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This week, Google reveals new devices, including the new Pixel 3 smartphones and Pixel Slate tablet and news about an Amazon experiment using artificial intelligence to screen job applicants. But first, Google+ gets shuttered.

Google shuts down Google+ after Wall Street Journal uncovers vulnerability

An article in the Wall Street Journal last week asserted that the private information of users of Google+ had been vulnerable without the company informing them.

Google has since decided to close the Google+ social networking service.

The report alleges that between 2015 and March of this year, a software vulnerability in the Google+ code meant that user profile data was accessible by developers outside Google.

There is no evidence, Google says, “that any developer was aware of this bug, or abusing the API, and we found no evidence that any Profile data was misused.”

The software bug was fixed in March 2018. Google’s bigger problem is that the company kept it all a secret.

Internal memos discussing the problem and the way to handle it were source documents used in the reporting by the Wall Street Journal. “The document shows Google officials knew that disclosure could have serious ramifications. Revealing the incident would likely result ‘in us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal,’ the memo said. It ‘almost guarantees Sundar will testify before Congress.’”

This comes on the heels of news in September that 50 million Facebook users may have had their accounts accessed by hackers.

Pixel 3 smartphone, Pixel Slate, and other products announced by Google

At an event in New York yesterday, Google showed off its new smartphones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.

Priced starting at $999 for the 5.5-inch Pixel 3 and $1129 for the 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL with 64 GB of storage, Google is playing up the impact of artificial intelligence with these new devices. The company says that AI is being used to prioritize battery use to help get you through the day, to suggest phrases so writing emails is quicer, and to improve the photos you take.

Speaking of photos, the Pixel 3 handsets have two front-facing cameras, one with a wide-angle lens, to give you more selfie flexibility (“Groupie” anyone?).

The single camera on the back has a resolution of 12.2-megapixels. And Google is offering free cloud-based storage in your Google Photos account for all photos and videos that you take with your Pixel 3, at their original resolution (including 4K).

The Pixel Stand ($109), meanwhile, is a wireless charging stand. It was also announced today, and while it’s designed by Google ostensibly for using with the Pixel handset, it uses the Qi standard and so can be used with devices from any manufacturer. It supports fast charging and is powered by a USB-C cable.

Pre-order either of the two Pixel 3 models – they release on October 18 – and Google will throw in a Pixel Stand.

The Pixel Slate is Google’s latest take on a tablet-keyboard combo. The Pixelbook, released last winter, is a Chromebook with a built-in keyboard equipped with a 360-degree hinge, but the Slate is more of a tablet, and has a cheaper price point as a result.

Starting at $849 and releasing later this year, the Slate runs the Chrome OS operating system, which has been redesigned with touch screens in mind.

The Slate Keyboard ($259) and Pixelbook Pen ($129) are extra.

Amazon’s failed experiment using AI to screen job applicants

As reported by Reuters today, Amazon at one point was using machine learning to rate job candidates. The problem was that the information used to train the machines were resumes previously submitted, which tended to come from male applicants.

So the AI learned that males were preferred, and was “penalizing” and “downgrading” female applicants.

The company is no longer using the system and sources said the AI recommendations were not paramount when making hiring decisions.

The experiment serves to highlight the big constraint on AI and machine learning: They are only as good as the information they learn from.

Recall the MIT researcher who discovered that facial recognition software in use around the world is racially biased.

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This week, Amazon launches Music Unlimited in Canada, Apple adds Shazam to its company, and EA Sports predicts an end to the curse of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But first, the new Surface devices from Microsoft.

Microsoft announces updates to Surface devices, new headphones

In an exclusive event in New York this week, Microsoft revealed new Surface computing devices.

The Surface Pro 6 (starting at $1,179) is a laptop/tablet that now comes with an 8th generation Intel Core processor and some 14 hours of battery life.

The Surface Laptop 2 (starting at $1,299) is a proper laptop with a touchscreen.

The second generation Surface Studio 2 (priced at $4,599 for a 1 TB hard drive and $6,349 for 2 TB of storage) provides more solid-state storage and increased graphics memory. This is a desktop computer designed for the creative class.

The Surface computing devices are all available to pre-order now, but there’s no date for the Canadian availability for the new Surface Headphones, likely because they have Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, built in and in Canada we’ve got that dual language requirement hurdle. The headphones have adjustable noise cancelling functionality, are wireless, and look like they’ll cost about US$350.

Another announcement from Microsoft at the event was about a program called Surface All Access which is essentially a two-year payment program that gets you a Surface device and accessories and an Office 365 subscription. It is not, however, being offered in Canada at the moment.

Amazon Music Unlimited service now available in Canada

Amazon’s premium music streaming subscription service has launched in Canada.

Amazon Music Unlimited is an upgrade from Prime Music, offering more music choices and better Alexa integration.

The new service, competing with Spotify and Apple Music, among others, will cost $8 a month or $79 a year for Prime members and $10 a month for everyone else. A Family Plan for up to six household members is $15 a month or $149 a year.

A Single Device Plan gives you Amazon Music Unlimited on a single Echo device for $4 a month.

For the next while, Amazon is offering a free 90-day trial.

Apple acquires Shazam to bolster its music offering

Apple, meanwhile, has purchased Shazam, the smartphone app that tells you what that song you’re hearing is called and who sings it.

The app was first launched in 2002 and was built to be used with the most basic mobile phones. You used SMS messaging to send the audio sample and receive the song title and artist.

It’s become central to discovering new music in this age of constant connectivity.

Apple will be making the app free and free of advertising, and presumably will be looking at ways the functionality can be worked into other iPhone systems.

Nobody’s said anything, but it’s a good bet that the Android version of the app will be shut down.

EA Sports NHL 19 simulation predicts Maple Leafs as Stanley Cup winners

The NHL regular season kicks off tonight, but the annual simulation of the entire season is already over. And NHL 19 predicts that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup.

EA Sports does this every year with its various sports simulations, and this year the prediction is that the Leafs will play the San Jose Sharks in the Final. The Vegas Golden Knights, the simulation suggests, will win the Presidents Trophy, which goes to the team which wins the most regular season games.

The predictions for Stanley Cup winners haven’t been great. Last year the simulation picked the Winnipeg Jets, but it was the Washington Capitals which won. The year before the sim had the Nashville Predators beating the Montreal Canadiens, but it was the Pittsburgh Penguins that actually won.

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This week, a look at how technology is disrupting our world in the most interesting (and potentially terrible) of ways: insurance firms monitoring customers, robots taking jobs, companies being frivolous with customer data. All that and an Alexa-enabled microwave.

Insurance company issuing fitness trackers to policy holders

John Hancock, a life insurance company in the U.S., is adding to all its policies a feature called Vitality that requires participants to report their living habits, including diet and physical exercise.

The benefit to the individual is that by living better they can save money on insurance premiums. The benefit to John Hancock is that they may have to pay out on fewer policies because they’ve got healthier customers and the longer customers live, the more they end up paying in premiums.

It’s the kind of intervention that could, in all honesty, bring about a reversal of the physical decline in western cultures.

Here’s what we know:

  • Spending on prevention is far more efficient than spending on health care after people get unwell
  • People benefit from increased physical activity in more ways than over physical health; they also benefit from improved psychological and emotional health

But this precedent is not without concern. Because we also know:

  • Corporations have no conscience and when given an opening like this will find ways to exploit it to their own ends
  • People will find ways to “game” the systems so they can get the benefit without having to expend the effort
  • Fitness trackers don’t actually measure fitness, but the activities that can lead to fitness

What we don’t know:

  • What is John Hancock going to do with all of the personal information they collect on their policy holders? That data will be tied to an individual, it won’t be anonymous.

The Vitality program is also being offered by insurance companies in Britain and South Africa.

John Hancock is owned by Canada’s Manulife. There has been no word on whether the company is planning something similar for Canadian customers.

The dangerous case of NCIX data servers

If you’re a tech person, odds are that you purchased something from NCIX at some point. During the company’s heyday – prior to the surge of internet retail – it was one of Canada’s leading tech retailers.

By the end of 2017, though, the company was gone.

But last month, Travis Doering stumbled onto a Craigslist ad offering up the NCIX database servers. Doering discovered that the servers had never been wiped, and still contained employee and customer data.

If you purchased anything from NCIX in the 2000s you should be extra vigilant. There’s a good chance that your data, including credit card numbers, is out there.

Robots are coming for your jobs, and that’s okay

The World Economic Forum released its 2018 The Future of Jobs Report last week, and to hear most media covering it you’d think that we’re all doomed. “Machines will do more than half the work!”

The document does predict that robots, or some form of automation, will be doing many of the tasks that people are paid to do today.

But it also suggests that as a result of all this change and disruption, there will be double the number of jobs for people in total.

So we may lose two jobs, but four will be created. And they will be jobs we can’t even comprehend right now.

This has happened before in human history. The Industrial Revolution was only one example.

What is required for this to work in the favour of humanity, however, is education and training. We need to make sure we’re prepared for this new future. And that means teaching our kids how to think critically.

Amazon putting Alexa into new Echo devices and anywhere else she’ll go

Coming to Canada early next month are five new products from Amazon designed to get Alexa into our homes.

The company has redesigned the Echo Dot ($70), Echo Plus ($200), and Echo Show ($300) speakers. New features include a built-in temp sensor in the Plus so it can interact with smart thermostats.

There’s also an Echo Sub ($170) to provide the bass you’re missing from your other Echos.

The brand new item is the Amazon Smart Plug ($35) and while other companies are selling plugs that give smart home functions to your everyday devices, Amazon has something they don’t: Alexa.

You can get a Smart Plug and tell Alexa to turn on your floor fan. Or anything else you plug into it.

Amazon has also created an Alexa-enabled microwave. While not available in Canada – yet – the appliance’s very existence shows that Amazon is willing to do what other tech companies have been reluctant to do: become device manufacturers in order to get services in use.

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This week, the best features of iOS 12 for your Apple mobile devices, how to find out which fictional space-faring crew you’d be best on, and the latest news in video games. But first, the Vancouver International Film Festival is including virtual reality in its programming this year.

VR VIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival has just come to an end, and Vancouver’s is just about to begin. VIFF is doing something different this year by featuring virtual, augmented, and mixed reality in a new event called Immersed Exhibition.

Open to the public, and costing $15 to participate in the 90 minute program, the exhibition is presented by Samsung VR and includes Fire Escape and A Curious Mind which features Dominic Monaghan as narrator.

The best features of iOS 12

In addition to the two new iPhones releasing this week, Apple’s also giving us the latest operating system for its mobile devices, iOS 12.

The new software streamlines the functioning of your iPhones, and makes them faster. Some people with older iPhones are finding that iOS 12 actually makes them run better than before.

Here are some of the best features that are part of the new software:

  • Two-factor authentication codes autofill from your Messages app
  • Better integration of password apps, including my pick, 1Password
  • Screen Time to monitor device usage
  • Memoji are animated cartoon characters that look like you
  • Group FaceTime conversations up to 32 people can use your Animoi and Memoji if you’d prefer
  • Use Google Maps and Waze in CarPlay

But I want to be on the crew of Firefly

Tor Books has created a fun quiz that aims to tell you which dysfunctional space crew you belong in.

I took the quiz a couple of times and got Star Wars twice. I don’t know what the full range of options are, but just thinking about them makes my head spin. Farscape, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica. They all featured dysfunctional groups of people, didn’t they?

More recently, there’s The Expanse.

And that’s only counting movies and television. The Tor quiz was inspired by Drew Williams’ book, The Stars Now Unclaimed which features a spaceship called Scheherazade.

Video game bundles and Lara Croft back for another adventure

Become Lara Croft in Shadow of the Tomb Raider

This third game from Square Enix since Crystal Dynamics rebooted the franchise was largely developed in Canada at Eidos-Montreal.

Set in the jungles of South America, the story revolves around the history and culture of the Mayan people. In becoming Lara, you’ll need to use stealth and combat techniques to defeat enemies, and you’ll need your wits to solve the puzzles in order to progress.

Upgrading Lara’s skills and crafting supplies are also integral to the game, and one significant new feature is the ability to get back to stealth play after you’ve initiated combat by breaking your enemy’s line of sight.

Fortnite on Switch

One of the most popular games in the world right now is Fortnite, and Nintendo announced this week that they are bundling the game with a Switch for Cdn$380.

I can hear you say, “But Fortnite is a free game!”

You’re right, it is. But you can also spend real money to enhance your Fortnite experience, and this “Double Helix” bundle includes 1,000 V-Bucks, which you can use to unlock other content or purchase a Battle Pass. The bundle also comes with a unique outfit, “back bling,” glider, and pickaxe.

NHL 19 is out now

EA Sports has a new agreement with the NHL Alumni Association, and the just released NHL 19 includes 200 legendary players, including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, Mark Messier, Jean Béliveau, Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Teemu Selänne.

In Canada only, you can pick up a 1 TB PS4 bundled with NHL 19 for only Cdn$380.

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This week, Amazon’s valuation hits high and the difficulty of detecting deception on Facebook. But first, I hope you’re ready to pay your Apple tax.

Three new iPhones to choose from: big, biggest, and colourful

Apple is going big in a big way.

Three new iPhones were revealed today at a press event at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. They are all based on the iPhone X design that came out last year, with edge-to-edge screens, no home button, and facial recognition technology.

The iPhone XS comes in two sizes. The XS has a 5.8-inch screen, like the iPhone X. The iPhone XS Max has a massive 6.5-inch display.

Physically, the Max doesn’t seem that much bigger than the iPhone 8 Plus. But because it’s got no space for the camera and home button, the entire device is screen.

The XS and XS Max come in gold, silver, and space grey, with a new dual-camera system with “smart HDR,” which promises more detail in highlights and shadows. They are available with storage of 64 GB, 256 GB, and 512 GB, and priced from $1,379 to $1,859 for the XS and $1,519 to $1,999 for the XS Max.

There’s also the iPhone XR. It’s a slightly downgraded model with a 6.1-inch LED screen, not OLED, and only a single camera. But it still has lots of the functionality of the XS and XS Max, including facial recognition, augmented reality, and the smart HDR photography feature. It also comes in a range of nice candy-like colours.

It’ll cost $1,029 for 64 GB, $1,099 for 128 GB, and $1,239 for 256 GB.

You can pre-order the XR on October 19. The iPhone XS and XS Max will be available to purchase on Friday, September 14, and will start shipping the following week.

New Apple Watch

There’s also a new Apple Watch coming next week – pre-orders start this Friday – and the Series 4 introduces even more health functions including the ability to record an ECG (electrocardiogram) which can detect problems with rhythm patterns.

It also has a walkie talkie which can be used with other Apple Watches around the world over Wi-fi or cellular. I’m really curious to know how many people will be buying these in pairs.

Starting at $519 or $649 with cellular functionality. Pre-orders start this Friday, with availability next Friday.

The arrival of the new model means that the Series 3 Apple Watch can be had for only $369.

Amazon’s valuation tops one trillion dollars

Well, Apple hit a valuation of a trillion dollars a few weeks ago. As predicted, Amazon has done the same.

It’s taken less than 25 years for the company Jeff Bezos founded in 1994 to reach the milestone.

As reported by the Guardian, Amazon stock cost $18 a share when it first became available in 1997. Those shares are now worth more than $2,000.

New York Times quiz shows how hard it can be to spot a deceptive Facebook post

A feature in the New York Times challenges readers to differentiate between a post from a legitimate organization and one created by a disreputable source.

“One of these posts was from a genuine Facebook page that supports feminism, and the other was part of an influence campaign. Can you guess which post is from a fake page?” the quiz asks.

Other themes explored include Latin American heritage and African-American issues.

The quiz reveals that the influence campaigns aren’t necessarily as clear as you suspect. That’s because many of the fake posts were created to imitate posts created by real organizations that have Facebook pages.

The examples of fake posts used by the New York Times seem like they might be legitimate. The reasoning is that the intent by antagonists is to create controversy and ratchet up tensions.

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