Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Holder urges tech companies to leave device backdoors open for police

The Switch

Holder urges tech companies to leave device backdoors open for police

By Craig Timberg September 30 at 2:00 PM

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said on Tuesday that new forms of encryption capable of locking law enforcement officials out of popular electronic devices imperil investigations of kidnappers and sexual predators, putting children at increased risk.

"It is fully possible to permit law enforcement to do its job while still adequately protecting personal privacy," Holder said at a conference on child sexual abuse, according to a text of his prepared remarks. "When a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children. It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so."

In his comments, Holder became the highest government official to publicly chastise technology companies for developing systems that make it difficult for law enforcement officials to collect potential evidence, even when they have search warrants. Though he didn't mention Apple and Google by name, his remarks followed their announcements this month of new smartphone encryption policies that have sparked a sharp government response, including from FBI Director James B. Comey last week.

Federal, state and local law enforcement officials have complained loudly that the companies are undermining efforts to fight crime, including terrorism. Apple's newest mobile operating system, iOS 8, is so thoroughly encrypted that the company says it cannot unlock iPhones or iPads that use it. Google's Android operating system plans to begin using encryption automatically, for all users unless they specifically opt out, in a version to be released in October. (It will take months or years for that feature to reach most Android users.)

Company officials have said stronger encryption better protects the privacy of users by toughening the security of the devices against a wide range of intrusions, by governments, criminals or curious hackers. American technology companies have been particularly eager to demonstrate their commitment to user privacy in the aftermath of the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, detailing the extensive reach of government surveillance. Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Holder was speaking to the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online, meeting in Washington, when he raised the issue of preserving government access to electronic devices.

"Recent technological advances have the potential to greatly embolden online criminals, providing new methods for abusers to avoid detection," Holder said. "In some cases, perpetrators are using cloud storage to cheaply and easily store tens of thousands of images and videos outside of any home or business - and to access those files from anywhere in the world.  Many take advantage of encryption and anonymizing technology to conceal contraband materials and disguise their locations."

He called on companies "to work with us to ensure that law enforcement retains the ability, with court-authorization, to lawfully obtain information in the course of an investigation, such as catching kidnappers and sexual predators."

Even with the new forms of encryption, government officials maintain access to several sources of data related to the use of smartphones, including the records of calls and texts kept by cellular carriers and the device backups that most smartphones make on remote cloud services, such as Apple's iCloud. Police with search warrants also are free to use third-party tools to try to crack the encryption on smartphones or other devices. Courts can potentially order users to furnish passcodes that will unlock devices as well.



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hong Kong democracy protesters flock to new messaging app

Hong Kong democracy protesters flock to new messaging app
AFP
5 hours ago

A social messaging app that allows users to contact each other even if a mobile phone network is overloaded or switched off has become a hit among tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters.

Student leaders called on followers over the weekend to download FireChat, which allows phones to communicate even when the Internet is down, after rumours swept their camp that the city's beleaguered authorities might turn off the cell network.

Tens of thousands have occupied major thoroughfares in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city and have refused to move until China grants genuine democracy.

So far the cellphone network has not been deliberately switched off. But protesters quickly found that the app often worked much better than rivals within the huge crowds that have paralysed parts of the city and often overloaded the network.

"I know it can connect with people around me without using the Internet," 18-year-old student Audrey Chan told AFP as she gathered with fellow demonstrators in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district.

"So I just downloaded it in case the network is down, in case I need to contact the people around me."

A 40-year-old part time worker who gave her name as Minnie added: "We don't have to use the Internet to get connected with people who have the app, so we can be in touch."

"There have been groups on Facebook that suggest people download it, during really critical times when the Internet is down," she said.

Launched in March, FireChat works by allowing phones to connect with each other over short distances even if a network is down through their Bluetooth connections.

The more phones there are in the vicinity, the wider the distance messages can travel -- making it an ideal communications tool for mass gatherings.

San Francisco-based company Open Garden, which owns the app, said 100,000 new users signed up in Hong Kong on Sunday alone -- a day when police repeatedly fired tear gas at demonstrators and sparked outrage.

The company has regularly posted messages on its Facebook account aimed at Hong Kong protesters.

"We hope FireChat will serve you well. Please remember messages are not encrypted at this point. Please be cautious about what you say and do not use your real name," one recent posting read.

Many activists said they were still afraid that city authorities could close down the cellphone networks if protests intensify -- and felt relieved they would still have a way to communicate.

"I'm afraid that the government will cut down the network and I want to make sure I have a point of contact with my family," said 17-year-old student Sarah Chan.

http://news.yahoo.com/hong-kong-democracy-protesters-flock-messaging-app-101411265.html

Saturday, September 27, 2014

FBI blasts Apple, Google for locking police out of phones

FBI blasts Apple, Google for locking police out of phones

By Craig Timberg and Greg Miller September 25 at 8:17 PM

FBI Director James B. Comey sharply criticized Apple and Google on Thursday for developing forms of smartphone encryption so secure that law enforcement officials cannot easily gain access to information stored on the devices — even when they have valid search warrants.

His comments were the most forceful yet from a top government official but echo a chorus of denunciation from law enforcement officials nationwide. Police have said that the ability to search photos, messages and Web histories on smartphones is essential to solving a range of serious crimes, including murder, child pornography and attempted terrorist attacks.

“There will come a day when it will matter a great deal to the lives of people . . . that we will be able to gain access” to such devices, Comey told reporters in a briefing. “I want to have that conversation [with companies responsible] before that day comes.”

Comey added that FBI officials already have made initial contact with the two companies, which announced their new smartphone encryption initiatives last week. He said he could not understand why companies would “market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”

Comey’s remarks followed news last week that Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 8, is so thoroughly encrypted that the company is unable to unlock iPhones or iPads for police. Google, meanwhile, is moving to an automatic form of encryption for its newest version of Android operating system that the company also will not be able to unlock, though it will take longer for that new feature to reach most consumers.

Both companies declined to comment on Comey’s remarks. Apple has said that its new encryption is not intended to specifically hinder law enforcement but to improve device security against any potential intruder.

For detectives working a tough case, few types of evidence are more revealing than a smartphone. Call logs, instant messages and location records can link a suspect to a crime precisely when and where it occurred. And a surprising number of criminals, police say, like to take selfies posing with accomplices — and often the loot they stole together.

But the era of easy law enforcement access to smartphones may be drawing to a close as courts and tech companies erect new barriers to police searches of popular electronic devices. The result, say law enforcement officials, legal experts and forensic analysts, is that more and more seized smartphones will end up as little more than shiny paperweights, with potentially incriminating secrets locked inside forever.

The irony, some say, is that while the legal and technical changes are fueled by anger over reports of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, the consequences are being felt most heavily by police detectives, often armed with warrants certifying that a judge has found probable cause that a search of a smartphone will reveal evidence of a crime.

“The outrage is directed at warrantless mass surveillance, and this is a very different context. It’s searching a device with a warrant,” said Orin Kerr, a former Justice Department computer crimes lawyer who is now a professor at George Washington University.

Not all of the high-tech tools favored by police are in peril. They can still seek records of calls or texts from cellular carriers, eavesdrop on conversations and, based on the cell towers used, determine the general locations of suspects. Police can seek data backed up on remote cloud services, which increasingly keep copies of the data collected by smartphones. And the most sophisticated law enforcement agencies can deliver malicious software to phones capable of making them spy on users.

Yet the devices themselves are gradually moving beyond the reach of police in a range of circumstances, prompting ire from investigators. Frustration is running particularly high at Apple, which made the first announcement about new encryption and is moving much more swiftly than Google to get it into the hands of consumers.

“Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,” said John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago’s police department. “The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.”

The rising use of encryption is already taking a toll on the ability of law enforcement officials to collect evidence from smartphones. Apple in particular has been introducing tough new security measures for more than two years that have made it difficult for police armed with cracking software to break in. The new encryption is significantly tougher, experts say.

“There are some things you can do. There are some things the NSA can do. For the average mortal, I’d say they’re probably out of luck,” said Jonathan Zdziarski, a forensics researcher based in New Hampshire.

Los Angeles police Detective Brian Collins, who does forensics analysis for anti-gang and narcotics investigations, says he works on about 30 smartphones a month. And while he still can successfully crack into most of them, the percentage has been gradually shrinking — a trend he fears will only accelerate.

“I’ve been an investigator for almost 27 years,” Collins said, “It’s concerning that we’re beginning to go backwards with this technology.”

The new encryption initiatives by Apple and Google come after June’s Supreme Court ruling requiring police, in most circumstances, to get a search warrant before gathering data from a cellphone. The magistrate courts that typically issue search warrants, meanwhile, are more carefully scrutinizing requests amid the heightened privacy concerns that followed the NSA disclosures that began last year.

Civil liberties activists call this shift a necessary correction to the deterioration of personal privacy in the digital era — and especially since Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 inaugurated an era in which smartphones became remarkably intimate companions of people everywhere.

“Law enforcement has an enormous range of technical and old-fashioned methods to go after the perpetrators of real crime, and no amount of security effort at Silicon Valley tech companies is going to change that fact,” said Peter Eckersley, director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco. “The reality is that if the FBI really wants to investigate someone, they have a spectacular arsenal of weapons.”

Sometimes, police say, that’s not enough.

Escalante, the Chicago chief of detectives, pointed to a case in which several men forced their way into the home of a retired officer in March and shot him in the face as his wife lay helplessly nearby. When the victim, Elmer Brown, 73, died two weeks later, city detectives working the case already were running low on useful leads.

But police got a break during a routine traffic stop in June, confiscating a Colt revolver that once belonged to Brown, police say. That led investigators to a Facebook post, made two days after the homicide, in which another man posed in a cellphone selfie with the same gun.

When police found the smartphone used for that picture, the case broke open, investigators say. Though the Android device was locked with a swipe code, a police forensics lab was able to defeat it to collect evidence; the underlying data was not encrypted. Three males, one of whom was a juvenile, eventually were arrested.

“You present them with a picture of themselves, taken with the gun, and it’s hard to deny it,” said Sgt. Richard Wiser, head of the Chicago violent crimes unit that investigated the case. “It played a huge role in this whole thing. As it was, it took six months to get them. Who knows how long it would have taken without this.”



Friday, September 26, 2014

FBI blasts Apple, Google for locking police out of phones

FBI blasts Apple, Google for locking police out of phones

By Craig Timberg and Greg Miller September 25 at 8:17 PM

FBI Director James B. Comey sharply criticized Apple and Google on Thursday for developing forms of smartphone encryption so secure that law enforcement officials cannot easily gain access to information stored on the devices — even when they have valid search warrants.

His comments were the most forceful yet from a top government official but echo a chorus of denunciation from law enforcement officials nationwide. Police have said that the ability to search photos, messages and Web histories on smartphones is essential to solving a range of serious crimes, including murder, child pornography and attempted terrorist attacks.

“There will come a day when it will matter a great deal to the lives of people . . . that we will be able to gain access” to such devices, Comey told reporters in a briefing. “I want to have that conversation [with companies responsible] before that day comes.”

Comey added that FBI officials already have made initial contact with the two companies, which announced their new smartphone encryption initiatives last week. He said he could not understand why companies would “market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”

Comey’s remarks followed news last week that Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 8, is so thoroughly encrypted that the company is unable to unlock iPhones or iPads for police. Google, meanwhile, is moving to an automatic form of encryption for its newest version of Android operating system that the company also will not be able to unlock, though it will take longer for that new feature to reach most consumers.

Both companies declined to comment on Comey’s remarks. Apple has said that its new encryption is not intended to specifically hinder law enforcement but to improve device security against any potential intruder.

For detectives working a tough case, few types of evidence are more revealing than a smartphone. Call logs, instant messages and location records can link a suspect to a crime precisely when and where it occurred. And a surprising number of criminals, police say, like to take selfies posing with accomplices — and often the loot they stole together.

But the era of easy law enforcement access to smartphones may be drawing to a close as courts and tech companies erect new barriers to police searches of popular electronic devices. The result, say law enforcement officials, legal experts and forensic analysts, is that more and more seized smartphones will end up as little more than shiny paperweights, with potentially incriminating secrets locked inside forever.

The irony, some say, is that while the legal and technical changes are fueled by anger over reports of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, the consequences are being felt most heavily by police detectives, often armed with warrants certifying that a judge has found probable cause that a search of a smartphone will reveal evidence of a crime.

“The outrage is directed at warrantless mass surveillance, and this is a very different context. It’s searching a device with a warrant,” said Orin Kerr, a former Justice Department computer crimes lawyer who is now a professor at George Washington University.

Not all of the high-tech tools favored by police are in peril. They can still seek records of calls or texts from cellular carriers, eavesdrop on conversations and, based on the cell towers used, determine the general locations of suspects. Police can seek data backed up on remote cloud services, which increasingly keep copies of the data collected by smartphones. And the most sophisticated law enforcement agencies can deliver malicious software to phones capable of making them spy on users.

Yet the devices themselves are gradually moving beyond the reach of police in a range of circumstances, prompting ire from investigators. Frustration is running particularly high at Apple, which made the first announcement about new encryption and is moving much more swiftly than Google to get it into the hands of consumers.

“Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,” said John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago’s police department. “The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.”

The rising use of encryption is already taking a toll on the ability of law enforcement officials to collect evidence from smartphones. Apple in particular has been introducing tough new security measures for more than two years that have made it difficult for police armed with cracking software to break in. The new encryption is significantly tougher, experts say.

“There are some things you can do. There are some things the NSA can do. For the average mortal, I’d say they’re probably out of luck,” said Jonathan Zdziarski, a forensics researcher based in New Hampshire.

Los Angeles police Detective Brian Collins, who does forensics analysis for anti-gang and narcotics investigations, says he works on about 30 smartphones a month. And while he still can successfully crack into most of them, the percentage has been gradually shrinking — a trend he fears will only accelerate.

“I’ve been an investigator for almost 27 years,” Collins said, “It’s concerning that we’re beginning to go backwards with this technology.”

The new encryption initiatives by Apple and Google come after June’s Supreme Court ruling requiring police, in most circumstances, to get a search warrant before gathering data from a cellphone. The magistrate courts that typically issue search warrants, meanwhile, are more carefully scrutinizing requests amid the heightened privacy concerns that followed the NSA disclosures that began last year.

Civil liberties activists call this shift a necessary correction to the deterioration of personal privacy in the digital era — and especially since Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 inaugurated an era in which smartphones became remarkably intimate companions of people everywhere.

“Law enforcement has an enormous range of technical and old-fashioned methods to go after the perpetrators of real crime, and no amount of security effort at Silicon Valley tech companies is going to change that fact,” said Peter Eckersley, director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco. “The reality is that if the FBI really wants to investigate someone, they have a spectacular arsenal of weapons.”

Sometimes, police say, that’s not enough.

Escalante, the Chicago chief of detectives, pointed to a case in which several men forced their way into the home of a retired officer in March and shot him in the face as his wife lay helplessly nearby. When the victim, Elmer Brown, 73, died two weeks later, city detectives working the case already were running low on useful leads.

But police got a break during a routine traffic stop in June, confiscating a Colt revolver that once belonged to Brown, police say. That led investigators to a Facebook post, made two days after the homicide, in which another man posed in a cellphone selfie with the same gun.

When police found the smartphone used for that picture, the case broke open, investigators say. Though the Android device was locked with a swipe code, a police forensics lab was able to defeat it to collect evidence; the underlying data was not encrypted. Three males, one of whom was a juvenile, eventually were arrested.

“You present them with a picture of themselves, taken with the gun, and it’s hard to deny it,” said Sgt. Richard Wiser, head of the Chicago violent crimes unit that investigated the case. “It played a huge role in this whole thing. As it was, it took six months to get them. Who knows how long it would have taken without this.”



Multi-tasking makes your brain smaller: Grey matter shrinks if we do too much at once

    People who multitask with multiple media devices have less grey matter
    Grey matter is the part of the brain that processes information
    Older studies found multitasking on media devices led to poor attention
    Also linked to emotional problems such as depression and anxiety
    Training the brain through learning can increase density of grey matter

By Fiona Macrae for the Daily Mail

Published: 17:21 GMT, 24 September 2014 | Updated: 11:39 GMT, 25 September 2014

If you are sending a text, watching the TV or listening to the radio, you may want to stop and give this your full attention.

Multi-tasking shrinks the brain, research suggests.

A study found that men and women who frequently used several types of technology at the same time had less grey matter in a key part of the brain.

People who text and surf the internet while watching TV have less grey matter in their brains compared to people who use only one media device at a time, or only use devices occasionally

University of Sussex researchers said: 'Simultaneously using mobile phones, laptops and other media devices could be changing the structure of our brains.'

Worryingly, the part of the brain that shrinks is involved in processing emotion.

The finding follows research which has linked multi-tasking with a shortened attention span, depression, anxiety and lower grades at school.

The researchers began by asking 75 healthy men and women how often they divided their attention between different types of technology.

Experts said multitasking with multiple media devices wears away the grey matter, which is the part of the brain that processes information

This could mean sending a text message while listening to music and checking email, or speaking on the phone while watching TV and surfing the web.

The volunteers were then given brain scans which showed they had less grey matter in a region called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

The findings held even when differences in personality were taken into account.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, is the first to make a link between multi-tasking and the structure of the brain.

Researcher Kep Kee Loh said: 'Media multi-tasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being.'

He added that more research is needed to prove that multi-tasking shrinks the brain.

This is because it is also possible that people with less grey matter in the ACC are more drawn to using lots of gadgets simultaneously.

Scientists have previously demonstrated brain structure can be altered on prolonged exposure to novel environments and experience.

Other studies have shown that training - such as learning to juggle or taxi drivers learning the map of London - can increase grey-matter densities in certain parts.

Experts have also warned of the harmful impact technology can have on our memory and attention span.

The University of California team commissioned a survey of more than 18,000 people aged between 18 and 99 and found 20 per cent had problems with memory.

Researchers were taken aback by the 14 per cent of 18 to 39-year-olds who also worried about their memories.

Multi-tasking with gadgets may shorten attention span, making it harder to focus and form memories, the researchers said, adding that youngsters may be particularly affected by stress.



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New Level of Smartphone Encryption Alarms Law Enforcement

New Level of Smartphone Encryption Alarms Law Enforcement
Moves by Apple and Google Are Latest Fallout From Snowden's Disclosures

By DEVLIN BARRETT And DANNY YADRON CONNECT
Updated Sept. 22, 2014 7:42 p.m. ET

Moves by Apple Inc.and Google Inc. to put some smartphone data out of the reach of police and the courts are raising alarms inside U.S. law-enforcement agencies, current and former officials say.

Several officials in Washington said they were bracing for a confrontation with Silicon Valley on the issue, the latest fallout from the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about government surveillance.

Last week, Apple announced that its new operating system for phones would prevent law enforcement from retrieving data stored on a locked phone, such as photos, videos and contacts. A day later, Google reiterated that the next version of its Android mobile-operating system this fall would make it similarly difficult for police or Google to extract such data from suspects' phones.

It's not just a feature—it's also a marketing pitch. "It's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data," Apple's website says.

Apple acknowledged it could still hand such data over to law enforcement that users back up on the company's iCloud servers. And police can access some iPhone data without Apple's help, because phone firms keep call logs and Apple doesn't control data from third-party apps.

In its announcement, Apple also sought to distinguish itself as more protective of customers' privacy than its competitors are, saying it doesn't use customers' data to sell or target ads. Google didn't comment on the customer privacy issue.

The moves highlight the continuing challenge for law enforcement in responding to new technologies. Other innovations, such as texting, instant messaging and videogame chats, created hurdles to monitoring communication, though law-enforcement agencies in almost every instance eventually found ways to overcome them.

But this time, two of the best-known U.S. companies are advertising that their phone systems may be able to beat a court order, and putting the technology in the hands of tens of millions of people.

"All of a sudden, a for-profit company has decided, 'We're going to step in and be the first line of defense for customers against their own government,' " said Brian Pascal, a fellow at Stanford University who has worked on privacy issues at Palantir Technologies Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. IBM -0.46%

Apple and Google declined to comment. An Apple spokeswoman pointed to the company's new privacy policy and comments Chief Executive Tim Cook made in a recent interview with Charlie Rose. "People have a right to privacy," Mr. Cook said. "And I think that's going to be a very key topic over the next year or so."

Apple previously ruffled Justice Department feathers by encrypting its iMessage texting and FaceTime calling services, making them more difficult for police to intercept. Apple says even it cannot decipher the communications.

Now, Apple said its new iOS 8 mobile-operating system will by default encrypt certain data on the phone if users set a passcode. That will make the data undecipherable, to both phone thieves and police. The new operating system works with any iPhone released since late 2011, starting with the 4s model. About one-quarter of Americans owned an iPhone as of May.

In the past, investigators with court orders have been able to send harvested iPhones to Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, where engineers could extract certain data.

Last week's announcements surprised senior federal law-enforcement officials, some of whom described it as the most alarming consequence to date of the frayed relationship between the federal government and the tech industry since the Snowden revelations prompted companies to address customers' concerns that the firms were letting—or helping—the government snoop on their private information.

Senior U.S. law-enforcement officials are still weighing how forcefully to respond, according to several people involved in the discussions, and debating how directly they want to challenge Apple and Google.

One Justice Department official said that if the new systems work as advertised, they will make it harder, if not impossible, to solve some cases. Another said the companies have promised customers "the equivalent of a house that can't be searched, or a car trunk that could never be opened.''

Andrew Weissmann, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation general counsel, called Apple's announcement outrageous, because even a judge's decision that there is probable cause to suspect a crime has been committed won't get Apple to help retrieve potential evidence. Apple is "announcing to criminals, 'use this,' " he said. "You could have people who are defrauded, threatened, or even at the extreme, terrorists using it.''

The level of privacy described by Apple and Google is "wonderful until it's your kid who is kidnapped and being abused, and because of the technology, we can't get to them,'' said Ronald Hosko, who left the FBI earlier this year as the head of its criminal-investigations division. "Who's going to get lost because of this, and we're not going to crack the case?"

Even as officials debated how to respond to the change, a high-profile missing person case pointed to the potential implications of the new technology. Last week, authorities issued search warrants for the apartment, car and phone of a person of interest in the disappearance of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, a case that remains unsolved. Under the new operating system announced by Apple, a similar phone search in the future might be fruitless.

One official of a technology-industry association said the companies are responding to pressure from customers and competition from foreign companies to offer stronger privacy protections. The official suggested tech companies would make additional moves if the federal government doesn't take steps to protect privacy.

The new security offered by Apple and Google isn't absolute. In some cases, police may be able to find ways around Apple's system, by cracking a phone without Apple's help. Experts say no system is uncrackable.

In addition, a court could try to force a suspect to unlock his phone, said Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. And a suspect could make data vulnerable to investigators by backing up files, or linking the phone to a computer.

Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted federal investigators wouldn't be too hampered by the change, but state and local detectives could be. "It's not so much a problem for 'Big Brother,' but a problem for 'Little Brother,' " he said.


Robots That Learn Through Repetition, Not Programming

Robots That Learn Through Repetition, Not Programming

A startup says getting a robot to do things should be less about writing code and more like animal training.

By Tom Simonite on September 22, 2014

Making it easier to give robots intelligent behavior could make them cheaper and more widely used.

In an onstage demonstration this week, Todd Hylton of Brain Corporation used gestures to train a wheeled robot to come when he beckoned to it.

Eugene Izhikevich thinks you shouldn’t have to write code in order to teach robots new tricks. “It should be more like training a dog,” he says. “Instead of programming, you show it consistent examples of desired behavior.”

Izhikevich’s startup, Brain Corporation, based in San Diego, has developed an operating system for robots called BrainOS to make that possible. To teach a robot running the software to pick up trash, for example, you would use a remote control to repeatedly guide its gripper to perform that task. After just minutes of repetition, the robot would take the initiative and start doing the task for itself. “Once you train it, it’s fully autonomous,” says Izhikevich, who is cofounder and CEO of the company.

Izhikevich says the approach will make it easier to produce low-cost service robots capable of simple tasks. Programming robots to behave intelligently normally requires significant expertise, he says, pointing out that the most successful home robot today is the Roomba, released in 2002. The Roomba is preprogrammed to perform one main task: driving around at random to cover as much of an area of floor as possible.

Brain Corporation hopes to make money by providing its software to entrepreneurs and companies that want to bring intelligent, low-cost robots to market. Later this year, Brain Corporation will start offering a ready-made circuit board with a smartphone processor and BrainOS installed to certain partners. Building a trainable robot would involve connecting that “brain” to a physical robot body.

The chip on that board is made by mobile processor company Qualcomm, which is an investor in Brain Corporation. At the Mobile Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, a wheeled robot with twin cameras powered by one of Brain Corporation’s circuit boards was trained live on stage.

In one demo, the robot, called EyeRover, was steered along a specific route around a chair, sofa, and other obstacles a few times. It then repeated the route by itself. In a second demo, the robot was taught to come when a person beckoned to it. One person held one hand close to the robot’s twin cameras, so that EyeRover could lock onto it. A second person then maneuvered the robot forward and back in synchronization with the trainer’s hand. After being led through a rehearsal of the movements just twice, the robot correctly came when summoned.

Those quick examples are hardly sophisticated. But Izhikevich says more extensive training conducted over days or weeks could teach a robot to perform a more complicated task such as pulling weeds out of the ground. A company would need to train only one robot, and could then copy its software to new robots with the same design before they headed to store shelves.

Brain Corporation’s software is based on a combination of several different artificial intelligence techniques. Much of the power comes from using artificial neural networks, which are inspired by the way brain cells communicate, says Izhikevich. Brain Corporation was previously collaborating with Qualcomm on new forms of chip that write artificial neural networks into silicon (see “Qualcomm to Build Neuro-Inspired Chips”). Those “neuromorphic” chips, as they are known, are purely research projects for the moment. But they might eventually offer a more powerful and efficient way to run software like BrainOS.

Brain Corporation previously experimented with reinforcement learning, where a robot starts out randomly trying different behaviors, and a trainer rewards it with a virtual treat when it does the right thing. The approach worked, but had its downsides. “Robots tend to harm themselves when they do that,” says Izhikevich.

Training robots through demonstration is a common technique in research labs, says Manuela Veloso, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. But the technique has been slower to catch on in the world of commercial robotics, she says. The only example on the market is the two-armed Baxter robot, aimed at light manufacturing. It can be trained in a new production line task by someone manually moving its arms to direct it through the motions it needs to perform (see “This Robot Could Transform Manufacturing”).

Sonia Chernova, an assistant professor in robotics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, says that most other industrial robot companies are now working to add that type of learning to their own robots. But she adds that training could be tricky for mobile robots, which typically have to deal with more complex environments.

Izhikevich acknowledges that training a robot via demonstration, while faster than programming it, produces less predictable behavior. You wouldn’t want to use the technique to ensure that an autonomous car could detect jaywalkers, for example, he says. But for many simple tasks, it could be acceptable. “Missing 2 percent of the weeds or strawberries you were supposed to pick is okay,” he says. “You can get them tomorrow.”