Microsoft’s chatbot makes MIT’s worst-tech list

Tay turned into a big controversy for Microsoft. (Microsoft Illustration)

Tay, the Microsoft chatbot that pranksters trained to spew racist comments, has joined the likes of the Apple Watch and the fire-prone Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone on MIT Technology Review’s list of 2016’s biggest technology failures.

Tay had its day back in March, when it was touted as a millennial-minded AI agent that could learn more about the world through its conversations with users. It learned about human nature all too well: Mischief-makers fed its artificial mind with cuss words, racism, Nazi sentiments and conspiracy theories. Within 24 hours, Microsoft had to pull Tay offline.

Other technological missteps were rated as fails because they didn’t take off as expected, as was the case for Apple’s smartwatch; or because they took off in flames, like the batteries in the Samsung phone.

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Amazon plans to defend drones from … arrows?

Arrow attack on drone
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows a malicious person shooting an arrow at a drone – and missing. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

If there are any Robin Hoods out there who are thinking about shooting down drones while they’re making deliveries, Amazon has a patented plan to stop you.

The patent, filed in 2014 but published just last week, lays out countermeasures for potential threats ranging from computer hacking to lightning flashes to bows and arrows.

If nothing else, the 33-page application illustrates how many things could possibly go wrong with an autonomous navigation system for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

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Ten top books for geeks to read in 2017

Bill Gates reading
What’s Bill Gates reading now? We’re taking a guess. (Gates Foundation Photo)

Geeks and books go together like athletes and balls, but just as there are different sports, there are different types of geek reading. We’ve put together a top-10 list of books on a wide spectrum of geeky topics, all published over the past year.

Some of these picks should help you prepare for what promises to be a … well, let’s call it an “interesting” year for geeks and everyone else. Others will provide an opportunity for respite and reflection, with a few geeky tweaks.

In addition to the list you see here, check out our list of 21 science books for the holidays in 2016, plus this year’s top five reads from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. And don’t be surprised if some of these top 10 for 2017 end up on Gates’ reading list during the coming year.

Get the full list on GeekWire.


Starbucks offers free coffee for the holidays

Starbucks Cheer
Starbucks is offering free espresso drinks for an hour every day (except Christmas) at 100 locations through Jan. 2. (Starbucks Graphic)

Free coffee for the holidays? Starbucks is making is so, but the Seattle-based company is making you work for it online.

Starbucks’ “Pop-Up Cheer Parties” are a movable feast, taking place every day (except Christmas) from now through Jan. 2, from 1 to 2 p.m.

The catch is that the parties are scheduled in only 100 locations across the country each day, and you have to check the website to find out where they’re happening.

When it’s party time, customers can get one free tall espresso beverage, plus a Cheer Card that feature special offers ranging from 50 percent off a Holiday Space flat white to a free holiday cookie with the purchase of a handcrafted beverage. The Cheer Card offers are redeemable through Jan. 2.


Christmas in space features French cuisine

Peggy Whitson on International Space Station
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson floats inside the International Space Station. (NASA Photo)

Spacefliers on the International Space Station will be getting the traditional Christmas turkey dinner, coming out of a not-so-traditional food storage pouch – but they’ll also be getting something extra, courtesy of French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

French chefs have prepared a spread of canned foods that kick space cuisine up a notch, including Normandy-style ox tongue, chicken supreme with morel mushrooms and apple gingerbread for dessert.

“I have enough for everybody on the crew,” Pesquet said.

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SpaceShipTwo gets one last flight test for 2016

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity glides above California’s Mojave Desert. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Unity, took its second free-flying test run today, closing off a rebuilding year for the space venture.

At the start of the year, the company was still finishing up work on its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, incorporating the lessons learned from the breakup of the first SpaceShipTwo in October 2014.

That accident occurred during a rocket-powered test, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury and severely injuring pilot Pete Siebold. Investigators blamed pilot error as well as a host of other contributing factors.

VSS Unity rolled out this February amid a burst of Virgin-style hoopla, and since then the SpaceShipTwo team has been conducting a low-profile series of tests. The 27-foot-wide plane was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership for its first unpowered glide flight on Dec. 3.

Today’s flight from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port followed a similar profile, with the aim of checking the craft’s aerodynamics under a variety of conditions. Virgin Galactic’s Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky repeated their roles as SpaceShipTwo’s pilots.

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Boeing works with Trump on jet cost concerns

Dennis Muilenburg
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg speaks with reporters after meeting with Donald Trump. (Worldwide Trends via YouTube)

After meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg says he’s making a “personal commitment” to keep the cost of the next two Air Force One jets below $4 billion.

“We’re going to get it done for less than that, and we’re committed to working together to make sure that happens,” Muilenburg told reporters on Dec. 21.

Trump threatened in a Dec. 6 tweet to have the Air Force One deal canceled because “costs are out of control, more than $4 billion.” But since then, Muilenburg and other executives have smoothed over the dispute. Wednesday’s meeting in Palm Beach appeared to cement the rapprochement with Trump.

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2016: The Year in Aerospace and Science

Orbiting black holes
A visualization shows gravitational waves produced by orbiting black holes. (NASA Graphic / C. Henze)

The biggest science story of 2016 was a century in the making, and will surely earn someone a Nobel Prize. The first detection of gravitational waves from the crash of two black holes is important not only for the physics of the past and present, but for the physics of the future as well.

The discovery – made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO – serves as powerful confirmation for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which was published in 1916. It also points the way for scientists to study black holes and other exotic phenomena that can’t be observed using the traditional tools of astronomy.

“What’s really exciting is what comes next,” David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, said when the discovery was announced in February. “I think we’re opening a window on the universe – a window of gravitational wave astronomy.”

Check out 2016’s top 10 stories and 2017’s top 5 trends on GeekWire.


Border Patrol will test Echodyne’s drone radar

Eben Frankenberg at Echodyne
Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg holds one of the company’s radar units at Echodyne’s headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Echodyne’s drone-sized radar system has received a vote of confidence – and a $118,721 award – from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The award, made through the department’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program, is designed to help the U.S. Border Patrol enhance its ability to monitor activities at the nation’s borders. The potential applications range from tracking down bad guys to search-and-rescue operations.

An award of a little more than $100,000 may not sound like a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a welcome boost for Echodyne – a startup headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., that counts Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen among its investors.

“The great thing is we get the opportunity to take the commercial product we’re developing, do a few modifications and have them test it,” Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg told GeekWire today.

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Starship science is built into ‘Passengers’ script

Starship Avalon
The starship Avalon approaches Arcturus in a scene from “Passengers.” (Sony Pictures via YouTube)

The science is under the hood in “Passengers,” a love story set on a giant starship – and screenwriter Jon Spaihts is the guy who put it there.

Chances are most movie fans are going to the movie to see Hollywood stars Jennifer Lawrence (“The Hunger Games,” etc.) and Chris Pratt (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” etc.) rather than to get a tutorial on the physics of the Coriolis effect on a rotating spacecraft. But just in case there are some space geeks in the audience, Spaihts made sure the math works out.

The one-time physics student and science writer has already made a name for himself as “Hollywood’s go-to science fiction screenwriter,” thanks to his work on “Prometheus,” “Doctor Strange” and the upcoming reboot of “The Mummy.”

For “Passengers,” Spaihts created a setting that is both expansive and claustrophobic. All of the action takes place on a starship traveling across light-years of emptiness to a colony world.

But what a starship! “The ship is a character unto itself,” the film’s director, Morten Tyldum, told GeekWire.

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