate at a rapid pace — not unlike during World War II, when early digital computer and rocket technology were first developed. A man in Wales invented a 3D-printable, hands-free door opener that can clip onto door handles and is operated by the forearm. The 3D design is available online for free. And the company Virustatic Shield has designed a snood-style mask with an antiviral coating that can neutralize more than 96% of airborne viruses. The company is planning to scale up production to 1 million masks a week while reserving a portion of their masks for the UK’s National Health Service.


¿Qué pasa, Quibi?

The heavily hyped, long-in-development mobile content app Quibi recently launched, offering 40 short-form series and documentaries featuring well-known stars like Christoph Waltz, Liam Hemsworth and Sophie Turner from “Game of Thrones.” The app’s unique interface allows shows to be displayed in both horizontal and vertical formats, making use of cropping and reformatting so that the images always fill the screen. It remains to be seen whether Quibi will break through in our crowded media landscape, but at the very least, it’s another solid entertainment option to sample while we’re all stuck at home.


Hopeful for COBOL

Several states are urgently looking for computer programmers, but there’s a catch: They need to be proficient in COBOL, a programming language that was introduced in 1959 and hasn’t been widely used since the 1980s. The states’ unemployment systems are apparently running on four-decade-old mainframes that are struggling to manage the influx of new claims from people laid off during the coronavirus crisis. So if you happen to be one of the knowledgeable few, better start updating your resume!


Tale of the tape

Using a piece of tape, researchers at McAfee Inc. were able to demonstrate a potential vulnerability of self-driving cars by tricking a Tesla vehicle to automatically accelerate from 35 mph to 85 mph. The technicians placed the tape horizontally across the middle of the “3” on a speed limit sign, causing the vehicle to misread the number. Luckily, the researcher driving the car was able to slow it down without anybody being hurt, and the research is being used to improve automated driving systems so they’re safer in real-world situations.


Smaller than life

A group of scientists have discovered a new way to potentially detect microbial life on Mars, if it exists. Geomicrobiologist Yohey Suzuki and his team developed their method over the past 10 years by examining ancient volcanic rocks brought up from the deep sea. They stabilized the rocks using epoxy and cut off thin sheets that they viewed under a microscope, using a special dye that makes DNA pop out. They were able to discover a type of bacteria that was densely packed into tiny cracks in the rocks.


You’re next, Bowser

Artificial intelligence firm DeepMind has developed an AI system, Agent57, that is capable of beating human averages on 57 canonical Atari 2600 video games, including Asteroids, Centipede, Kangaroo, Pitfall, Q-Bert and Ms. Pac-Man. The AI developers chose video games as an objective because they challenge players with a wide variety of tasks that require the development of sophisticated behavioral strategies, while also offering an easy metric (a high score) to measure against.

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