Virgin Galactic completes its final VSS Unity flight test before space tourism debut

Virgin Galactic is finally on the cusp of launching its space tourism business. After a late start, the company has completed its last VSS Unity flight test before commercial service starts. The Unity 25 mission tested both technical functionality and the overall experience for astronauts, and reached space at roughly 12:26PM Eastern. The launch also made a little history: crew member Jamila Gilbert became the first female astronaut from New Mexico, according to Virgin. Gilbert and fellow crewmates Chris Huie, Luke Mays and Beth Moses are all Virgin employees.

The company has delayed this test multiple times. The final delay stemmed from difficulties upgrading the VMS Eve host aircraft, which ferries Unity to 50,000 feet. Virgin completed an unpowered test flight in late April, but its first crewed flight dates back to July 2021, when founder Richard Branson joined Moses, Sirisha Bandla and Colin Bennett for Unity 22. Unity 25 is Virgin's fifth spaceflight of any kind.

The successful test is important for Virgin. It has operated at a loss for years as it kept pushing back its space tourism plans, and lost over $500 million in 2022 alone. The company expects to fly paying customers in late June, and it needs those passengers' $450,000 tickets to help recoup its investment. Now, it's more a matter of firming up details than overcoming technological hurdles.

Virgin trails Blue Origin, which is already launching civilians into space. It's closer to passenger spaceflights than SpaceX, though. While Elon Musk's outfit announced its lunar tourism plans years ago, it has yet to send a Starship rocket into space with crew aboard. Not that SpaceX is necessarily concerned. Virgin is focused on less ambitious (if also less expensive) suborbital flights where Starship will be used for both tourists' lunar orbits and NASA's Moon landings.

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Google Play Games for PC is now available in Europe and New Zealand

You no longer have to live in one of a handful of countries to try the official option for Android games on Windows. The Google Play Games beta has expanded to over 40 European countries (including the UK) and New Zealand. The additions now make the platform available in 56 countries total, up from just 13 as of November.

Google Play Games currently offers more than 100 Android titles. You might not recognize all of them, but better-known releases like Asphalt 9, Homescapes and Last Fortress are included. Google routinely adds new games to the service, and promises access in more countries "soon."

The requirements are relatively light. You'll need a PC with at least Windows 10, a solid-state drive, 8GB of RAM and a four-core CPU running Intel's UHD 630 graphics (found in 8th- and 9th-gen Core chips) or its AMD equivalent. Google recommends a dedicated "gaming-class" GPU like NVIDIA's GeForce MX450 and a CPU with eight logical cores (such as through hyperthreading). If your computer is no more than a few years old, you can likely give this a try.

This isn't the only way to play Android games on Windows, of course. Windows 11 offers apps from Amazon's store, while clients like BlueStacks have been available for years. However, Google Play Games may be enticing if you want Google's full backing and don't mind a limited catalog.

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Bungie revives ‘Marathon’ as a multiplayer shooter

What do you think Bungie would do for its first non-Destiny game in over a decade? A return to the franchise that helped make it a gaming giant, of course. The developer has unveiledMarathon, a follow-up to the classic first-person shooter series for Macs. This isn't a sequel or remake, mind you. Instead, it's a multiplayer "extraction shooter" that has mercenary Runners exploring a lost colony.

While there's no single-player component, game director Chris Barrett says this will still "feel" like a Bungie game between the mechanics and rich universe. Player actions will also influence the plot — you might find an artifact that unlocks an area for all players. There are persistent zones and seasons, although we wouldn't expect a repeat of similar elements in Destiny.

Marathon is in development for PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. While there isn't much more to share at this point, Bungie says the next update will be "much closer to launch" and include gameplay. It's safe to say there's a lot riding on this title. It's proof that Bungie isn't content to iterate on Destiny forever, and will show what the company can do with a multiplayer-only experience. And for old-time fans, this is a chance to return to a beloved franchise 27 years later.

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‘Sword of the Sea’ is a fantasy surfing adventure from the creators of ‘Abzû’

Most board sports games revolve around racking up high scores, but Giant Squid is trying something decidedly different. The Abzû and The Pathless developer has unveiledSword of the Sea, a fantasy action adventure about much more than showing off. You play a resurrected Wraith who has to revive a wasted world while navigating with a "Hoversword" that serves as a combo skateboard, snowboard and surfboard. Naturally, giant monsters (leviathans) stand in your way.

The exact mechanics aren't yet clear. However, Giant Squid promises the "speed and flow" of a skateboard game combined with the exploration the creators are known for. It should be at once "meditative" and exciting, the studio claims, and the visuals back that up — Sword of the Sea is as much about soaking in the visuals as it is shredding ramps.

There's no release date for Sword of the Sea, but it should be available for both PC (via Steam) and PS5. If nothing else, the setting is a refreshing break from the usual competition arenas of the extreme sports genre. You're saving the planet, not focusing on bragging rights.

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Microsoft says China installed malware in US systems in Guam

China may have conducted digital espionage against the US' Pacific interests. Microsoft and the National Security Agency (NSA) have revealed that an alleged state-sponsored Chinese hacking group, Volt Typhoon, installed surveillance malware in "critical" systems on the island of Guam and elsewhere in the US. The group has been operating since mid-2021 and reportedly compromised government organizations as well as communications, manufacturing, education and other sectors.

Volt Typhoon prioritizes stealth, according to the investigators. It uses "living off the land" techniques that rely on resources already present in the operating system, as well as direct "hands-on-keyboard" action. They use the command line to scrape credentials and other data, archive the info and use it to stay in targeted systems. They also try to mask their activity by sending data traffic through small and home office network hardware they control, such as routers. Custom tools help them set up a command and control channel through a proxy that keeps their info secret.

The malware hasn't been used for attacks, but the web shell-based approach could be used to damage infrastructure. Microsoft and the NSA are publishing info that could help potential victims detect and remove Volt Typhoon's work, but they warn that fending off intrusions could be "challenging" as it requires either closing or changing affected accounts.

US officials speaking to The New York Times believe the Guam infiltration is part of a larger Chinese intelligence collection system that includes the reported spy balloon that floated across American nuclear sites early this year. The focus Guam is concerning as it's home to Andersen Air Force Base, a major station that would likely be used for any US answer to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. It's also a key hub for ships in the Pacific.

The Biden administration has stepped up efforts to protect critical infrastructure, including plans for common security requirements. The US fell prey to multiple attacks on vital systems in recent years, including gas pipelines and meat suppliers. The Volt Typhoon discovery underscores the importance of tougher defenses — malware like this could compromise the US military at a crucial moment.

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iOS 17 will reportedly turn your locked iPhone into a smart display

Your iPhone might soon display more than a handful of tiny widgets when it's locked. Bloombergsources claim Apple's iOS 17 update will introduce a lock screen that effectively turns an iPhone into a smart display when sitting on its side. You'll reportedly see calendar items, notifications and other details in a high-contrast layout reminiscent of what you'd see on an Amazon Echo Show or Google Nest Hub. The new lock screen is said to be more advanced than the one Google brought to Android 10 in 2019, and comparable to an Amazon Fire tablet feature.

Apple has already declined to comment. The company is expected to introduce iOS 17 at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) on June 5th, and release the finished version no earlier than September. There's no mention of whether or not the iPad would similar functionality, although iPadOS has lagged behind iOS in features like lock screen customization.

This might not be Apple's only smart display initiative. The tech giant is rumored to be developing multiple smart home devices that could include a mountable screen. The iOS 17 upgrade is believed to be part of a larger effort to surface live information, including a major watchOS redesign focused on widgets.

iOS 17 is already rumored to include a number of significant changes, such as app sideloading in at least some countries. You might also see improvements to SharePlay video collaboration, and it might be easier to AirPlay content to hotel TVs and other devices you don't own. A life journaling app could join upgraded versions of the Health and Wallet apps.

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Pegasus spyware found on phones of Mexican president’s close ally

It's not unusual to hear of countries using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware to surveil the public, but there are now concerns one government is spying on itself. Sources for The New York Times and The Washington Post claim Pegasus has been found on the phone of Mexico undersecretary for human rights Alejandro Encinas, a longtime ally of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as well as at least two members of Encinas' office. While there's no firm evidence pointing to a culprit, this comes as Encinas has been investigating alleged military abuses of power since 2018, including the notorious disappearance of 43 students in Iguala in 2014.

The University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab research team detected Pegasus in a 2022 audit, according to a source speaking to The Post. Encinas' phone has been compromised more than once, The Times says, including last year as he was heading the commission covering the Iguala disappearances. He blamed the tragedy on the police, military, certain officials and drug traffickers. Encinas apparently briefed Obrador about the spying this March, but has remained silent since.

Encinas, Citizen Lab and the Mexican Defense Ministry have already declined to comment. NSO Group tells The Times in a statement that it looks into "all credible allegations" of misuse, and ends contracts when it finds problems.

In a press conference, Obrador has minimized the alleged snooping and doesn't believe the military is to blame. However, anti-corruption critics Ángela Buitrago and Eduardo Bohorquez are worried the Mexican army may be using Pegasus to retaliate against Encinas, revealing a lack of effective government oversight in the process.

NSO Group itself has faced widespread criticism. The US banned trade with the company in 2021 for allegedly selling spyware to authoritarian governments that used the tools to eliminate dissent by surveilling activists and journalists. NSO has denied enabling abuses and even hired a libel attorney who accused some journalists of misrepresenting its business.

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Former Google CEO says AI poses an ‘existential risk’ that puts lives in danger

Add Eric Schmidt to the list of tech luminaries concerned about the dangers of AI. The former Google chief tells guests at The Wall Street Journal's CEO Council Summit that AI represents an "existential risk" that could get many people "harmed or killed." He doesn't feel that threat is serious at the moment, but he sees a near future where AI could help find software security flaws or new biology types. It's important to ensure these systems aren't "misused by evil people," the veteran executive says.

Schmidt doesn't have a firm solution for regulating AI, but he believes there won't be an AI-specific regulator in the US. He participated in a National Security Commission on AI that reviewed the technology and published a 2021 report determining that the US wasn't ready for the tech's impact.

Schmidt doesn't have direct influence over AI. However, he joins a growing number of well-known moguls who have argued for a careful approach. Current Google CEO Sundar Pichai has cautioned that society needs to adapt to AI, while OpenAI leader Sam Altman has expressed concern that authoritarians might abuse these algorithms. In March, numerous industry leaders and researchers (including Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak) signed an open letter calling on companies to pause AI experiments for six months while they rethought the safety and ethical implications of their work.

There are already multiple ethics issues. Schools are banning OpenAI's ChatGPT over fears of cheating, and there are worries about inaccuracy, misinformation and access to sensitive data. In the long term, critics are concerned about job automation that could leave many people out of work. In that light, Schmidt's comments are more an extension of current warnings than a logical leap. They may be "fiction" today, as the ex-CEO notes, but not necessarily for much longer.

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Samsung’s 2023 Smart Monitors arrive in June, starting at $280

Samsung has detailed pricing and availability for its revamped Smart Monitors. The 2023 Smart Monitor M5, M7 and M8 will be available in June, including new 27-inch models. The headlining M8 starts at $650 for the 27-inch version, and $700 for its 32-inch counterpart. It boasts a new, slim design (about 0.45in thick) and can now rotate to portrait mode for reading long documents. The 4K screen is the most capable of the trio with a 400-nit typical brightness, HDR10+ support, an included webcam and a built-in SmartThings hub. You'll also get far-field Alexa and Bixby voice control as well as HDMI 2.0 input, a USB-C port with 65W laptop charging and two USB-A ports.

The Smart Monitor M7 is aimed at users who want the M8's design without as many extras. It drops the included webcam (though you can still add it later) and SmartThings hub, and you'll have to be content with 300-nit brightness and regular HDR10. You get a 4K resolution and other luxuries from the M8, however. The prices are also more palatable, beginning at $550 for the 27-inch model and $600 for the 32-inch equivalent.

A Smart Monitor M5 is also available for those who just want the basics. It's a 1080p display with a 250-nit brightness, no far-field mics and a simpler design without pivot or tilt. Input is likewise limited to two HDMI 1.4 jacks and a pair of USB-A ports. It's definitely more affordable, though, starting at $280 for a 27-inch panel and climbing to $300 for the 32-inch edition.

All of the Smart Monitors have new software tricks. They can detect nearby compatible smartphones (such as the Galaxy S23 series) through Bluetooth and wake up to show calendars, photos and other helpful content. You can now use a mouse and keyboard in many of the smart TV apps, and Multi View lets you juggle the built-in browser and Microsoft 365 apps in full screen. Screen mirroring is available for Apple devices (via AirPlay) in addition to Android.

These aren't intended as high-end gaming monitors given their 60Hz refresh rates, and you'll want to turn to the 5K-capable Viewfinity S9 if you want a more pro-oriented screen. As before, they're primarily appealing if your monitor doubles as your TV, or if the looks of the M7 and M8 stand out in a sea of generic designs.

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Netflix starts charging for account sharing in the US

Netflix has been quick to act on its plans to charge for account sharing in the US. The streaming service is notifying American customers that they'll need to pay $8 per month for viewers outside of the household who want to share the account. As in other countries, you can add one extra member with the Standard plan, and two with the Premium tier. You can convert profiles into paying extra member accounts.

Netflix account sharing rolled out in Canada, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain this February after a trial program in Latin America. You can still watch outside of your home, but you'll have to establish the household's boundaries either manually through a smart TV app (which looks for devices on the same WiFi network) or automatically (based on IP addresses, device IDs and activity). Netflix says it doesn't know your exact location, but it may ask you to verify a device if you're traveling or otherwise using a different connection.

Netflix has been direct about the reasoning behind its initiative. The media giant has pinned some of its recent financial troubles on users borrowing passwords to effectively get free service. Sharing Netflix accounts theoretically converts some of these people into paying customers, even if it also risks sending them into the arms of competitors like Amazon and Disney.

There have been criticisms of this approach. It could prove a hassle for college students that previously used the family account for in-dorm viewing. And while $8 per month isn't a high price for a streaming service, there are some viewers who may simply drop Netflix altogether. However, it's doubtful the company is going back. It said it was "pleased" with the results from the February launch, suggesting that paid sharing is here to stay.

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