Saturday, November 25, 2023
Friday, November 24, 2023
‘What the heck is going on?’ Extremely high-energy particle detected falling to Earth | Particle physics | The Guardian
‘What the heck is going on?’ Extremely high-energy particle detected falling to Earth
"Amaterasu particle, one of highest-energy cosmic rays ever detected, is coming from an apparently empty region of space
Astronomers have detected a rare and extremely high-energy particle falling to Earth that is causing bafflement because it is coming from an apparently empty region of space.
The particle, named Amaterasu after the sun goddess in Japanese mythology, is one of the highest-energy cosmic rays ever detected.
Only the most powerful cosmic events, on scales far exceeding the explosion of a star, are thought to be capable of producing such energetic particles. But Amaterasu appears to have emerged from the Local Void, an empty area of space bordering the Milky Way galaxy.
“You trace its trajectory to its source and there’s nothing high energy enough to have produced it,” said Prof John Matthews, of the University of Utah and a co-author of the paper in the journal Science that describes the discovery. “That’s the mystery of this – what the heck is going on?”
The Amaterasu particle has an energy exceeding 240 exa-electron volts (EeV), millions of times more than particles produced in the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful accelerator ever built, and equivalent to the energy of a golf ball travelling at 95mph. It comes only second to the Oh-My-God particle, another ultra-high-energy cosmic ray that came in at 320 EeV, detected in 1991.
“Things that people think of as energetic, like supernova, are nowhere near energetic enough for this,” said Matthews. “You need huge amounts of energy, really high magnetic fields, to confine the particle while it gets accelerated.”
Toshihiro Fujii, an associate professor at Osaka Metropolitan University in Japan, said: “When I first discovered this ultra-high-energy cosmic ray, I thought there must have been a mistake, as it showed an energy level unprecedented in the last three decades.”
A potential candidate for this level of energy would be a super-massive black hole at the heart of another galaxy. In the vicinity of these vast entities, matter is stripped back to its subatomic structures and protons, electrons and nuclei are hurled out across the universe at nearly the speed of light.
Cosmic rays, echoes of such violent celestial events, rain down on to Earth nearly constantly and can be detected by instruments, such as the Telescope Array observatory in Utah, which found the Amaterasu particle.
Below a certain energy threshold, the flight path of these particles resembles a ball in a pinball machine as they zigzag against the electromagnetic fields through the cosmic microwave background. But particles with Oh-My-God or Amaterasu-levelenergy would be expected to blast through intergalactic space relatively unbent by galactic and extra-galactic magnetic fields, meaning it should be possible to trace their origin.
Tracing its trajectory backwards points towards empty space. Similarly, the Oh-My-God particle had no discernible source. Scientists suggest this could indicate a much larger magnetic deflection than predicted, an unidentified source in the Local Void, or an incomplete understanding of high-energy particle physics.
“These events seem like they’re coming from completely different places in the sky. It’s not like there’s one mysterious source,” said Prof John Belz of the University of Utah and a co-author of the paper. “It could be defects in the structure of spacetime, colliding cosmic strings. I mean, I’m just spitballing crazy ideas that people are coming up with because there’s not a conventional explanation.”
The Telescope Array is uniquely positioned to detect ultra-high-energy cosmic rays. It sits at about 1,200m (4,000ft), the elevation sweet spot that allows secondary particles maximum development, but before they start to decay. Its location in Utah’s West Desert provides ideal atmospheric conditions in two ways: the dry air is crucial because humidity will absorb the ultraviolet light necessary for detection; and the region’s dark skies are essential, as light pollution will create too much noise and obscure the cosmic rays.
The Telescope Array, which sits at about 1,200 metres elevation in Utah’s West Desert, is in the middle of an expansion that that astronomers hope will help crack the case. Once completed, 500 new scintillator detectors will expand the Telescope Array across 2,900 km2 (1,100 mi2 ), an area nearly the size of Rhode Island and this larger footprint is expected to capture more of these extreme events.
Wednesday, November 22, 2023
“Sam Altman confronted a member over a research paper that discussed the company, while directors disagreed for months about who should fill board vacancies.
Before Sam Altman was ousted from OpenAI last week, he and the company’s board of directors had been bickering for more than a year. The tension got worse as OpenAI became a mainstream name thanks to its popular ChatGPT chatbot.
At one point, Mr. Altman, the chief executive, made a move to push out one of the board’s members because he thought a research paper she had co-written was critical of the company.
Another member, Ilya Sutskever, thought Mr. Altman was not always being honest when talking with the board. And some board members worried that Mr. Altman was too focused on expansion while they wanted to balance that growth with A.I. safety.
The news that he was being pushed out came in a videoconference on Friday afternoon, when Mr. Sutskever, who had worked closely with Mr. Altman at OpenAI for eight years, read him a statement. The decision stunned OpenAI’s employees and exposed board members to tough questions about their qualifications to manage such a high-profile company.
Those tensions seemingly came to an end late Tuesday when Mr. Altman was reinstated as chief executive. Mr. Sutskever and others critical of Mr. Altman were jettisoned from the board, whose members now include Bret Taylor, an early Facebook officer and former co-chief executive of Salesforce, and Larry Summers, the former Treasury Department secretary. The only holdover is Adam D’Angelo, chief executive of the question-and-answer site, Quora.
The OpenAI debacle has illustrated how building A.I. systems is testing whether businesspeople who want to make money from artificial intelligence can work in sync with researchers who worry that what they are building could eventually eliminate jobs or become a threat if technologies like autonomous weapons grow out of control.
OpenAI was started in 2015 with an ambitious plan to one day create a superintelligent automated system that can do everything a human brain can do. But friction plagued the company’s board, which hadn’t even been able to agree on replacements for members who had stepped down.
Before Mr. Altman’s return, the company’s continued existence was in doubt. Nearly all of OpenAI’s 800 employees had threatened to follow Mr. Altman to Microsoft, which asked him to lead an A.I. lab with Greg Brockman, who quit his roles as OpenAI’s president and board chairman in solidarity with Mr. Altman.
The board had told Mr. Brockman that he would no longer be OpenAI’s chairman but invited him to stay on at the company — though he was not invited to the meeting where the decision was made to push him off the board and Mr. Altman out of the company.
OpenAI’s board troubles can be traced to the start-up’s nonprofit beginnings. In 2015, Mr. Altman teamed with Elon Musk and others, including Mr. Sutskever, to create a nonprofit to build A.I. that was safe and beneficial to humanity. They planned to raise money from private donors for their mission. But within a few years, they realized that their computing needs required much more funding than they could raise from individuals.
After Mr. Musk left in 2018, they created a for-profit subsidiary that began raising billions of dollars from investors, including $1 billion from Microsoft. They said that the subsidiary would be controlled by the nonprofit board and that each director’s fiduciary duty would be to “humanity, not OpenAI investors,” the company said on its website.
Among the tensions leading up to Mr. Altman’s ouster and quick return involved his conflict with Helen Toner, a board member and a director of strategy at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. A few weeks before Mr. Altman’s firing, he met with Ms. Toner to discuss a paper she had co-written for the Georgetown center.
Mr. Altman complained that the research paper seemed to criticize OpenAI’s efforts to keep its A.I. technologies safe while praising the approach taken by Anthropic, a company that has become OpenAI’s biggest rival, according to an email that Mr. Altman wrote to colleagues and that was viewed by The New York Times.
In the email, Mr. Altman said that he had reprimanded Ms. Toner for the paper and that it was dangerous to the company, particularly at a time, he added, when the Federal Trade Commission was investigating OpenAI over the data used to build its technology.
Ms. Toner defended it as an academic paper that analyzed the challenges that the public faces when trying to understand the intentions of the countries and companies developing A.I. But Mr. Altman disagreed.
“I did not feel we’re on the same page on the damage of all this,” he wrote in the email. “Any amount of criticism from a board member carries a lot of weight.”
Senior OpenAI leaders, including Mr. Sutskever, who is deeply concerned that A.I. could one day destroy humanity, later discussed whether Ms. Toner should be removed, a person involved in the conversations said.
But shortly after those discussions, Mr. Sutskever did the unexpected: He sided with board members to oust Mr. Altman, according to two people familiar with the board’s deliberations. The statement he read to Mr. Altman said that Mr. Altman was being fired because he wasn’t “consistently candid in his communications with the board.”
Mr. Sutskever’s frustration with Mr. Altman echoed what had happened in 2021 when another senior A.I. scientist left OpenAI to form Anthropic. That scientist and other researchers went to the board to try to push Mr. Altman out. After they failed, they gave up and departed, according to three people familiar with the attempt to push Mr. Altman out.
“After a series of reasonably amicable negotiations, the co-founders of Anthropic were able to negotiate their exit on mutually agreeable terms,” an Anthropic spokeswoman, Sally Aldous, said. In a second statement, Anthropic added that there was “no attempt to ‘oust’ Sam Altman at the time the founders of Anthropic left OpenAI.”
Vacancies exacerbated the board’s issues. This year, it disagreed over how to replace three departing directors: Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn founder and a Microsoft board member; Shivon Zilis, director of operations at Neuralink, a company started by Mr. Musk to implant computer chips in people’s brains; and Will Hurd, a former Republican congressman from Texas.
After vetting four candidates for one position, the remaining directors couldn’t agree on who should fill it, said the two people familiar with the board’s deliberations. The stalemate hardened the divide between Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman and other board members.
Hours after Mr. Altman was ousted, OpenAI executives confronted the remaining board members during a video call, according to three people who were on the call.
During the call, Jason Kwon, OpenAI’s chief strategy officer, said the board was endangering the future of the company by pushing out Mr. Altman. This, he said, violated the members’ responsibilities.
Ms. Toner disagreed. The board’s mission was to ensure that the company creates artificial intelligence that “benefits all of humanity,” and if the company was destroyed, she said, that could be consistent with its mission. In the board’s view, OpenAI would be stronger without Mr. Altman.
On Sunday, Mr. Sutskever was urged at OpenAI’s office to reverse course by Mr. Brockman’s wife, Anna, according to two people familiar with the exchange. Hours later, he signed a letter with other employees that demanded the independent directors resign. The confrontation between Mr. Sutskever and Ms. Brockman was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.
At 5:15 a.m. on Monday, he posted on X, formerly Twitter, that “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions.”
Tripp Mickle reports on Apple and Silicon Valley for The Times and is based in San Francisco. His focus on Apple includes product launches, manufacturing issues and political challenges. He also writes about trends across the tech industry, including layoffs, generative A.I. and robot taxis. More about Tripp Mickle“
Tuesday, November 21, 2023
Monday, November 20, 2023
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A report in The Guardian in August that lawyers who had had business before the Supreme Court gave money to an aide to Justice Clarence Thomas for a Christmas party was surprising. Just as surprising was the way the publication learned about it: from the aide’s public Venmo records. Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology writer for The Times, wrote that even he was surprised that such records of money transfers could be public.
A few years ago it became known that Alexa, Amazon’s voice device, recorded and sent private conversations to third parties, that Amazon staff members listened to recordings and kept an extensive archive of recordings by default.
Both companies responded to these startling violations of privacy by suggesting that the burden to keep this information from going public was on users, who could, they said, opt out of devices’ default settings to ensure privacy. This is often the standard industry response.
Even if you’re aware of these problems, how easy is it to protect your privacy? Chen helpfully shared instructions for opting out of Venmo’s public disclosures.
“Inside the app, click on the Me tab, tap the settings icon and select Privacy. Under default privacy settings, select Private,” he explained. “Then, under the ‘More’ section in Privacy, click ‘Past Transactions’ and make sure to set that to ‘Change All to Private.’”
Got all that? I did, and changed my settings, too, as I had also been in the dark.
The bigger problem is not the sometimes ridiculous difficulty of opting out, it’s that consumers often aren’t even aware of what their settings allow, or what it all means. If they were truly informed and actively choosing among the available options, the default setting would matter little, and be of little to no value.
But companies expect users to accept what they’re given, not know their options or not have the constant vigilance required to keep track of the available options, however limited they may be. Since the power in the industry is concentrated among few gatekeepers, and the technology is opaque and its consequences hard to foresee, default settings are some of the most important ways for companies to keep collecting and using data as they want.
So, how much are default settings worth?
In April 2021, Apple changed the default settings on iPhones and other devices so that users could not be tracked automatically via a unique identifier assigned to their Apple device. For many companies, and even for entire industries whose business models are based on tracking people online, it was a cataclysmic event. No longer would people have to opt out of such tracking by going into their settings and changing the permissions. Now the apps had to ask for and receive explicit permission before they could have access to that identifier.
In 2021, Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were estimated to have lost about $10 billion in total because of the change. In early 2022, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it alone stood to lose $10 billion. Industries like mobile gaming, in which revenue largely depends on tracking users, also suffered.
Another valuation of default settings became clear in the current Google antitrust trial. During the trial, Google revealed that it paid $26.3 billion in 2021 to be the default search engine on various platforms, with a substantial portion of the money going to Apple. That $26.3 billion was more than a third of the entire 2021 profit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. That was more than the 2021 revenue of United Airlines and even of many tech companies, including Uber. An expert witness for Google testified that as part of that deal, the company was paying Apple 36 percent of its search advertising revenue to be its products’ default search engine.
Even when you might think you know what your default settings are, you can be surprised. On more than one occasion I discovered that my privacy settings had changed from what I thought they were. Help forums are full of similarly befuddled users. Sometimes it’s a bug. Other times, when I dug into it, I realized that another change I had made had surreptitiously switched me back into tracking. Sometimes I learned that there was yet another setting somewhere else that also needed to be changed.
I’m not a tech novice: I started programming in middle school, worked as a developer and study these systems academically. If professionals can be tripped up, I’d argue that an industry rife with information asymmetries and powerful, complicated technologies needs to be reined in.
Regulators can require companies to have defaults that favor privacy and autonomy, and make it easy to remain in control of them. There are already good efforts underway. California allows people to make a single opt-out or delete request to get all data brokers to delete all their information, rather than having to appeal to them one by one. Colorado also recently passed similar universal one-stop opt-out mechanisms. Other states have made similar privacy protection moves.
I would go further: Data brokers should not be allowed to amass information about people unless they first get explicit permission. But that’s not sufficient, since it is difficult for individuals to evaluate all the implications of their data — professionals, experts and the companies themselves keep getting surprised.
A few years ago, aggregate maps generated by the running app Strava, which showed where users were running, seemingly revealed the location of what could have been a secret Central Intelligence Agency annex in Mogadishu, Somalia. It appears that even the C.I.A. hadn’t anticipated this, and instructed its personnel to change the setting. If that’s the case, what chance do ordinary people have to evaluate all future implications of their data?
There need to be stronger guardrails, including for data that is legitimately collected. The default should be the most restrictive setting, with additional protections. For example, companies should have expiration dates for how long they can hold data needed for a particular service, limiting the data use to that service alone, with explicit consent required for different uses.
The process by which companies get such permissions also needs strong oversight to ensure accountability and transparency. After all, this is the industry that invented “dark patterns”: user interfaces designed to deceive customers into “opting in” to choices without fully realizing what was happening. Many apps have already been trying to get around Apple’s privacy restrictions, by carefully engineering how to get people to opt in or by figuring out other ways to fingerprint devices.
What about all the benefits we derive from services based on personalized data, including even location tracking? I use such tools all the time, but there are certainly ways to provide services and value without this level of unchecked surveillance. But it’s wishful thinking to expect companies to provide those services in a more privacy-preserving manner without regulation that forces them to do so.
I was happy to see Apple switch the defaults for tracking in 2021, but I’m not happy that it was because of a decision by one powerful company — what oligopoly giveth, oligopoly can taketh away. We didn’t elect Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, to be the sovereign of our digital world. He could change his mind.
Notably, Apple’s change followed years of intense public criticism of Facebook, after privacy scandals, the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and so on. None of that seemed to have made a substantial dent in Facebook’s business. A single decision by Tim Cook did, clearly demonstrating where real power over this industry lies.
It’s time that our own elected officials got smarter — and prioritized the public interest rather than cozy arrangements with the tech industry — to exercise that power. If the federal government can’t or won’t, states can follow California and Colorado’s lead. In 1966, California forged ahead alone to set high emission standards for cars, which then pulled along the rest of the nation and the industry.
If it were all as simple as people changing their settings, Google wouldn’t be forking over a sum larger than the G.D.P. of entire countries to have Apple users start with one setting rather than another. The default way the technology industry does business needs to change now.