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Google boss Sundar Pichai warns of threats to internet freedom

The free and open internet is under attack in countries around the world, Google boss Sundar Pichai has warned.

He says many countries are restricting the flow of information, and the model is often taken for granted.

In an in-depth interview with the BBC, Pichai also addresses controversies around tax, privacy and data.

And he argues artificial intelligence is more profound than fire, electricity or the internet.

Pichai is chief executive of one of the most complex, consequential and rich institutions in history.

Voice cloning of growing interest to actors and cybercriminals

As voice cloning technology has become ever more effective, it is of increasing interest to actors… and cybercriminals.

When Tim Heller first heard his cloned voice he says it was so accurate that “my jaw hit the floor… it was mind-blowing”.

Voice cloning is when a computer program is used to generate a synthetic, adaptable copy of a person’s voice.

From a recording of someone talking, the software is able to then replicate his or her voice speaking any words or sentences that you type into a keyboard.

Such have been the recent advances in the technology that the computer generated audio is now said to be unnervingly exact. The software can pick up not just your accent – but your timbre, pitch, pace, flow of speaking and your breathing.

And the cloned voice can be tweaked to portray any required emotion – such as anger, fear, happiness, love or boredom.

Mr Heller, a 29-year-old voiceover artist and actor from Texas, does everything from portraying cartoon characters, narrating audio books and documentaries, speaking on video games, and the voiceovers on film trailers.

He says he recently turned to voice cloning to “future proof” his career.

He says it may enable him to secure more work. For example, if he is ever double-booked, he could offer to send his voice clone to do one of the jobs instead.

“If I am booked for other work… I can position my ‘dub’ [what he calls his voice clone] as an option that can save clients time, and generate passive income for myself,” says Mr Heller.

To get his voice cloned Mr Heller went to a Boston-based business called VocaliD – one of a growing number of companies now offering the service.

VocaliD was founded by its chief executive Rupal Patel, who is also a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northeastern University.

Prof Patel set up the business in 2014 as an extension of her clinical work creating artificial voices for patients who are unable to talk without assistance, such as people who have lost their voice following surgery or illness.

“When the AI learns your voice, it learns many properties… like timbre and pitch, and intensity,” he says.

“But it also learns thousands of other features [of a person’s voice] that may not be very obvious to us.”

Yet while the increasing sophistication of voice cloning has obvious commercial potential, it has also led to growing concerns that it could be used in cyber crime – to trick people that someone else is talking.

Together with computer-generated fake videos, voice cloning is also called “deepfake”. And cyber security expert expert Eddy Bobritsky says there is a “huge security risk” that comes with the synthetic voices.

“When it comes to email or text messages it’s been known for years that it’s quite easy to impersonate others,” says the boss of Israeli firm Minerva Labs.

“But until now, talking on the phone with someone you trust and know well was one of the most common ways to ensure you are indeed familiar with the person.”

Mr Bobritsky says that is now changing. “For example, if a boss phones an employee asking for sensitive information, and the employee recognises the voice, the immediate response is to do as asked. It’s a path for a lot of cybercrimes.”

Taiwan tech giants Foxconn and TSMC to buy 10m Covid jabs

Two of the world’s biggest technology manufacturers are buying 10 million doses of a Covid vaccine for Taiwan.

Taiwanese firms Foxconn, which makes devices for Apple, and chip giant TSMC brokered the agreements for the BioNTech vaccine, worth $350m (£252m).

Taiwan has been trying for months to buy the vaccine from Germany’s BioNTech and blames China for blocking a deal.

China, which claims the self-ruled island as its own territory, denies the accusations.

The agreements will see Foxconn and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) buy five million doses of the vaccine each and donate them to the government for distribution.

The deal was announced in a statement by BioNTech’s Chinese sales agent Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group.

Fosun Pharma’s chairman and chief executive Wu Yifang said they would “work closely with our partners to provide safe and effective vaccines to Taiwan at an early date”.

Foxconn’s billionaire founder and chairman Terry Gou wrote on his Facebook page that Beijing did not interfere with the talks.

BioNTech developed the mRNA vaccine, which is marketed as Comirnaty, in collaboration with the US pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer.

Taiwan’s government has faced intense pressure from the public to speed up its coronavirus vaccination programme.

Last month the government agreed to allow Mr Gou and TSMC to negotiate deals for the vaccines on its behalf.

A major Taiwanese Buddhist group, the Tzu Chi Foundation, is also trying to buy vaccines for Taiwan.

Separately, the US and Japan have donated a total of almost five million Covid vaccine doses to Taiwan to help the island accelerate its vaccination programme.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has millions of vaccines on order, mainly from AstraZeneca and Moderna.

Just 0.3% of Taiwan’s population is fully vaccinated.

Last week, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said the government aims to have 25% of its population vaccinated with at least one dose of a two-shot jab by the end of July.

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